The sport that I have been interacting with the past few weeks is ice hockey. Growing up in the south Bay Area I slowly learned that, while ice hockey didn’t have as much national popularity as football, baseball, or basketball, it had an extremely strong and very large following. Almost everyone I knew was a San Jose Sharks fan and supported them regardless of how the team was performing during the season. This was a refreshing change for me because the three other major national sports are often characterized by fair-weather or bandwagon fans. Although I’m not sure if it’s because ice hockey is so widespread where I’m from, ice skating was a popular activity for many people and I was exposed to it at a young age. I had been to several different ice rinks, both indoor and outdoor, but I could never get the hang of it. I was one of the people that always clung onto the wall surrounding the rink and walked the perimeter while people skated by. The only time I ever left this “safety net” was when I linked arms and skated with other people. Since I was exploring this sport in a new light, I decided to attempt to leave my comfort zone and see if I could get the hang of it by myself.
Before I went to the rink, I was filled with excitement at the possibility that I might be able to pick up a new hobby. I watched tutorials on YouTube on how to pick the right hockey sticks and blades, as well as proper hand and grip positioning. Realizing that I was probably jumping a few steps ahead, I refined my video search to “How to ice skate”. I already knew that the rink would be pretty cold so I dressed accordingly, wearing warm and comfortable clothes. I didn’t expect to be able to learn how to skate circles around other people the first time back on the ice, so I didn’t feel the necessity for all the protective gear that hockey players usually wear. I arrived at the rink, rented a pair of skates, and mentally prepared myself for what would be a grueling afternoon. As I unlaced them to adjust them to my feet (and then laced them back up), I became extremely nervous to try skating again. Stepping out on to the ice was just as I imagined, predictably frustrating. I went around the rink holding the wall a couple times, as if it were second nature to me. I had just decided to accept the fact that, as a new skater who never learned to roller blade, falling was inevitable. I let go of the wall and visualized what I had seen in numerous videos about proper stance. I bent my knees slightly and pushed off, making sure that my feet were kept in somewhat of a “V” formation as I glided. While I wasn’t able to get very far, I felt accomplished for even deciding to try it again and not having fallen in the entire hour when the image of Bambi on ice replayed in my head. Although I quit when I was ahead (“ahead” in the sense that I didn’t fall), I will most likely go back to the ice rink again (in my lifetime…).
Another way that I engaged with the sport in a new way was actually deciding to watch ice hockey on TV. Unfortunately, all of the Olympic ice hockey games take place at ungodly hours in the morning so hopefully I will be able to wake up to watch the United States play at some point. Since my mom is from Boston, we watched the Bruins play in the Stanley Cup playoffs and win the final in 2011, but it never really caught on with my family after that. I never really sat down with the express intent to understand the game and its intricacies even though I had seen Sharks games on TV before. I didn’t know how long games were or how penalties worked or how many players from each team were on the ice at any one point. All I knew was that in order to score a goal, players had to get the puck in the net behind the goalie. Paying attention to the details allowed me to finally figured out that the game is played in three periods that last twenty minutes each, there are six active players from each team on the ice at any point (including the goalie), and that penalties are particularly confusing. Hopefully I’ll be able to better figure them out as I continue to watch more games. When I wrote my media analysis blog, I searched for images that showcased epic hockey fights. I came across one that showed a line brawl, which is when all members of a certain line fight with their opponents. I learned that there are four lines, each consisting of five players; all lines are characterized by different types of players, ranging from those who are high scorers and those who specialize in exceptionally physical play. The visiting team usually sets their lineup first and the coach for the home team sends out a line accordingly. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the lines have to match. Both teams can send out different lines depending on how they want to set the tone for the game. In a conversation I had with one of my friends who is a huge Sharks fan, I realized that all of the knowledge I had gained was basic to the sport even though it seemed overwhelming to me.
I connected this newly acquired (yet basic) knowledge to my own experience with skating and was able to appreciate the fact the physicality required to be a successful hockey player. Despite the fact players wear bulky protective gear that does little to accentuate shape, in order to be successful and maintain stamina while trying to score on goal they must be in prime physical condition. It is interesting to compare their uniforms to those of the other top three sports, all of which showcase body types of athletes much more. While the reason for this probably has to be with the fact that it’s a completely different terrain that on which they’re playing, the discourse used to talk about the league and internal politics is not too different from what is used in football or baseball. Players are treated as commodities that are traded and there are people who own each team. (On a separate note: I wonder what a comparison of the different types of commoditization would reveal in terms of race relations…)