All I Really Need to Know I Learned Playing Hockey

Dec 15 2008 Published by under Blogging, Day in the life of DrugMonkey, Mentoring

In what is probably the best movie ever made about professional athletics, exuberantly enthusiastic hockey goon Steve Hanson inquires of the near criminally sociopathic hockey goon Ogie Ogilthorpe, "Hi Ogie. Buy you a soda after the game?". If you've never seen the 1977 classic Slap Shot, go rent it today (in the event you have to talk anyone into it, it does star Paul Newman, so there's that). Players and non-players alike laugh at this scene but I fear for different reasons. It is set up as the classic absurdist moment within the context of the drama- why ever would two utter goons make nice after the game? For the player, however, there is an additional dimension. Hockey players do make nice after the game, even after trying to beat the living crap out of one another.
Here begineth the lesson.


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Hockey is just one example of a competitive sport which features a reasonable amount of interpersonal violence and the capacity for injury within a loose conglomeration of formal and informal rules. It also features enforcement mechanisms which are both formal and informal which may not align strictly with the nature of the infraction. It tends to be on the extreme end because the level of contact permitted within the rules at many levels is...assertive. Furthermore, one of the informal enforcement mechanisms is, not to put too fine of a point on it, fisticuffs. So, it serves as a salient example albeit not the only one that could serve for today's lesson. (Also, I may have played the sport a time or two over the years. )
We'll be mostly discussing the adult, recreational league variant of the sport although many of the same principles apply from high school competitive leagues on up to the pros. Since adult recreational hockey is, relatively speaking, a niche sport which almost by necessity revolves around a rare physical venue (ice hockey and roller hockey for sure, even floor / street / Dek hockey for the more-serious league-type efforts), leagues tend to have a static population. A core of teams with much of the same player group can make up a particular skill level in a given league for years, decades even. Yet there is almost always new blood circulating into the league as kids get old enough to cycle out of school based teams and into the adult leagues, as new people move to town or what have you. So you tend to have established cultures which range from the general ("hockey") to the national (e.g., Canadian vs Soft Euro) to the regional (e.g. Baahhsten vs. Minnesooooootah vs. We Don't Really Have a Hockey Tradition But We Have A Lot of Imports from Elsewhere) and on down to the specific league level.
One essential general level hockey cultural feature is the post-game handshake. Players line up and shake hands one by one, grunting some equivalent of "Nice game, eh?" to each opponent. This is an important demonstration in many sports but perhaps most important for the more violent, body contact based ones. It is essential to show that despite engaging in a competitive and aggressive game, it is at the end buzzer just that. A game. Now I know my readers are all really smart and I hate to insult your intelligence but...is there really anything in life beyond our family relationships that we need to think of in any other way? It's a game. So even goons really should buy each other a soda after the game.
Now as you might expect, one of the most variable and therefore trickiest aspects of hockey is the degree of acceptable physical contact. You've probably seen the professional game, replete with full checking, numerous egregious-looking non-penalized physical interactions and of course, fighting. Even non-fans probably realize that checking is formally acceptable and fighting is not within the formal rules (albeit rather cemented in the informal rules). In between you have a great variety of physical tricks ranging from strategic full-ice all-time aggressive checking to nagging grabs, trips and hooks. The refs can't see everything you know. Even at the professional level this results in great debate about what is "proper" hockey. You tend to hear this chatter around the time of the Winter Olympics, the international Hockey World Championships and the NHL playoffs.
In adult recreational play you most frequently have non-checking leagues so all that is left is the degree of nagging, grabbing low level physical play that dances in and around the formal rules. Perhaps because of the non-checking stipulation, you seem to always have a range between people that think you are playing a version with everything right up to out and out checks permitted and people who think you are not just playing non-check but non-contact hockey. The "level" of physical play has a tendency to be culturally determined and so from league to league one can see quite a difference. In my view, there is nothing particularly better or worse about the level set by a given league and community but it is very important to recognize cultural variability. There is always some assclown who can't understand this.
It usually goes along the following lines. Some new guy (there are women playing in majority-male leagues but only rarely IME) comes into the "non-check" league and starts to play at a neutral level of physicality. In the course of a few games, he'll either be in a league-enemies game or play the goon team or run across the barely-tolerated league knucklehead. And decide "Oh ho! That's what kinda league this is?"- usually from the self-importantly enraged type of perspective. Next thing you know the guy is going all wackaloon to the max, drawing repeated penalties and shaken heads on both benches.
One of two things happens, either he clues it up within a few games and merges toward community standard or he is never seen in the league again. I should mention that there is also the opposite number who expresses the offended Soft Euro / Princeling phenotype and complains incessantly about being fouled. Again, these types generally get shaped into accepting the community standard....or they disappear.
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The Easton Synergy ST, currently on sale at (where else?) HockeyMonkey for $99.98.
It can sometimes be difficult to see the core unspoken limits when joining new social organizations. Those organizations may permit individuals who, in the case of hockey, practice a level of physicality and even cheapshottery that is barely tolerated (usually cause the dude has other redeeming features) or at least pushes the envelope. The grudge match games between traditional enemies may appear less friendly than is in fact the case or may simply represent that one tolerable rivalry. It is easy to mistake these examples as generally representative of the cultural tone, rather than being the extreme end of the distribution. Most players have no trouble eventually recognizing this and re-calibrating their approach to the league standard. A few are unable to get it, even after repeated trips to the penalty box, and they frequently decide to stop playing or are not invited back in subsequent seasons. Perhaps they find a better fit in another league, I don't know. For the most part even the guys who have taken a few too many slapshots off the helmet clue in after a couple of games.
For me there is one final essential rule which can be expressed as "Hey, c'mon guys, we all have to get up and go to work in the morning". It is, after all, only a game. Why would you want to make someone decide to quit the game because it wasn't worth the risk of a torn ACL, dislocated shoulder or concussion..just so you can play your way?
Here endeth the lesson.
--
With a nod (but that thing was so cheezy I'm not really going to say with apologies).

