I love hockey players and their crossword-puzzle smiles. When I stand for O Canada, so does the hair on my neck. I love that Ottawans hate Hockey Night in Canada because its analysts, they believe, love the Toronto Maple Leafs. I love that Hockey Night analyst Harry Neale has said of Ottawans, "They can take a big bite of my ass." I love that Ottawa Senators fan Bob Chiarelli has said of Neale, "When he comes to Ottawa, he better be wearing his hockey gear and keep his elbows high." I love, too, that Chiarelli is the mayor of Ottawa.
I love that penalties are served in the kind of plexiglassed box last deemed necessary at Nuremburg. Indeed, I love almost everything about hockey, and it remains an eternal bafflement that most Americans do not. National television ratings for NHL games, it shames me to say, are lower than those for XFL games. How in the name of Nikolai Khabibulin can this be?
The Stanley Cup playoffs are the most riveting spectacle in sports. Last Thursday night St. Louis Blues center Pierre Turgeon took a flying puck in the mouth—he more or less ate it, like a vulcanized Hostess Ding Dong-yet missed only one shift. "I lost a couple teeth," he said, his s's whistling. "But hey, that's playoff hockey."
That same night in Edmonton, Dallas Stars center Mike Modano, his nose shattered by a puck, also returned to the ice but stitched up like a baseball, with 35 sutures on the outside of his head and (for all we know) a cushioned-cork center implanted on the inside. His schnozz visibly throbbed throughout the rest of the game, blinking red like a traffic light at midnight—an hour at which most of these games, incidentally, are just beginning to heat up.
All hockey playoff games go to multiple overtimes. (Or so it seems: Through Sunday 12 of 46 had gone to OT, including four of six games in the Dallas- Edmonton series.) No penalties are ever called after the second period. When New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Stevens (page 52) decapitates an opponent, and he does so several times a game, a linemate simply flips the severed head over the boards with his stick. "And play," as the announcers like to say, "continues."
Does it ever. The Stanley Cup isn't merely the most fetching trophy in North America, it is also the hardest-earned. The action in OT, by which time most players are toothless, drained and darned like socks, is an end-to-end, whistle-free, whiplash-inducing blur: of slap shots ringing off the post, of heads being speedbagged in the corners, of Toronto keeper Curtis Joseph wandering so far from his crease that he sometimes becomes confused and briefly defends his opponent's goal. On and on and on it goes, until somebody finally lights the lamp, the goal judge's siren turning as if atop an ambulance.
Then, when a series ends, the two teams line up to exchange handshakes and pleasantries. ("Sorry about the teeth." "Better get that nose looked at." "Your head will grow back," etc.) Why, America, have you not embraced this?
I have. I love the mournful foghorn at the end of each period. I love the sight, oddly Biblical, of hats and octopuses raining down from the rafters. I love every lyrical Francophone name: Sylvain Lefebvre, Patrick DesRochers, Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre; and every sharp-cornered Eastern European one: Valery Zelepukin, Roman Hamrlik, Igor Kravchuk. I live to hear NHL 2Night host John Buccigross say Sven Butenschon. And vice versa.
To be sure, a few of hockey's traditions are idiotic and indefensible, foremost among them the sanctioned cross-checking of a player to the ice in the second or so after he has scored. It's as if Pudge Rodriguez had license to sucker punch a base runner who has just crossed home plate, though, I happily concede, that practice would enliven many a baseball game.
But mostly I am captivated by hockey's manifold pleasures, even the simplest ones. There remains something deeply hypnotic about watching a Zamboni make its rounds, the oval of uncleaned ice getting ever smaller and smaller, a tableau too few Americans will ever appreciate.