A few days before a recent trip to BC to, among other things, visit my brother and his family, I got an email from him asking if we were, “Up for a Canadian cultural adventure.” Seal clubbing? Logging in the Old Growth? Skinning a walrus? Oppressing native peoples? What did he mean? Well, it seems he’d recently come into possession of season tickets for home games of the Vancouver Giants, members of the Western Hockey League. Apart from occasional apathetic attendance at the community hockey games of my brothers when I was a kid, I’d never been to a hockey game. What a patriotic rite of passage!
The rock music blaring as we entered the arena made me feel right at home. The subwoofer-heavy hip-hop of a basketball game would have left me cold, but the cool air, and that indefinable but unmistakable ice-rink smell invoked a faint but instant nostalgia. The national anthem performed by a full choir was a treat. It had been a long time since I stood for it, and it felt good.
A comparable seat for a Vancouver Canucks’ game runs somewhere around $200. These seats go for around $25; this is accessible hockey. The crowd was thick with kids. All of my nieces and nephews have had the chance to play, and some of them do it exceptionally well. Seeing so many kids among the spectators reinforced for me how it is that hockey remains such an entrenched part of Canadian life. Maybe it’s cause of games like these that there’re so many adults willing to pay such outrageous amounts to watch professionals. It made me want to run right out to a frozen pond and shoot around a frozen patty of cow shit with friends.
Of course anyone who’s been to a spectator sporting event or a large concert knows what it’s like to be part of mass emotion: the collective gasps and sighs, the shared indignation, the sudden bursts of excitement. In the third period, we got the requisite fight. My brother, veteran of years of goal-tending, gave me a colourful crash course in the psychology, techniques and language of this iconic activity.
Seems that, for the most part, fighting is about establishing dominance. Apparently each team has at least one guy who’s particularly good at it. It might even be that, between periods, the word is passed for this enforcer to target number 14…. The sense seems to be that a show of egression can help dishearten the other team. Bench-clearing brawls are a thing of the past, but there’s still sufficient crowd support for the occasional dustup that they aren’t completely eliminated by harsher regulations.
From a procedural standpoint, it’s a good idea to whip off your helmet as soon as hostilities commence. Otherwise, you leave yourself open to having your visor knocked about your face, and this can hurt. Also, if there’s time, it’s a good idea to remove your gloves, allowing for precision fist work. However, you may wish to keep your damp, smelly gloves on in order to execute one of the several maneuvers favoured in hockey fights, which are designed not only to injure, but also to humiliate, provoke, or cause extreme irritation. The one requiring the damp, smelly glove is the “face wash.” this involves rubbing your damp, smelly glove hard back and forth across the face of your opponent. If this hapless individual has failed to remove his helmet, you can make the face wash even more annoying by rattling the visor around while you smear your moldy man-sweat all over his face.
Other colourful terms you need to know in order to hold your own in a spectator dissection of a hockey fight:
- Rag doll: grabbing your opponent’s upper arms, pulling him toward you, and shaking him as hard as you can. This isn’t especially painful, but it’s really irritating, and will tire your adversary as they try to keep their footing.
- Windmill: this is an especially dirty trick that will usually lead to intervention, and involves pulling your opponent’s jersey up over his head with one hand while you pummel him repeatedly in the face with your other fist. This has the advantage of achieving every aim in a hockey fight, inflicting pain, humiliation, extreme irritation, dominance, and a severe rattling of the nerves.
- Feed him the pizza: this is when you put the base of your palm on your opponent’s chin and push up.
- Turtle: I didn’t get a clear sense of how often this one comes up, but it refers to the decision of one opponent to surrender. The “turtler” deliberately drops to the ice and curls himself into a ball, making a target as small as possible, and making it clear that they don’t want to fight. This is, apparently, reputational suicide; the ultimate face-losing move.
The one who wins the fight is the one who gets in the most punches. The fight ends when the combatants can no longer maintain their balance in the tussle, and fall to the ice, or when a referee intervenes, which I was told only happens after a windmill, at the sight of blood, or if one fighter is clearly creaming the other.
As a woman, and a shrinking passivist, I had trouble with the subtleties and nuances of the emotional involvement. When I asked whether combatants ever resorted to using their skate blades on one another, my brother responded with politely restrained incredulity. “No, that would just be mental.” When I asked whether hostilities ever continued after the combatants were penned up together in the confined space of the penalty box, I was met with similar dismissal, “No, they just watch the game and rest, fighting on skates is really tiring!”
The crowd was definitely engaged by the scrapping, but as a seasoned player and spectator, my brother said he just found it boring and pointless. “So much refined skill is possible in the game that it’s just a waste of time and energy.”
“Oh Canada,” I love that hockey’s our national sport, which I guess shows that the indoctrination was successful. Thanks for my most excellent Canadian cultural adventure bro!
Favourite Hockey Songs
Hockey Night in Canada Theme
Skating Rink by David Francey
The good Old Hockey Game by Stompin’ tom connors