28 responses so far

  • I love that hockey is one of the few sports (nay, the only sport?) with a time out. I wish more sports/clubs/groups/etc employed the time out.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Here endeth the lesson.

    You are one sneaky bastard, DM. And I say that with admiration.

  • Becca says:

    What do you do if you're kicked out of an aggressive sport for being too violent?

  • Water polo also has a penalty box. Interestingly, water polo players tend to have the same sort of thuggish bodily appearance as hockey goons.

  • What about "players" whose sole purpose is to disrupt what is a smoothly functioning community of other players and prevent them from playing the game in the fashion that they have arrived at as being suited to that community? Do you shake their hands and have a beer with them when you know that they are not interested in participating in your community and only in interfering with it?

  • Dr. Isis says:

    What about "players" whose sole purpose is to disrupt what is a smoothly functioning community of other players and prevent them from playing the game in the fashion that they have arrived at as being suited to that community? Do you shake their hands and have a beer with them when you know that they are not interested in participating in your community and only in interfering with it?

    You know, that's an interesting question. I think that with these types of internet-based "groups," as opposed to groups one interacts with in person, people confuse ease of access to information with an inherent right to participate. I think it then becomes the responsibility of the moderator to set boundaries of behavior to assure that every discussion does devolve into unproductive chaos. When that happens it hurts the overall mission of the moderator and it hurts those that are willing to be productive participants.
    Then again, I don't see why people who insist that a community is counterproductive don't leave and start their own communities.

  • CC says:

    What about "players" whose sole purpose is to disrupt what is a smoothly functioning community of other players and prevent them from playing the game in the fashion that they have arrived at as being suited to that community?
    Activities that require getting out of one's chair don't have people like that. Even the "goon teams" DM references are there to play.

  • MattK says:

    In a notable juxtaposition of what this post is about and what it is really about, Sean Avery has been suspended by the league and booted off his team for being a first class asshole

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Then again, I don't see why people who insist that a community is counterproductive don't leave and start their own communities.

    It's going to take me a long time to clean the remains of my head from my screen.

  • The goons who go beyond the acceptable level of enforcement are frequently given a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct along with a game misconduct (kicked out of the game). Their actions are then reviewed and sometimes they are given extended suspensions. Fighters, agitators exist in hockey, but classless behavior is rarely tolerated, as evidenced by the response to Sean Avery. His own teammates could not defend him.
    Just saying.

  • juniorprof says:

    but classless behavior is rarely tolerated, as evidenced by the response to Sean Avery
    Two words: Bob Probert

  • BikeMonkey says:

    Avery seems to have a bit of a history of bizarre antics in public and on the ice. So this perhaps explains why fellow players were throwing a guy under the bus for getting put on record for something that I guarantee you is commonly the subject of on-ice trash talking. That's probably why there was not "boys will be boys" defense in this case. Hockey's fine and all but it is not one of the more enlightened areas of male behavior...

  • The goons who go beyond the acceptable level of enforcement are frequently given a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct along with a game misconduct (kicked out of the game). Their actions are then reviewed and sometimes they are given extended suspensions. Fighters, agitators exist in hockey, but classless behavior is rarely tolerated, as evidenced by the response to Sean Avery. His own teammates could not defend him.
    Just saying.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Interesting chap according to wikipedia...

