A hockey writer's lament

Watching. - Thearon W. Henderson

Writing about hockey changes how you watch the game. And that's not always positive.

I love this game of hockey. I really do. I love the sounds of it, from bad arena music to the blare of the goal horn. I love the way the ice smells. I love being crowded into a tiny space with 17,000 or so other maniacs (and their kids) all screaming our heads off. I love the semi-controlled chaos of it all.

Seriously, I love how the game can move from elegant to crude and back in a split-second. I love the feeling of being connected to millions of people from all over the world and every walk of life as a hockey fan. I love our strange, snarky sense of humor and the way we simultaneously need to invest the tiniest thing with some form of Ultimate Meaning and to strip all pretensions of ultimate-ness away and see things realistically.

Hockey is a passion for me, one that I cherish. And sometimes, just sometimes, I wish I hadn't ever chosen to write about it, even as a hobby.

You see, writing about the game changes the way you watch games. You start to pick things apart looking for the "in" to a story. A season can easily become a long string of analytical triggers when you're tasked with coming up with words about hockey on a regular basis. You start looking for the fault lines and the pressure points, trying to understand if this player or that one is doing okay, great, poorly, craptastic. At exactly what point do they falter? How much weight should they they bear?

You start to try to link performances together in ways that aren't wholly natural. Is this a trend? How long has it been happening? How long will it continue? What is anomalous and what is "real?" Plays and players become evidence, proof of goodness or badness, rather than moments with ephemeral and complex connections. Writing about hockey requires freezing it, dismantling it, and rearranging the pieces into some new picture that isn't really hockey anymore, not as it's lived, anyway.

I miss the strange kind of timelessness that watching a hockey game can be. I miss having the action roll over me in a tide, carrying me along, ready to drop me off at some unknowable point a few hours, minutes, or seconds in the future--a new place in time and in life. I miss losing my breath over what will happen next. I come to hate having to tie time down and inscribe it with meaning. I crave the potentiality of every moment leading into a million other possible moments.

I think, in a way, getting involved in hockey statistics makes this sort of disconnect from the lived experience of the game starker. The stats "project," after all, is self-consciously aimed at tearing down the old narratives, ones more suited to feeling the game than thinking it. The intention behind the creation of new statistics is to break apart old assumptions about cause and effect in hockey and substitute a new "Truth," which will in its own time be deconstructed in favor of the Newest Hockey Testament.

And in order to do stats, you have to come to a whole new understanding of hockey time and how it's built. Break everything down into increments of shots and attempted shots and then build upwards, stacking shots on shots on shots until you get years, seasons worth of time, and that's your new hockey experience. Games are, to one extent or another, irrelevant as blocks of time. What matters is categories of action--even strength, score tied, goalie in net. The holism of hockey, the ebb and flow and swoop of it, is too much for the statistics to handle.

There is a time and a place for hockey analytics. These are excellent tools for describing certain aspects of the game that we otherwise would have no useful language for.

But there are times, like right after the season ends, when analyzing it all is too much for me to handle. It's been nearly a month since the Lightning's season ended, and I've spent that month--that is, the part of it not spent on real life--simply living hockey again. I've watched NHL playoffs and AHL playoffs and World Championships. At first, it was reflexive to think about these games as I watched them, to try to see which player was doing what particularly well and what mistakes were killing teams. Thinking myself through a hockey game had become a habit. I, for some reason, felt like I needed something intelligent to say about each and every game.

Which is, of course, nonsense, and I've slowly been decompressing and remembering what hockey is in the first instance. Sometimes it's okay to simply say, "That was fun. The players played, the game went on, and it was fun." It's nice, sometimes, to be able to say that a team played a game and I saw it, I heard it, I felt it. It took me out of time for a little while and tossed me up onto a different spot on the beach than I was when I started.

I guess it comes down to this. I need that renewal every now and again. I need to be able to just enjoy hockey without worrying about Corsi and scoring chances and unsustainable shooting percentages. I need to see, really see, a team working together and not question how that guy plays compared to the rest of the team. I need to be able to put it all back into perspective somehow.

I've just about decided not to complete a year-end statistics review. You all know the numbers anyway. They didn't change between January and April. Goaltending was bad; defense was awful; offense was fine, even great. Puck possession, that holy grail of team performance, was abysmal, no matter who was on the ice, who they played against, or who was coaching. You know that while some players were worse than others, it took a team effort to stink that bad.

You also know as well as I do that we've got to give Jon Cooper at least a modicum of a clean slate, and that we're going to witness personnel changes over the summer. We're all aware that virtually no one's safe from being moved. If you haven't prepared yourself for drastic changes, well, now's the time to do so, because anything is possible when trying to fix this kind of disaster. But what we'll get at the end of it all is anyone's guess right now. Lightning fans are just going to have to wait and see how things go.

Next season, then, will be a new season. A sort of new beginning. For me, let this summer be renewal and gathering of strength. Because we've all got to come out swinging soon enough.

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