Thursday, December 27, 2007

John Burns Dekes, Scores

The winter solstice brings back the light, sure, and not a moment too soon. It also brings lots of salt and butter and crabbiness and, phew, World Junior Hockey from far away lands.

Yesterday against the Czechs and this morning versus Slovakia—the wee nation that has already given us Hossas, two magic Marians, a pre-concussion Richard Zednik—the Canadians were snoozy and robotic. Great (fascistic) coaching is one thing, and “yay, we win again!” but must our junior tourny teams all play the same way and look like table hockey on big ice? Positionally sound, okay, but also predictable and machine-steady. Blame the salt and butter, but I nodded off—this was before 8 o’clock in BC, home of Kyle Turris—during the first two periods.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht teaches the aesthetics of sport at Stanford and is the author of the neat little book, In Praise of Athletic Beauty. He's an egghead, sure, but Gumbrecht talks about how the greatest pleasure in sport (or in art), why we watch and cheer, is when the unexpected happens. Seems kinda duh put that way, but I like how it explains that faster heartbeat and instant call to attention when a mistake happens on ice, or a spasm of uncontrolled creativity. This morning, Drew Doughty (great name for a Canadian, or in the case of westcoasters, Self-Doughty) decided to spinorama in the neutral zone when we all thought (cause we know the game's usual rhythms and patterns) he was going to retreat and regroup. He’s long practised that move and apparently had been told by coaches to tone down such hotdoggery for this tournament, to take fewer chances. Even before the move led to the Turris goal, it was thrilling to see the game stop in its tracks and to watch imagination and spark—things we value in all teenagers—squeeze the game off those tracks and send it bumping and grinding toward the net.

So far, things seem controlled and interesting and maybe we’ve moved beyond this as a nation (since the Super Series last year and the ’72 series before it) but: please. I don’t want to see the Canadians headshot the other team’s best forward so he can’t play, possibly ever again.

And speaking of spinoramas: anyone remotely interested in Canadian sports writing should be sad that John Burns has announced he will soon be leaving the Georgia Straight. Over the last ten years, Burnsie has always let me review the sports books I wanted to, has always given sports writing a place to be considered and criticized as legitimate cultural commentary and as literature. During the writing of Cold-cocked: On Hockey (and also my forthcoming book, Flirt: The Interviews), he listened, cared, encouraged and let me read and review many of the books that informed my take on hockey and how we feel, read and write the game. Let’s hope he’s not feeling too Self-Doughty and knows that extreme change (aka “the old spinorama”) is truly the only way to become better and more.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Captain Emo's Wrister

Hockey gets us worked up, sure. But at this time of the season, when no one’s yet running and gunning for the Cup and flu weakens road-ravaged teams of young men with germy preschoolers at home, sports coverage still suggests we should have opinions, should care about a player’s plus-minus, should review a slo-mo porn shot of a skate blade stomping a mouthy Finn’s ankle a million times to be sure our opinion matches everybody else’s.

Likewise, coverage of Todd Bertuzzi. The sports headline in this morning’s Vancouver Sun: “‘Let’s go,’ new court papers reveal Bertuzzi wanted to fight Moore before sucker punch.” This is news? At the risk of having an opinion about something unknowable and past its best-before date as stories go, here are a few things about this so-called new information.

Watch the tape of the March 8th game even once, and you will see Bertuzzi invite Steve Moore to fight again and again; if you are a practised lip reader, you will even see Big Bert toothlessly use the naughty language he was reluctant to repeat when recalling the events during discovery hearings because, he said “There’s two women in here.” (The Sun reporter refers to Bertuzzi as “sheepish” for this avoidance; must reporters speculate via the editorializing adjective?) We are informed—newsflash—that certain players even told management that coach Marc Crawford suggested they go after Colorado’s star players, Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk. Really, news?

Many interesting questions about that terrible night in Vancouver persist, but nothing media have passed on from these new documents should be considered newsworthy, or interesting. The Sun’s Cam Cole reported at the time of the sucker punch on Moore that Bertuzzi was only 50% to blame and that officials, the league and coaches were to blame for the other 50%. Tellingly absent from his equation were complicit media and fans, those who called for retribution, made a circus of the games following Moore’s own slo-mo porn hit on Captain Emo, Markus Naslund, those who wanted to see something happen and then were outraged and suddenly blameless when something did.

