mirror, hammer

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Skating is sex, says Adam Gopnik, though I’m not going to tell you why — you’ll have catch the last of his Massey Lectures on Wednesday in Toronto. If not, they’re also bound up, the lectures, between handsome covers in Winter: Five Windows On The Season (Anansi). The pertinent chapter is called Recreational Winter, though really, let’s be honest, it’s a hockey chapter. A peculiar hybrid he calls it, the game, and a city sport. Also, a mirror and a hammer. And, yes, the greatest of all the sports, too.

Which we knew. Did we need Gopnik’s say-so? No. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that at The New Yorker, Gopnik’s regular gig since 1986, they do like to be the ones to pronounce on the states of our arts as much as our unions, and hockey is no exception. They’ve kept an eye on the game right from the start of magazine in the 1920s, back in Harold Ross’ day, when Niven Busch, Jr. had the watch. Herbert Warren Wind and Roger Angell and Charles McGrath have all taken monitoring duty over the years. Today it’s Charles’ son Ben on the job, with Alec Wilkinson, Gopnik, and Nick Paumgarten pacing the beat now and again. It was Wind who called hockey “inherently the most dangerous of team sports.” Roger Angell said it was the most emotional of all team sports, also the fastest, “most demanding” and — it’s almost enough to make us blush, nationally — “this wingéd game.”

Though he did also say this: “bad hockey is the worst of all spectator sports.”

Alec Wilkinson, in 2004, personified Hockey as a prairie roughneck exiled by his talents and dreams from small-town Canada to big-time New York where, of course, the streets were meaner than promised. “The city turned out to be only intermittently hospitable to the bumptious immigrant.” If that stings a little, the scornful stereotype, my advice would be, never mind, calm down. It’s a mainly playful piece in which Hockey, at one point, calls up an old girlfriend:

‘Candace, if you’re there, pick up,’ Hockey says. ‘It’s Hockey.’                 Candace waits for Hockey to finish, then erases the message.

Raised as a Montrealer, proudly a Habs’ fan, Adam Gopnik has a pedigree that boosts his authority above Winds and Angells when it comes to hockey. He doesn’t write about it much in the magazine. As New Yorker correspondent responsible for dogs; the demise of the American republic; Dominique Strauss-Kahn; learning how to draw; James Taylor; Mark Twain; snowflakes; desserts, what computers are doing to your brain; Adam Smith; Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale; Babar; and John Stuart Mill, probably he just doesn’t have time. Sometimes in the playoffs he blogs for the love of Habs, but mostly when he blogs it’s about football Jets.

Winter is classic Gopnik, learned and lively, warm with wit. It covers a lot of frosty ground, by no surprise. Just in the hockey chapter alone we get a good introduction to J.G.A. Creighton; as persuasive a history of Montreal and the game’s social origins as any that’s been written; a passing pitch for the great Canadian movie, for which someone had better be scouting the locations as we speak. Of all the games, Gopnik says, hockey is the mostest: most interesting, most rewarding, most consistently entertaining, most difficult, most beautiful. And of course he has a full-grained explanation why.

Two reasons. One, on the ice, it’s so brainy. You thought it was all chase and whack, a celebration of collision and bad temper, its actions all reactions, no time to think? No. Wrong. Look at the patterns of the game, Gopnik asks, all the angles, the vectors — the chess of the thing. In fact, he doesn’t mention chess until the second part of the paean. What he talks about is different kinds of intelligence, spatial and emotional — and situational awareness. Those are the smarts that hockey players have and need, and that hockey reveals and rewards — and with everything happening at such a speed. There’s nothing like that anywhere. Look at Wayne Gretzky. As a player, he wasn’t big or fast or particularly powerful — he had his skating and his brain. In no other sport is the brain so decisive a factor, and that’s to be celebrated. As a friend of Gopnik’s says, hockey is the only game in which a good mind can turn everything upside down.

The other part of Gopnik’s theory of what makes hockey so great has to do with fans and their brains. Maybe because I was always better at reading the game than playing it, this is the bit that I can more readily endorse. As much as we may love a show, we also crave a story. Hockey provides both. “It looks like a reflex, rapture sport but is really a rational, reasoned one,” Gopnik writes. He takes a quick dash through game theory, but what it comes down to is this: for all its apparent headlong chaos, a good hockey game is as complex and lastingly interesting as a good novel. Gopnik: “Hockey offers drama at first viewing, meaning on the second, and learning on the third and fourth, even forty years on.”

It doesn’t excuse all the bad games, of course, the boring, the banal. Still, if I were Hockey, I have to say I’d be feeling pretty good about all this. I’d be going along to all the Massey Lectures, and here’s what I’d be doing there: basking and schmoozing and signing my name in Gopnik’s books, if anyone asked.

Although. There is the tail of Winter’s hockey chapter that does kind of spoil the mood, a little, even as we kind of knew it had to be coming. This is the part where the words brutality, thuggery, ugly, disfigure, unnecessary, disgust, degrade fill the pages, along with the proviso that hockey’s greatness is limited to “when it’s not being degraded and diluted by greed, violence, and stupidity.”

Oh.

Right.

That.

“I have,” Gopnik writes, “been inclined to abandon it.”

What? Well, okay, so … yes. That does sound sadly familiar. In 2004, back in the clutch-and-grab era, with a lock-out looming, Alec Wilkinson had Hockey staring in the mirror thinking, that’s it, I’ve had enough, I hate my job — time to give it all up, maybe?

It was a wry little portrait, but Wilkinson’s point at the time was straight-faced: hockey had entered a “deplorable period.” Circumstances have changed, but it feels like we’re back there again. Three weeks into the NHL’s season and a lot of the fuss about fighting and head trauma has settled back to silence. For now. Adam Gopnik isn’t writing any prescriptions in Winter, but he is one more voice calling for Hockey to use its brain. “With our selves invested in our games,” he writes, “we have to save the game to save ourselves. It can be done.”

(Image: Hockey au parc La Fontaine, 1965; Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM105-Y-3_064-06)