Hockey, like hockey journalism, is at its best when it's starts at the beginning: Outside.
Hockey journalism has a tendency to get caught up in the daily comings and goings of the NHL. We read about scores, stats, rumours, disputes, suspensions, and all that, and it all leaves little time for anything else.
That's why it was so refreshing to come across and read Stephen Marche's essay, "The Meaning of Hockey," in the November edition of The Walrus magazine (a terrific magazine well worth subscribing to, if you don't already). It's a lengthy look at the roots of the sport, and how it has both shaped and been shaped by the Canadian experience. It's a highly recommended read, if you've got a moment today.
My favourite portion, certainly, was on the significance of playoff beards:
"The gruelling quest for the Stanley Cup mirrors the voyageurs' ritualistic journey up water, and, just like the voyageurs, hockey players become wilder and wilder as they progress through the playoffs. They look beat up. Fraught with superstition, they let their lucky beards grow. They deliberately become wild and make themselves look that way. Lanny MacDonald raising the Cup is as fine an example of the homme-du-nord as this country has ever produced."
Hockey's best writing has always been about it's greatest asset: Its roots, on the outdoor pond and in the minds of men, women, girls, and boys who love it. That's why Canadians have embraced The Hockey Sweater so fully that a section of the short story graces the back of our country's five-dollar bill. And it's why the NHL's annual outdoor game has become such an unabashed success. And it's why Marche's article stands out as a reminder of what hockey writing can be, in drastic contrast to what hockey writing usually is.
The article has shortcomings. It glances over the contributions of Aboriginal Canadians who helped shape hockey and the Canadian experience, while romanticizing the voyageurs and hommes-du-nord--who, it should be noted, owe their very survival to the support of the First Nations who were on the land those European colonists were exploring. The unabashed Canadian-ness of it may dismay hockey fans in the American sunbelt, who have been known to confuse Canadians taking pride in a game we've invented as an assertion of our rightful place as its masters, and their perceived inadequacy as recent converts to the game. (To be fair to southern American hockey fans, this feeling isn't without reason; another fatal trap of hockey journalism has been this very assertion. But there is a difference between taking pride in our sport, and asserting ownership of it, and this article--just like so much of the best of hockey writing--is an instance of the former rather than the latter.)
But the article is still a delightful, fanciful, thoughtful, and thought-provoking exploration of the meaning of the sport, especially its meaning for Canada and Canadians, based on its long and enchanting history. Hockey writing can't be so much fun on an everyday level, but it can be more often than it is today. And it should be.