Watch the tape even once and you’ll wonder: how did Dan Cloutier play so badly—in March, against a division rival, the playoffs a month away—that the score raced so high; why did Brad May come out of the second intermission so crazy, crazy enough to score on David Aebescher and then take a penalty for what he said and did to the goalie, not just once; why was Bertuzzi on the ice without Naslund; why did Moore’s coach, the soon-to-be demoted Tony Granato, have him on the ice in the third period in a one-sided game without any protection and why did Granato allow the score to rise in a perpendicular way (final: 9-2); why wasn’t the Cooke fight with Moore in the first period enough; why didn’t Captain Emo and Colorado’s captain Sakic engage in some act of diplomacy so that necks weren’t broken and careers and seasons forever screwed. But mostly, why was anyone surprised by any of it, given what we know about the brotherhood of the game, the secret society of players and coaches and management, the money and power involved. And why be surprised now?

The surprise came back then because we had, once again confused professional sports with entertainment. They are not one and the same (well, David Beckham). That season, Bert and Nazzie and Mo were incredible to watch, on and off the ice. The story of that season was uplifting and exciting, and the team was winning with a brilliant first line that was getting a ton of press across the continent. Even their post-game smirks were heart-stopping. We were heading to the climax—A Cup win! Cue the cops downtown on horseback!—and the boys were so happy, the coach was letting them be creative (except when Bert wouldn’t backcheck and then Crawford benched him on Saturday night national tv), and the city was silly with optimism. We thought the team reflected us—fun, spirited, socially responsible and willing to visit the sick kids and cheer them up, to wear our hair in interesting Eurostyles—and that we would all be winners in a fine way.

We got caught up in a really realistic fairy tale—a delightful bit of entertainment—and allowed ourselves to forget that professional sports is, okay, entertaining, but not necessarily entertainment. Hockey is not Celine in Vegas, or even the Beckhams in Hollywood: skinny, melodramatic and bland. It’s unpredictable. It goes where it wants, regardless, and the players—and the testocrats—are in charge. The story’s subtext belongs to them, the engine driving the story is theirs and fans will never really get it. And players don’t care if we don’t.

Sucker punch, retribution, skate blade as weapon: all outrageous, okay, duh. But it was lovely and more interesting last night to watch Captain Emo beat Martin Brodeur—twice.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

St. Trev in No Man's Land

Coach Vigneault won’t let Trev play. Trev who is skating like a happy stallion this year, who is often the only Canuck finishing checks and causing turnovers, who is bigger than 80% of the team, who was dangerous always versus Chicago the night I went, who looks unbelievable without a helmet in the warm-up skate, who resembles Christ—or a real human being—in the new pics from Children’s Hospital. I’m not saying he’s got what Selanne or Modano or Kariya still have—he’s not a miracle vet—but the games are no fun to watch without him.

I’m feeling shunned by the game and I’m so cranky I’ve gone back to the essays of Jean-Marie Brohm in Sport: A Prison of Measured Time, a dandy little anti-capitalist, anti-organized sport tirade from seventies post-Vietnam France.

Here’s a sip of its Red Bull elixir. According to Monsieur Brohm,

Sport is a concentrated form, an officially promoted microcosm, of all the ideological prejudices of bureaucratic, bourgeois society:

--the cult of the champion and star-system;
--the cult of promotion, social advancement, and the hierarchy;
--the myth of transcending one’s own limitations through effort;
--character building;
--sexual repression, the healthy life etc;
--the brotherhood of man, everyone united on the sports field;
--nationalism and chauvinism

Sport is also, for example, a type of opiate of the people and a means of militarizing and regimenting youth and repressing sexuality and reinforcing the commodity spectacle.

Trev, in other words, doesn’t have a chance in today’s NHL and neither do Canucks fans.

We’re told that our kids should play sports in order to build character, confidence, fitness. But studies—and Brohm—also suggest what every nine-year-old picked last for field hockey knows: sports can breed and reward aggression, selfishness, arbitrary hierarchies; it can destroy self-esteem and permanently injure pride and knees. The ideology of sports celebrates discipline, competition, self-abnegation and chauvinism. It is bureaucratic and hierarchical. Those don’t always help kids be kids or grow up to be kind, helpful, and healthy adults. Like Trev.

Superstitious or just faithful? Addicted or merely loyal? Obsessed or just really focussed? Sports fans are clever justifiers. Scoring is down in the league and so fans are upset because the game isn’t thrilling. Oh please. Scoring is down and fans are upset because every morning when they look at their fantasy pools and they’re still not winning their own little game, they think it’s the fault of players, or the neutral zone trap, or the schedule, or the refs. There is nothing aesthetically or psychologically bad about a 2-1 game, unless the guys who scored and assisted on the 3 goals are 4th liners and not in your pool, and you’ve got the goalie who coulda hadda shutout.
(Derek Roy, I beg you: Get. It. On.)

