The Line’s Nice List: Getting out on the ice to play hockey
Spectator sports are terrible. Playing sports is sublime.
We at The Line are, we admit, often a bit on the grumpy side. But there are wonderful, happy stories worth celebrating, and in the final week before Christmas, we’re going to make a point of lauding some of what’s good in the world right now. That’s right: this is our nice list.
Today: James McLeod on the thrill of chasing a puck around a clean sheet of ice.
By: James McLeod
On a cold morning recently, I threw my gear into the car early, and got to the rink before 7 a.m.
There’s an outdoor sheet of ice near my house that doesn’t get locked up overnight, and if you get there early enough, you have the whole place to yourself.
With “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton blasting in my earbuds, I threw half a dozen pucks onto the rink and started skating laps.
For the better part of an hour, I mess around trying to make it into a decent workout — listening to upbeat pop music and practicing puck handling and shooting alone on the ice.
It’s good that nobody is around to see me.
I am very, very, very bad at hockey.
I never played the sport growing up. My earliest memory of skating is the feeling of my dad tightening my skates when I was a kid, pulling on the laces and squeezing my feet tight, dad feeling impossibly strong, the way grown-ups do when you’re little.
Then I’d go out on the ice at Otter Creek and glide around, bumping into the boards to stop myself.
I only actually learned how to stop on skates when I was in my 30s.
Becoming a hockey fan was also an adult development for me. For years, I would watch 60 or 70 regular season Leafs games, and then I’d watch them get creamed in the playoffs. I would read articles, and listen to three or four different hockey podcasts, totalling five or six hours each week.
I particularly enjoyed the minutia of advanced statistics, and roster management, thinking about the canny strategies to build a hockey team through astute skills appraisal and well-structured contracts to manage the salary cap.
But somewhere along the way, watching hockey just stopped being fun.
To acknowledge the obvious, for the hockey fans reading this: Yes, at least part of it was the fact that the Leafs kept getting rolled in the playoffs. But it was also the way they got beat.
I’d spend all season getting thrilled by the finesse and skill of players like Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, only to watch the Bruins grind them down with dirty goon tactics — affectionately known as “playoff hockey.” Among a certain kind of hockey fan, toughness and grit is the highest virtue of the sport, but I’ve never enjoyed the violence.
And at the same time, the whole sport started to grind me down like that.
So much of hockey is middle-aged dad figures treating the game like a morality tale, extolling the virtues of “toughness” and “heart” and consciously suppressing individual ability in the name of humility, stoicism and teamwork.
And while the pundits on TV insist on talking about virtue and character — treating hockey as a hagiography instead of just a fun entertainment spectacle — it also became impossible to ignore the reality that hockey culture is deeply rotten.
For anybody paying attention, hockey is shot through with racism, misogyny and homophobia. In 2022 we have all read the horrific stories of sexual assault by junior hockey players, and dozens of hush money payments from secret funds by Hockey Canada.
In recent years, we have also heard stories of the NHL harbouring sexual predators. And the violent racism detailed by Akim Aliu. Heck, hockey’s most recognizable and loudest voice, for many years, was Don Cherry. And his prejudice was on full display on Coach’s Corner for many years while Ron MacLean winced at his side before Cherry was ultimately fired for it.
There was no one thing that caused me to stop watching hockey. It all just kind of added up. It felt gross. It wasn’t fun to watch hockey and listen to all those podcasts, and if it’s not fun, then what the hell is the point of it? It’s supposed to be entertainment.
But around the same time I was falling out with watching hockey, I started going to the public rinks. Mostly I’d wobble around in the cold, and practice my stops and my crossovers. Eventually I borrowed a stick and a pair of hockey gloves from my brother, and I started sneaking out to the rink when it was quiet to try puck handling.
Last winter, I took a beginner hockey skills class. For about eight weeks, every Thursday night a couple dozen adults would hit the rink and do basic skating and puck-handling drills. It wasn’t much, but it was enough of a confidence boost that a few of us started showing up for the local shinny sessions at the open-air rink in the park.
And let me tell you, pickup shinny at the outdoor rink is one of the most wholesome experiences I have had.
Like out of a postcard, everyone throws their sticks into centre ice, and somebody starts sorting them left and right to randomly divide participants into teams. And then, everyone just plays. Some guys are much better, and weave around the rink with flourish and finesse. When it’s my turn on the ice, mostly all I can do is chase and try to get in the way; I rarely actually touch the puck, and usually I’m terrified that I’ll accidentally crash into somebody.
But it’s fun! And it’s hard exercise. And thus far, nobody is unkind about the fact that I clearly suck at hockey; they’re encouraging and friendly, with an upbeat “everybody started somewhere” attitude.
I think there is a broader lesson here, and it goes well beyond just hockey.
When I look around, there is no shortage of morally repugnant sports issues. Elite hockey is rotten to the core. The NFL is a gladiatorial arena that causes lasting brain damage. The World Cup was built on forced labour and human rights repression. The Olympics is profoundly corrupt.
Spectator sport is terrible. Sport is the one true unscripted drama, and it makes for a great product. But the marketing engine and competitive pressures of capitalism drive the business of sport to be elite, relentless and existing in the rarified atmosphere, far away and out of reach of mere mortals.
The elite athletes are celebrated as stars for their athletic ability, and if they’re good enough at the game then all sorts of moral failings will be excused. But so many of the athletes are victims, too, with many of them chewed up and spit out in the money-making machine.
When regular people are separated from the experience of sport, and they are just watching and judging from their couch, when pundits are analyzing and critiquing athletes, when big money is flowing through advertising and sponsorship deals, everything gets curdled and ugly.
None of that is present out on the local rink, though.
And in the summer months, there’s nothing toxic in my other favourite sport — running. When you’re at the starting line of a 10k running race, surrounded by a few thousand other amateurs, everybody is upbeat and encouraging.
The few spectators who show up stand on the curb and offer cheers and high-fives as you pass. Nobody is there to see athletes, and the idea of winning the contest isn’t even a consideration. On the rink and out on a run, the thing that matters is the joy of doing the sport, not the competitive result.
It’s only when we take on the role as purely spectators that our attention narrows to the most elite athletes, where our emotional attachment becomes tied to winning and losing. Money becomes the driving imperative. It stops being fun.
Spectator sport is terrible. Actually getting out there and doing it is sublime. It took me decades, but I’m glad I finally discovered how much fun playing hockey can be.
James McLeod is a Toronto-based writer and communications professional.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org