    In April 2008 it was announced that Avery would be spending the summer off-season interning at Vogue magazine. According to one fashion report "Avery is a self-confessed clotheshorse who has been known to give girlfriends advice on how to dress, and in interviews has expressed a dream to become a fashion editor after his days on the ice"[39] He joined in a fashion partnership with friend and former director of Calvin Klein's celebrity services, Lauryn Flynn. [40]Starting June 23, Avery guest-edited Mensvogue.com, the website for Men's Vogue magazine.[41] He is also a vintage wine aficionado whose collection has been featured in an NHL.com interview. Avery revealed on ESPN that as a child he would play with dolls that he would steal from his sister and babysitter.[42]
    Avery's interest mainly resides with women's fashion. Avery has said with men's fashion, "You do suits and pants and that's about that. Women's clothes tell a story. That's what's interesting to me."

  • Stephanie Z says:

    Mmm, extended metaphor for breakfast. Thanks, DM.

  • Lamar says:

    classless behavior? whatever happened to "sticks-and stones..."? Americans need to get over their self-righteous puritanism/repression/outright denial of human sexuality. I recently used the term MILF on a financial board (we were actually discussing MLPs) and was banned for life. WTF?
    MILF! MILF! MILF! and Sloppy-Seconds, too!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Lamar, I am weary this week, despite the fact that the heavy lifting with the prior discussion was shouldered by others. So forgive me if I don't let this go on endlessly.
    But suffice it to say that there is a big difference between "puritanism" and objecting to terms and phrasing which denigrate women and tend to imply that they are inert objects defined only by reference to a proprietary and utilitarian relationship to men.
    It is unclear to me at this juncture whether or not there is any usage for 'MILF' that is not inherently objectifying but I am fairly certain that I don't have a lot of patience for that discussion here on the blog at the moment.

  • CC says:

    Two words: Bob Probert
    Matthew Barnaby, the genuinely dangerous Ulf Samuelsson,... As odious as Avery is, I find the weight coming down on him baffling. The only other NHL suspensions for trash-talking I can recall both involved one particular racial slur.
    BTW, not being one to read through endless, incestuous flamewars, I'm wondering what on earth happened here for which Sean Avery is a metaphor. You guys weren't arguing cream-skimming Science papers versus i-dotting-t-crossing eye-glazers again, were you?

  • MarkusR says:

    I love that hockey is one of the few sports (nay, the only sport?) with a time out.
    Yes, but it is also a but of a joke.
    "What do you get for assaulting someone with a hockey stick? 2 minute time out."

  • DrugMonkey says:

    First off, Avery was not the metaphor of the post, just so that's clear. He kinda fits but since that is the professional game it takes it to another level of discourse.
    On further reading, though, it seems as though Avery thought he was channeling Reggie Dunlop from Slap Shot by seeking out the press specifically to make the remarks he did. It may be the case that this intentional provocation was the issue and that if he'd accidentally let that out when blathering with a reporter in earshot it would have been a far different matter.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    First off, Avery was not the metaphor of the post, just so that's clear. He kinda fits but since that is the professional game it takes it to another level of discourse.

    Does thread drift obey the Drunkard's Walk? It sure looks as though the initial-vector bias applies.

  • Charles says:

    I wonder whether expectations for new players would be different if every hockey game in the league were videotaped, posted online, and easily searchable. Then a new player could watch old games to get a better sense of the norms surrounding contact. A new player who didn't do this and skated in with stick flying (or whatever) might lose the benefit of the doubt regarding his good intentions.
    -- Charles from the Internet, stretching metaphors past their breaking point since 1995

  • Hope says:

    Interesting read, DM (as usual). And sure, I can see how participating in an online forum is "a game." But how about my career? When someone does something to me at work that they should be penalized for but they don't get caught, should I offer to buy them a soda at the end of the day?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Hope I fear we may be stretching the metaphor too far, but...
    It depends on what you mean by "should be". Flagrantly illegal? Well, even in the NHL there have been a few instances where goons got brought up on legal charges for on-ice thuggery. Nobody should buy those 'sclowns a soda in my view, but amazingly some were sort of welcomed back eventually.
    Then the question is, are you talking about clear violations of the formal rules that the refs missed? or informal rules that are the subject of informal sanction? see, once we get down to details, the metaphor breaks down in minutia...
    I am not saying that all of life is a mere game that we should not take seriously. Perhaps a little less seriously in some cases. I'm just saying there are some parallels. I leave it up to the reader to what extent you want to make direct or indirect comparisons.

  • I would like it if someone would buy me a soda right now.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I would like it if someone would buy me a soda right now.

    Sure -- when can you wander by to pick it up?
    You don't even need to knock out any of my teeth for it.

  • drdrA says:

    Nice post. Nice metaphor. Reminds me I should lighten up at times.
    'I am not saying that all of life is a mere game that we should not take seriously. Perhaps a little less seriously in some cases. I'm just saying there are some parallels..'
    Yup. Precisely.

  • Rick says:

    Slapshot is probably the best sports movie ever. That would make it the best hockey movie ever as well. Forget the Mighty Ducks and all the kids hockey stuff. I'd rather see the Hanson brothers with no helmets roughing up other players wearing 70s hockey equipment

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