Lack of scoring will not kill hockey in Vancouver. Violence and headshots won’t. Never winning the Cup, no. In Vancouver, hockey will fizzle to its pre-Bert and Nazzie lukewarm insignificance if

a) zealots can’t see this many games because Pay Per View is the only way to get them and we refuse to give the greedy and infatuated cable companies any more of our paycheques and

b) gritty no-name call-ups become the face of the team and we have to watch Trev look spiffy but sad up in the press box.

Linden says he has faith that he can “make a difference” for the team by staying ready and being positive around the guys. It isn’t reasonable for fans to prefer the positionally sound Linden to the scrappy little terriers who have replaced him and who might Alpha-dog their way to the playoffs. The difference he makes is not reasonable, or statistical. It is sentimental. Of course, we can’t win if we give in to emotion. But some of us don’t want to win without it and we will, once again, turn away from the game.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

No Leafs, No Sens: Go Coastal

~TSN’s Darren “The Dregs” Dreger guesses out loud that Ryan Kesler is due to be traded to Philadelphia and pretends to be reporting an inside scoop, which makes me throw a pillow at the set and also sends my daughter to bed early from woe: “First Jovo, now him,” she says. Kesler is a Canucks-Hockey specialist—defensive, surly, big, mobile, Lindenian—and won’t be going anywhere so we can afford a slow-developing and intermittent Jeff Carter. Dregger also suggests that Alex Edler could sweeten the deal. Edler is now playing in every key situation—offensive, defensive, up one, down two, shutout (or three) to protect—and most nights looks like Nick Lidstrom as a much younger man. He’ll stay, too. But remember: All the TSN boys predicted at the start of the season that Vancouver would miss the playoffs and practically guffawed in glee at the possibility. This was before surly bright boy, Kevin Bieksa, had most of his leg cut off and Sami Salo got a full-metal face.

~Todd Bertuzzi returns to oppose for the first time as a Duck. He looks great during the press conference: slim, bright-eyed, mocking and yet semi-respectful. He gets some cheering from the few thousand who attend the warm-up at 6:30 and then gets nothing else from the fans. Game broadcaster TSN repeatedly reports that the fan response to him is lukewarm and muted, his return a non-event, and implies that Bertuzzi doesn’t interest fans here. I left GM Place the Sunday night before, after the game versus Chicago, and the young mouthy guys striding up Dunsmuir St. behind me were all, “Ya, I hope Bert scores a goal—I do—but I hope we score more” and “I totally wish him well.” The absence of booing or cheering or responding whenever Bert touched the puck was the highest form of flattery and respect from very smart and still wrecked Vancouver fans; it was the only way to show him the sort of deep and enduring feelings they have: we love you and so we’ll let you be.

~The morning after that game I attended versus Chicago, I caught a floatplane home from Vancouver harbour at 7:30 a.m. And there’s Brendan Morrison sipping a coffee, big legs stretched out, off to do some fishin’ before tomorrow’s game, and the sky’s not yet bright. Game-winning goal the night before, a cheery-faced and lisping coastal fun-lover the next morning.

~Versus Anaheim: Ryan Kesler chest-to-chest with Ryan Getzlaf: provoking, challenging, mocking. Kesler scored twice that night despite a rib-cracking post-goal crosscheck by Chris Pronger. My friend Hoggwild suggests that Colin Campbell is likewise afraid of Pronger’s wife.

~Coyote Jovo’s suspended a game for bonking Marian Gaborik on the head with only seconds to play. Is it possible this was a cross-fertilizing retaliation for Gaborik’s elbow to the head of Ryan Kesler, the game in which Mattias Ohlund was suspended four for a bone-breaking whack on Mikko Koivu’s ankle after the Finn’s elbow somehow found Ohlie’s noggin? Nope, but my daughter would like to think Jovo still has feelings for us all.

~The unbelievable Pinky and the Brain live and in person.

~Last night, I attended a local ECHL game and watched the Victoria Salmon Kings (and super-dancer Marty the Marmot) get down 4-1 in the first period versus the Phoenix Roadrunners and come back to win 5-4 in overtime after losing their starting goalie.

~All I want for Christmas: the Derek Sanderson nude which sold this week in Boston: