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BGS: What Hockey Needs is More Violence

Ten years ago my cousin, known round these parts as edoubletrouble, gave me a thoughtful birthday gift: Dispatches from the Sporting Lifea collection of Mordecai Richler’s sports writing. It’s a terrific book and a fine introduction to Richler, born and raised in Montreal, who was one of Canada’s premier novelists, essayists, and satirists. His most famous books are The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Barney’s Version, both made into feature films, though this generation may know him more for the Jacob Two-Two series of children’s stories.  Richler died on July 3, 2001.

This here piece we bring to you cause the Stanley Cup Finals begin tonight. Originally published in Inside Sports in January 1981.

What Hockey Needs is More Violence”

By Mordecai Richler

Nudging 50, I find it increasingly difficult to cope with a changing world. Raised to be a saver, for instance, I now find myself enjoined by the most knowledgeable economists to fork out faster than I can earn, borrowing whenever possible. But the rate they are encouraging me to borrow at from my friendly bank manager is what I once understood to be usury. In the kitchen of my boyhood my mother cooked on a wood fire, because we couldn’t afford better, but now that I’ve grown up to heat my country home with oil, I am scorned by modish neighbors, many of whom are rich enough to re-equip with antique stoves, burning wood again. A couple of years ago, after taking in a World Series game at Yankee Stadium with author Wilfrid Sheed, the two of us found ourselves in midtown Manhattan, looking for a friendly bar where we could round off an enjoyable evening. As we passed a celebrated boîte on Second Avenue, I said, “Why don’t we go in there?”

“You don’t understand,” Sheed admonished me, a visitor from Montreal. “If we go in there, two men together, they’ll put us in the roped-off section for gays.”

A year earlier a militant feminist press in Canada had published a hockey book titled She Shoots! She Scores! It turned out to be very topical stuff, because an irate Ontario father later sued a bantam hockey league for not allowing his daughter to play, thereby depriving her of the possibility of growing up to be taken into the boards, as it were, by Dave Schultz or Paul Holmgren. A mind-boggling thought. Since then, we’ve had Scoring, The Art of Hockey, by Hugh Hood, with images by Seymour Segal. It is the book serious students of the game have been waiting for, the one that dares to ask, “Which came first, the penis or the puck?” Scoring offers the definitive answer to why so many American fans can’t follow the puck on TV. It isn’t because they lack puck sense. Rather, the psychologically informed Hood writes, “this seems a clear instance of sublimated sexual anxiety. Where is the little fellow?” Furthermore, the reasonable author observes, “one wants to know where the puck is at all times,” and then he throws in the kicker, “especially if one is a goalie, who occupies the most womanly position in contact sport.”

Obviously, there’s a whole new world out there. Me, I’m not only dizzy, I’m also resentful, if only because in confusing times sports used to be a consolation. An unchanging vista, its values constant. From the time I saw my first baseball game until now, the distance from home plate to first base has measured 90 feet. Though most of us can no longer afford it, a championship boxing match is still scheduled for 15 rounds. To win a hockey game you still have to score more goals than the opposition, but, alas, just about everything else in the game has changed.

Major league hockey, the game I grew up with during its vintage years, used to be played in six cities: Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Boston and New York. The 50-game season began in November, and the playoffs, involving the top four teams, were done with in March, when there was still snow on the streets of Montreal. Violence was an intrinsic part of the game, and any player over 16 who still had his front teeth in place was adjudged a sissy. One night Dick Irvin, who took over as coach of the Montreal Canadiens in 1940, rejuvenating a team that had failed to win the Stanley Cup for nine years, looked down his bench and said, ” I know what’s wrong here. Your faces are unmarked. I don’t see any stitches. I don’t see any shiners.”

It was Conn Smythe, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who made the immortal pronouncement, “If you can’t beat ‘em in the alley, you can’t beat ‘em in the rink.” Smythe, who died at the age of 85 in November, bought the Toronto St. Patricks in 1927, changing their name to the Maple Leafs, providing at once both a challenge to the Canadiens and philologists. Recalling the legendary owner, Dink Carroll of the Montreal Gazette observed, “You know that pro hockey was so rough back in the early ’20s that it kept Smythe away for years? Hockey was the very end back then. The players were considered just a cut above bank robbers. When they came down the street people would cross over to avoid them. But when Smythe finally got into it, he eliminated a lot of woodchopping and got them good sweaters and made them comb their hair.

“It makes me laugh when they talk about violence in hockey today. You may not believe me but guys like Newsy Lalonde and Mean Joe Hall and Sprague Cleghorn and Lionel Hitchman were out to kill each other. Ching Johnson of the Rangers had a smile on his face the whole game, smashing everybody he could get close to with his stick.

“When they weren’t on the ice, they were in court half the time, for breaking up bars and fighting. I guess you could say there was a pioneer spirit in hockey back then.”

In the ’40s, when I first warmed to the game, goalies had yet to be pronounced womanly. Even later, none of us dreamed of a date with Gump Worsley, however cuddly he appeared between the pipes. In those days goalies did not look like witch doctors and you could read their faces when they stood to counter a three-on-one. During the offseason the players nursed their cracked ribs and scarred faces while driving beer trucks, helping to bring in the wheat on the family farm or working in the mines. A players’ union? Doug Harvey, the greatest defenseman ever to wear a Canadien sweater, began to make dissident noises about a players’ union and was condemned to the NHL’s Gulag the following season. He wore a Ranger uniform in 1961. Harvey, who now sharpens skates in his brother’s Montreal sports shop on weekends, never had a salary of more than $21,500 a year as a Canadien.

Today so-called major league hockey is played in 21 cities, the 80-game season begins early in October, before the World Series starts, and the playoffs, involving 16 teams, end in May, long after the next baseball season has begun. Salaries are prodigious. Marcel Dionne has signed a new contract with Los Angeles for $600,000 a year. Wayne Gretzky’s escalating contract with oil-rich Edmonton calls for millions over the next 20 years. If you talk to the players they will, understandably, tell you the game is burgeoning. So will NHL officials. But among the fans complaints abound:

1) The season is too long.

2) Frenetic expansion has led to too many yawners. Obvious mismatches.

3) There’s too much violence in the game.

Happily, I can report that these complaints originate either with Canadian soreheads who feel that the vile Americans, to whom we have already yielded Paul Anka, snowmobiles and the RCAF exercise book, have now also pilfered our national game, vulgarizing it in the hope of appealing to yahoos everywhere. Or with sexually sublimated Americans who obviously suffer from puck-envy. A post-Freudian malaise rampant in expansion cities. The truth is that far from there being too much violence in hockey, there is not enough anymore. But to deal with these ill-informed complaints in order:

1) The familiar argument proffered by ignorant fans runs that it is somewhat silly to play a total of 840 games, which settle nothing, and then embark on a round of playoffs that call for 16 of 21 teams to fight it out for the Stanley Cup. At least one owner, Howard Baldwin of the Hartford Whalers, also suffers from a short attention span. “I think,” he said recently, “we should condense the season and start on November 1, ending on March 30 but still playing 80 games. The playoffs should end by May 1, no later, and only 12 teams, not 16, should qualify.”

What Baldwin and many fans fail to grasp is that the season, far from being too long, is now too short. The so-called regular season, properly looked at, is no more than an endless exhibition series, which brings something reminiscent of real hockey to such hitherto deprived outposts as Washington, St. Louis, Calgary and Denver. Over the long wintry haul, the bored and jet-weary players only go all out in short spurts, usually when they are hoping to renegotiate a contract they pronounced binding only the year before. Who cares, who even remembers, who won the Norris or Smythe Division titles in 1976? The real season, the one that counts, the battle for the Stanley Cup, begins in April. Starting this second season in the spring provides jaded players with the novel opportunity to fight it out in fog, as in Buffalo in 1975, or at least on such soft slushy ice as to reduce the flying Canadiens to slow slithering idiots. With further expansion, a game which owes something to lacrosse will inevitably acknowledge its debt to water polo.

2) It’s true that expansion to 21 teams has made for a number of uneven contests, but this has not gone undetected by those purists who unfailingly put the fan’s interest before the owner’s profit, namely the savants who comprise the NHL Board of Governors. These skilled observers have noted that when the Winnipeg Jets (one win in their first 28 games) play Montreal or the Islanders they seldom get to touch the puck, never mind slip it into the net, and so, if only to accommodate this disability, there will be a rule change next season. Remember, you read it here first. Next season in certain games between unevenly matched teams there will be no puck whatsoever put into play, allowing the sportsmen on both sides to have a go at each other without unnecessary distractions. This will enable Winnipeg right wing James Edward Mann, who scored all of three goals and five assists last season, but led the league in penalty minutes (287), to prove that behemoths belong.

3) Which brings us to the question of violence.

When we talk about violence in the NHL today, one team immediately springs to mind. The Philadelphia Flyers, a.k.a. the Broad Street Bullies, whose aggregation, even without the fabled talents of Dave Schultz, still hold the following records:

  • Most penalty minutes, one team, one game: 194, the Flyers, March 11, 1979, at Philadelphia against the Kings. The Flyers received seven minors, eight majors, six 10-minute misconducts and eight game misconducts.
  • Most penalties, one team, one period: 31, the Flyers, February 22, 1980, at Vancouver, third period. The Flyers received 12 minors, 10 majors, one 10-minute misconduct and eight game misconducts.
  • Most minor penalties, 1979-80: 499, the Flyers again.

But the Broad Street Bullies had the most points in the regular season last year. And when they won Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975, they led the league in penalty minutes each season.

Item: In the most thrilling hockey event most Canadians can remember, the series that pitched Team Canada against the Soviets in 1972, Bobby Clarke grasped that there was no legitimate way of stopping the superb Valery Kharlamov, and so he did the next best thing: He whacked him over the ankles with his stick, taking him out of the game. “I realized,” Clarke said, “I had to do anything to win.” Put plainly, violence pays, and in the case of Clarke, it also shows what a patriotic Canadian boy is made of. Or does it?

Because the question we must now ask ourselves is: Is it violence? Or sexual abandon? Or, God help us, even attempted rape? Which brings me back to the burning question posed by Hugh Hood: “Which comes first, the penis or the puck?”

Hood replies: “In a general way, mind you, without making a mystery of it, we guess that the penis came first, and continues to come first in the sense that it directs the occasions of fecundity. If it—or something like it—doesn’t go in, no goal, no baby. The race is continued by sperm and egg, not the conjunction of that black rubber disk and the space enclosed by the Art Ross Safety Net.”

The difficulty inherent in writing this piece for fans who haven’t read Scoring is akin to addressing a group of scientists who are as yet unaware that the atom has been split, its energy harnessed. After Scoring, nothing will ever be the same again. Hockey is no longer seen through a glass darkly. Instead, its very essence has been illuminated.

Consider, for instance, what the uninformed once took to be a rink, and no more. “Looking down at the ice surface from a height,” Hood writes, “what you see is a human body, admittedly without head or arms or legs. A torso. The space, 200 feet by 85, has about the same proportions as a human trunk, with nipples marked on it and a navel—the point where the action always begins. . . . The spectators form a body, and the players seem more like blood in a torso than anything else, eternally circulating as red or white corpuscles wearing contrasting jerseys. The body is the name of the game.”

Conversely, of course, our bodies are filled with jerseyed red and white draft choices, some of them dandy playmakers. Our chests, properly considered, boast two faceoff circles. Which is to say, within every one of us there is a hockey league, eternally circulating. Cut yourself, and the good corpuscles clear the bench and rush to defend the infected area. It then follows, logically, that violence is no more than a healthy body defending itself. Against infection here, Paul Holmgren there.

Hood is especially rewarding on the sexual nature of the game. “There may be people to whom sex is a metaphor for hockey, an outer appearance containing a real inner struggle. Making love, such people, usually male, imagine themselves faking to their left, circling the goal, persuading the goalie to go down, then slipping it in on their backhand.” Astutely, Hood points out what should have been obvious to us before. The Art Ross Safety Net, only adopted by the NHL in 1936, is an image of the female body.

Or, put another way, Gordie Howe, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, was a satyr. Constantly thrusting at the opposition nets, Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull and Maurice Richard were also sex-crazed, though we didn’t understand it at the time. Furthermore, once we have accepted the image of the goalie as womanly, we can understand that certain defensemen, traditionally pronounced unnecessarily violent, are actually gallant defenders of their goalperson’s virtue. Standing tall at the blue line, swinging their sticks with abandon, all to defend Chico Resch or Rogie Vachon from assault by Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy or Marcel Dionne. It also follows that some of the game’s low-scoring forwards, players we took to be inept, are actually well brought up kids, too nice to go the limit—that is to say, slip the puck into the net—with some 16,000 howling fans (or voyeurs) cheering them on.

Properly understood, what today’s game needs is less blatant sex or scoring, more manly fighting spirit. What’s called for is more forechecking, less foreplay.

Mind you, this is not to suggest that so-called hockey violence can only be defended on grounds of sexual propriety on ice. The new rule designed to cut down on bench-clearing brawls, the rule that calls for a game misconduct for the third man into a fight, is (a) bound to even further limit the possibility of an American network contract for hockey and (b) especially directed against one team, the Montreal Canadiens.

If Americans, new to the game, can’t follow the puck on TV, they can certainly follow and identify with flying fists. More bench-clearing brawls, on a medium already attuned to violence, could only lead to popularity for a grand game.

Of course, we will have to get rid of the spoilsport—the referees—who tend to wrestle players to the ice just as their punches are beginning to tell. An obvious refinement of the curved-stick blade would be one sharpened to come to a point. It also would be exhilarating if fights could be continued in the penalty box and players were allowed to pursue taunting fans into the stands, with rows one to 10 being declared a free fire zone.

Older fans will remember that a minor penalty once lasted two minutes, no matter how many goals the team with the manpower advantage scored. But in the 1950s, the Montreal power-play (Beliveau, Richard, Geoffrion. Olmstead, Moore) proved so overwhelming, sometimes scoring three times in two minutes. that the rule was revised in 1956 to allow the penalized player to return after only one goal had been scored. Similarly, it is now common knowledge that a Canadien rookie is fortunate indeed to get on ice for more than a shift a game. His only other opportunity to stretch his legs during a game is a bench-clearing fight. The new rule is obviously calculated to render him sedentary and therefore a diminishing threat in his sophomore year.

Finally, I’m surprised that sociologists have failed to notice the obvious correlation between violence on the ice and the safety of Canadian streets. While muggers proliferate on the streets of Detroit, New York and Boston, prowling the streets after dark, nobody feels threatened in Montreal, Toronto or Calgary, even if tempted to take a 1 a.m. stroll downtown. This is because we have cunningly put our potential muggers into team sweaters, shoving them out on the ice, paying then handsomely to spear, slash and high stick or whatever.

Even our judiciary is aware or the Canadian solution and reacts accordingly. When Wayne Maki of the St. Louis Blues was brought before an Ottawa judge in 1970, charged with assault causing bodily harm for using his stick to fracture the skull of Boston’s Ted Green during an exhibition game, he was acquitted. Judge M.J. Fitzpatrick later found Green not guilty as well. “When a player enters an arena,” he decreed, “he is consenting to a great number of what otherwise might be regarded as assaults. The game of hockey could not possibly be played unless those engaging in it were willing to accept these assaults.”

In the absence of King Solomon, M.J. Fitzpatrick.

 

Soul on Ice

Over at SB Nation’s Longform site, here’s Bill Littlefield on Digit Murphy:

Digit Murphy might have been a terrific coach for the Brown University men’s ice hockey team. It’s a shame she didn’t get a shot at the job three winters ago.

Murphy’s qualifications included – and include – the kind of energy that makes everybody in the room sit up straight and listen when she begins talking, which she rarely fails to do. That’s a useful quality when you are trying to recruit a player who’s been offered a free ride at North Dakota, Wisconsin or Minnesota, or, if he prefers the east, Boston University or Boston College, both former national champions, to a school that technically doesn’t give athletic scholarships.

So, energy. Slight and bright-eyed Murphy doesn’t do sitting still. She looks as if her short, dark hair should be wind-blown, even when there’s no wind. She is the sort of person who’ll text you to see if you’re in your office. Text back “Yes,” and in a few minutes she’ll be there, a slender, youthful storm of sound and enthusiasm in space that feels too small to contain her as she hands out her business cards at random, then earnestly tries to convince your graduate-student intern that she’s wasting her time in radio and should come to work for the Boston Blades. Actually, Murphy’s not the sort of person who does that. She is the person who did that where I work, at WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station at Boston University, on a weekday in October when she came to town to talk to a class and found herself facing 15 minutes without an audience. She must have figured somebody needed to hear about the line of sports clothes and equipment she planned on designing for women, or the blog post she is writing to encourage women who want to be coaches, or the partnerships she is trying to build with various celebrities in support of various progressive adventures.

Death of a Fighter

If you have not yet read John Branch’s excellent profile of the late Derek Boogaard, do yourself a favor. “A Boy Learns to Brawl,” is top-notch:

There is no athlete quite like the hockey enforcer, a man and a role viewed alternately as noble and barbaric, necessary and regrettable. Like so many Canadian boys, Boogaard wanted to reach the National Hockey League on the glory of goals. That dream ended early, as it usually does, and no one had to tell him.

But big-time hockey has a unique side entrance. Boogaard could fight his way there with his bare knuckles, his stick dropped, the game paused and the crowd on its feet. And he did, all the way until he became the Boogeyman, the N.H.L.’s most fearsome fighter, a caricature of a hockey goon rising nearly 7 feet in his skates.

Over six seasons in the N.H.L., Boogaard accrued three goals and 589 minutes in penalties and a contract paying him $1.6 million a year.

On May 13, his brothers found him dead of an accidental overdose in his Minneapolis apartment. Boogaard was 28. His ashes, taking up two boxes instead of the usual one, rest in a cabinet at his mother’s house in Regina. His brain, however, was removed before the cremation so that it could be examined by scientists.

Boogaard rarely complained about the toll — the crumpled and broken hands, the aching back and the concussions that nobody cared to count. But those who believe Boogaard loved to fight have it wrong. He loved what it brought: a continuation of an unlikely hockey career. And he loved what it meant: vengeance against a lifetime of perceived doubters and the gratitude of teammates glad that he would do a job they could not imagine.

[Photo Credit: AP Photo/Matt Slocum]

In Too Deep

I don’t know from hockey but I thoroughly enjoyed this recent bonus piece by Leigh Montville on the Boston Bruins:

The standing ovation was a return to the past. No, not the standing ovation at TD Garden last Friday night, the 10-minute communal fret-celebration at the end of that 1–0, stomach-churning win over the Lightning in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals that sent the Bruins into their best-of-seven transcontinental arm wrestle with the Canucks for the Stanley Cup. No, that was frenzied normality, a universal sports staple, excited people in an exciting moment.

The standing ovation the next afternoon at Pizzeria Regina in the North End was different. That was the way life once was in Boston hockey.

“Milan Lucic came in….” Richie Zapata, manager of the restaurant, reported.

Yes, Milan Lucic. Bruins winger. Still only 22 years old. Fourth year with the team. Six-feet-three, 228 pounds. A fan favorite since he arrived as a 19-year-old, straight from the Vancouver Giants, his junior team. Banger, scrapper, thumper. Yes.

“Johnny Boychuk was with him….”

Yes. Johnny Boychuk. Defenseman. Twenty-seven. Six-feet-two, 225 pounds. Third year with the Bruins. Big-time slap shot from the point. Cannon.

“They were with their girlfriends…. ”

Yes.

“I gave them a booth in the back. They ordered a large pepperoni with peppers and mushrooms. I gave them some extra slices. Took care of it. They were nice. Signed some metal pizza plates for the waitresses. Just nice. Nobody bothered them.”

So when the two Bruins and their girlfriends finished their meal at the original Pizzeria Regina—not one of the other Pizzeria Regina locations around the area, the original, with the familiar red-and-white-checked tablecloths, with the smart-mouth waitresses, with the waiting line that goes out the door most of the time and down the stairs straight onto Thacher Street, when they stood up, well, everyone else in the restaurant also stood up. And started clapping. Just like that.

Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals are tonight in Boston, with the Bruins trailing 3-2.

Those Who Can't…Try Anyway, and Write About It

A pitfall of being a sportswriter, broadcaster, or reporter, particularly if you cover a particular team for any length of time, is that you have to swallow your fandom to perpetuate the myth of objectivity. A perk to the job is the tremendous, unprecedented level of access granted.

Those thoughts crossed my mind when I posted the following to my Facebook status last Wednesday night:

I might be the luckiest sports fan ever: I’ve had the chance to play pickup hoops at Pauley Pavilion, walk on the field and be in the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. I’ve gotten to meet my childhood broadcasting idols, Chris Berman and Marv Albert. Tonight, I got to live my ultimate childhood dream: play ice hockey at Nassau Coliseum.

I’ve now viewed games at the Coliseum as a fan in the 100, 200, and 300 sections; attended games in the Owner’s Suite; sat rinkside as the Public Address announcer, and played ice hockey on the same 200×85 surface on which my all-time favorite, Mike Bossy, scored so many of his 658 career goals (573 regular season, 85 playoffs). This wasn’t Paper Lion or Tom Verducci joining the Toronto Blue Jays for a brief turn in Spring Training four years ago. Far from it. The occasion was a partnership celebration between my company and the NHL, with whom we’ve been partnered for four seasons now.

Will Weiss

Will, in the roller hockey pants and orange jersey, preparing for a draw.

Emotions ran high for those of us who grew up idolizing those Islander teams. We stood at the blue lines for the National Anthem, looked up at the rafters to see the many banners highlighting the Patrick Division, Wales and Campbell Conference titles, and of course, the four Stanley Cup championships (which easily could have been 6, if not for the Rangers and Oilers). Then, the retired numbers of Potvin, Bossy, Smith, Trottier, Gillies and Nystrom caught our gazes. Then the Hall of Fame banner. Every second was a “How cool is THIS” moment.

(I wonder if guys like Tyler Kepner, Bob Klapisch, Mark Feinsand et al have those same feelings when they play at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park to do the Boston vs. New York writers games every year.)

The last time I felt that kind of rush was April 5, 2002, when I covered my first Yankee game for YES. It was the Yankees’ home opener. The feeling I got when I walked from the clubhouse to the tunnel leading to the dugout, eventually emerging and then stepping onto the field, I couldn’t comprehend how anyone, not even grown men making the millions of dollars they do, could ever take that for granted.

Looking out from behind the batting cage down the lines, the short porch didn’t seem so short. I wondered how, with a wood bat, someone could turn on a 95 mile-per-hour fastball and deliver it into those seats. I gained a greater appreciation for what professional baseball players do on a daily basis.

The same was true here. Having played hockey (street, dek, roller and at various points, ice), I knew how physically taxing the sport was. But certain items that I thought would be true turned out just the opposite. The rink didn’t seem that large. The puck was surprisingly light. The boards had more give than expected. In the heat of the game, I didn’t notice the people in the stands (yes, people were there). If they were heckling, I couldn’t hear them. My senses were too attuned to what was going on in front of me, and making sure I didn’t embarrass myself in front of my bosses, either through my skating, or by letting my competitive intensity boil over.

I had three real good scoring chances, one in each period. The best one came on my first shift of the second period. I took a nice feed off the boards just before the blue line and sped up the right wing a 3-on-1 break. My first inclination was to pass, but my two linemates were too deep to accept a cross-ice feed. The lone defenseman gave me lots of room to skate. So, I kept my feet moving and fired a wrist shot from about 20 feet out, just before the faceoff dot. It was ticketed for the top corner, glove side, but the goalie made a strong save. In retrospect, I had more room and could have gotten deeper and made a move. But who knows if I would have gotten the shot off?

Will Weiss

The postgame handshake. Still one of the coolest things about hockey.

My team won, 5-2. I was on the ice for two goals — one for my team, one for the opponent. I won the majority of my faceoffs and drew a penalty. It was the most fun I’ve had playing anything since the first and only gig I had with a band nine years ago.

Ultimately, though, I understood how difficult it is to be a professional athlete. It’s a job that literally beats you up. The physical and mental conditioning required is staggering. There’s a reason so few people in the world do it. The simple answer: Because they can.

For a night, though, it was a rush to walk a few steps and skate a few strides in the same arena.

a/s/l?

Over at Deadspin, Katie Baker has a very good post up about her teenage life online, when she constructed an elaborate fake identity on a Usenet newsgroup as a Harvard-bound 18-year-old: “I Was Teenage Hockey Message Board Jailbait.”

The Flyers newgroup was my favorite by far.

I’m not sure when I started to lie, but it seemed like no big deal. Upholding a cherished tradition among so many high-school-aged girls throughout history, I shrugged and added two years to my age. Fifteen became seventeen. The truth just sounds different.

But the more I lied, the more I lied more, creating extraneous backstories to flesh out the details of my fictional life. I was about to graduate, I blithely allowed, scattering fibs around various posts like so much confetti. I had Rangers season tickets. I had gone to the 1999 NHL Draft party, I reported in one post, and boy,had I been surprised by all the boos for Jamie Lundmark!

On and on, each lie more pathologically gratuitous than the last. I explained that I was taking a year off before going to college at, wait for it, Harvard. It remains a great embarrassment to me that I would be so unimaginative with the location of my faux matriculation, but I more than made up for it in conjuring a whole cadre of fake older brothers whom I credited for both my love of sports and, having been knocked around by them for years, my own physical toughness at the hockey rink. I did play hockey, at least. “The Chick with the Hockey Stick,” my signature file read, one of the very few things that was actually true.

It’s a well-written piece, an an interesting story – if not a common one, at least one that I’d expect many of us can relate to. I never had any lie become as elaborate as Bakers’ eventually did, or spill over into my “real life” like hers, but my friends and I messed around on AOL chat rooms all the time, making up different identities. On several occasions a friend and I, when we were maybe 13, signed onto AOL in the guise of an 18-year-old named “sexpot69″ or something equally silly, and giggled to each other while random guys (who, in fact, were quite possibly also 13) asked us into private chat rooms and narrated their masturbation. We thought it was hilarious. We would read for a few minutes, type occasional semi-encouragement or immature jokes, laugh hysterically, then sign off in a rush and delete all traces of sexpot69 from the computer.

I suppose this is exactly what parents are afraid their kids are doing online, but really, it never did us any harm – we were smart enough never to give out any addresses or phone numbers or personal details; the guys (if they even were guys) involved were gross and awkward but never scary. In retrospect, it was a pretty safe way to feed our curiosity. In fact, as in Katie Baker’s story, in the end it may have been harder on the guys involved than on us.

Soul on Ice

I tried to represent as many different sports as possible when I put together The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan. Funny thing is, while there may be more great writing about boxing than any other sport, including baseball, no boxing stories made the cut, though Pat’s done some decent ones, like this one about Amir Khan, the Great British-Pakistani-Muslim Hope:

At 10 p.m., Amir Khan walked into the arena amid the flash of cameras and TV lights and the Asian girls aiming their cellphone cameras at him. He was wearing his trademark silver trunks, but with a slight alteration: tartan trim had been sewn in. Steve Gethin stood in his corner, his blue eyes wide.

The bell rang for Round 1. Khan loped into the center of the ring and began to stalk Gethin. He moved gracefully, bent over at the waist, bobbing and weaving left and right, his hands dangling low to the canvas. Khan did not look so young now, nor so slight. He looked huge next to Gethin and dangerous in a primitive way. Suddenly he attacked Gethin, hitting him with three quick punches before Gethin could react. Khan did resemble Muhammad Ali in the ring. It’s almost sinuous, the way he moves. He’s a trained fighter, but an instinctive one too.

Khan pursued Gethin, who backpedaled, Khan weaving hypnotically, and then he sprang again, pummeling Gethin with so many quick punches it seemed as if they were all one long, continuous punch. Gethin wrapped his arms around Khan and waited for the referee to separate them.

The fight didn’t last very long. The referee stopped it in the third round, after Khan again battered Gethin’s head with so many quick blows in succession that Gethin could only cover his face with his gloves and forsake any thought of throwing a counterpunch.

Khan raised his arms in victory. Some cheered; others were upset the fight had been stopped early. The members of “Khan’s Barmy Army” poured out of their seats. They began to leave the arena, waving their Union Jack-Pakistani flag at the seated fans. The Scottish fans began to throw things at them. Bottles. Sharpened coins. Cups of beer. “Khan’s Barmy Army” covered their heads. Security appeared from the runways, surrounded Khan’s “army” and hustled them out of the arena. In the ring, Amir Khan, oblivious, was being interviewed on ITV with his father.

Pat did a handful of hockey pieces for Sports Illustraed in the ’70s including a good one on Derek Sanderson. We included a hockey story in our collection, one of his earliest pieces for Sport magazine, about the Bruins at the old Boston Garden. Here is a good little profile Jordan did on Mike Keenan for The Sporting News in 1994, just after coach Keenan left the Rangers for St. Louis.

Italian waiters at Gian-Peppe’s Restaurant in “The Hill” section of St. Louis are wearing tuxedos with frilly shirts. They hover around Keenan at his table as if he were the Mafia Don out of “A Bronx Tale.”

“I used to hang around with seven Italian brothers when I was a kid,” he says. “I was the only Irish kid. If they got a beating from their mother, I got a beating from her, too.” He laughs, and drains his beer. Keenan asks a waiter to bring him a phone. He has to call his daughter, who will visit him tomorrow, and he’s worried that she might not have gotten the airplane ticket he sent her.

“It causes me great pain to be away from her,” he says, as the waiter returns with the phone. “I’m proud of my accomplishments, but maybe my ambition was selfish. You pay a personal price. Loneliness. It’s the only thing that scares me.” He makes the call, but his daughter is not home. The other waiter returns with a beer. For a tough-guy hockey coach, Keenan talks a lot about pain and lone-liness and even fear. He had a fear of failure when he took over at Philadelphia.

“I was confident,” he says. “I felt ready. But there’s always that fear in hockey if you’re not successful you’ll never coach again. I felt I had to be firm with my players and then I’d back off after a while, you know, the way a teacher does. But the players didn’t think I let up as much as I should have. I like to think my relationship with players has improved. I’ve improved. After the separation, I learned to reflect on life. To be introspective, tolerant and understanding. It was an awakening.” He picks up the phone and dials his daughter again.

I’m not a hockey fan and I never have been. I don’t follow boxing but I liked it as a kid. Hagler, Hearns, Sugar Ray. The tail end of Ali. The Rocky movies (seeing Rocky III in the balcony of Loews 83rd street–a theater no longer with us–with the place literally shaking during the big fight at the end, was one of the more memorable movie experiences of my childhood). Larry Holmes v. Tim Witherspoon, vs. R. Tex Cobb, all the way through Iron Mike’s early days.

I want to read more boxing writing at some point–there’s so much good stuff out there. I’d at least like to give it a shot. It’s such an appealing sport for writers because, as Len Shapiro of the Washington Post says, “It’s the greatest sport in the world until they get in the ring.”

Lot of good boxing movies too, come to think of it: Body and Soul, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Fat City, Rocky, Raging Bull, When We Were Kings. And Slap Shot is arguably the greatest sports movie of them all.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver