Circles in Ice

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A couple of weeks ago on a Friday night in Sidney, Canada, I went to watch a local ice hockey game. It would be my first time watching the country’s national sport in person. In my experience, ice hockey matches have typically been depicted as fight-fests between young college guys with huge egos. Most notably, the infamous Vancouver riots in June 2011 sprung from the unpopular result of a major championship final between the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins. Media coverage of the public rioting facilitated perceptions of hockey as a game of bravado that attracts ruthless jocks looking to cause trouble. At a local game, the effect of the sport on public behaviour is not quite as extreme…! And on the contrary, this more intimate environment can highlight the various demographics that revolve around the ice (and sport in general). The standard of play in a national-level game would have been higher for sure, but by watching a lower-league game, I was reminded of how the social dynamics of different age groups emerge and co-exist at a small community sporting event, and of the prominent position that sport can hold throughout adolescence.  It was an experience that made me yearn for those carefree teenage years in which sport is the freezing pond that collects different rain drops of age group into one solidified circle of mutual affiliation.

The Peninsula Panthers were playing their opening game of the season at home against the Westshore Wolves. Two ladies howling their faces off at a private joke stamped my wrist after I paid them the $9 spectating fee. They were most likely ‘hockey moms’ chipping in to help out the club whilst enjoying the complimentary flirting from older men that came with it. The smell of popcorn wafted through the air – a scent that would soon become one of blood, sweat and tears (…okay just sweat, but that was quite enough). Coaches stood behind the team benches in suits with their arms crossed like soccer managers from the English premier league. Their seriousness contrasted heavily with the chatter and laughter that radiated from the crowd of around 500 spectators.

A novice to ice-hockey can quickly appreciate how much skill it takes to play the sport; you have to have the speed and balance for skating, combined with good hand-eye coordination. Play is fast and furious, with the sounds of blades scraping the ice and sticks smacking against each other continually flooding your ears alongside vigorous calls by the players and disappointed ‘ahhhs’ of the crowd as a chance is missed. You can see the ‘no mercy’ attitude in their eyes as they dash past the stands, eyes on the goal. Often players with the puck would be bashed into the sideboard, the loud thud causing me to recoil backwards in surprise. You can’t help but experience an adrenaline rush watching these guys zoom around the arena recklessly. Heads are pulled from left to right as the puck whizzes from one end of the arena to the other. The exciting atmosphere created by the game makes you wistful for those fun days growing up of team sports during school, where one could forget about the boredom and pressure of studying for a few hours and let those teenage kicks transpire.

Three 20 year olds refereed the match, working for a club they themselves used to play for. Dressed in pin-striped shirts, they looked tiny compared to the huge frames of the players with their padded shoulders. A full match comprises three periods each lasting 20 minutes. The more penalties given, the slower the match, because the clock is stopped each time play halts. Every time play was interrupted, the arena was pumped with ‘manly’ rock anthems from the likes of old-school AC/DC and Def Leppard to slick Robert Palmer and hormonal Green Day and the Chilli Peppers, as if to fire up the aggression of the players and stoke up the crowd. Despite only knowing one of the players and having no previous affiliation with the home team, it was easy to get emotionally involved in the match. “Number 9 is a real dick!” I grumbled spontaneously at one point, after seeing a red-faced guy from the other team shove a home player in the chest unnecessarily. Then I froze, anticipating the glaring face of his parents. But alas, it appeared that scrapping was to be expected during the game. In fact, it’s so expected that nobody seemed overly concerned when a group of guys started throwing their fists at each other. Referees are disinclined to break up a fight in order to avoid getting hurt themselves. Often it’s simply a case of teenage hormones being freed in the form of a few punches, with play resuming soon after the attacking player has established his ‘badass’ status. Only when someone ‘is getting his ass kicked’ will the referees attempt to break players up, shouting a haphazard list of shirt numbers to be sent to the penalty box (and hoping it’s not someone they know).

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All the while, an old man wearing a shirt crested with the club’s name sat alone quietly on the front row, watching the game closely. I imagined him to be a former player himself, dedicated to watching his old club’s home games and seeing how the team developed over the years. The Peninsula Panthers were being thrashed, yet he still sat loyally, making no audible comments amidst the hustling energy of the crowd. Seeing him sit so calmly and devoutly highlighted the personal importance that sport holds to people, giving them a sense of identity and community. I pictured this man returning to a quiet home – perhaps as a widow – with this sport being his main companion, the remaining reliable friend from whom he received gratification for investing time and money in.

During the interval, teenage female fans walked around in groups, too scared to go to the washroom alone. As I washed my hands alongside them staring at themselves in front of the mirror, I was reminded of those tiresome days of being 15 when it felt like appearance should be the most important thing in life. “I need to cut my hair, it looks gross.” – “Yeah, me too.” – “No yours looks really nice!” – “Yours looks nicer!” Urghh. I wanted to tell these girls that one day, their eyes would open and there would be more to life than impressing the grade 12 hockey boys.

As I returned back to the stands ready for the final third to commence, raffle ticket winners were being called out over the loudspeaker, the ends of names being drawn out in the trademark announcer way. Mothers chatted on the benches about the ongoing teacher strikes in British Columbia. Some seemed oblivious to what was happening in the match, instead viewing this as an occasion to socialise and gossip about so-and-so’s new hair colour/job/divorce. But other mothers were engrossed in the game and clearly devoted to seeing their kid succeed. Some of them were perhaps stay-at-home-mums who found in ice hockey an opportunity to contribute to something in the community. Even when not taking part, sport inevitably becomes a huge part of a parent’s life as they become taxi drivers, financial sponsors, event promoters and number-one fans. Spectating parents form just as much a part of the sport’s identity as the players themselves, having a similar amount of loyalty required from them. Ice hockey is an expensive and time-demanding game, costing around $1100 per year in membership fees and involving about 10 hours of practice and play per week. If your son has a local business sponsor and driving license, it’s not so bad, but if not, your world might just constantly be spinning on ice.

And so then comes the issue of when a players starts to lose interest in the game. Disillusionment was visible in the dejected stance of a few players who skated around aimlessly, occasionally glancing at the crowd as if planning their escape. Sport is an inevitable victim of teenagers growing up; time spent practising and competing becomes time spent studying, working and developing friendships and relationships. Giving up tends to be a decision forced by other circumstances. It’s sad but true that only the raw talents are able to combine education with a continued regular timetable for sport. Sport commonly has to be sacrificed for an activity from which one has more ‘promise’ to make a living, such as a job or higher education, even if it will be enjoyed less. Meanwhile, often in younger players affected by peer pressure from school friends, that slightly saddening phenomenon occurs where a Friday night of sport is replaced by an evening of drinking and smoking – the activities assumed by many to be the appropriate priorities of a teenager. Often overlooked is the emotional and practical effect that quitting sport might have on the parents who have devoted so much time and attention to their child’s participation; their involvement is taken away too once a child stops playing. Social circles on the ice are cracked as players and parents float in different directions. The chapter of life in which sport is the main event comes to an end.  Of course it is possible to stay in touch with teammates and other parents, but no longer is there the binding power of the ice freezing these people together. As the older players hang up their skates, younger players take their place and a new generation of players, parents and spectators emerges.

At the end of this game, the players didn’t shake hands. I found that surprising, believing this habit to be a form of etiquette that could settle any hard feelings gained during the match which might translate into something vicious outside of the building.  However, I was then told that older players from both teams were actually just as likely to meet outside for a joint…Their indifference off the ice towards their team’s success contrasted with the passion and pride that younger players tend to hold towards their team: an ‘us vs them’ mentality inspired by a belief in the fulfilment of victory and a desire for local fame. In later years of teenage life, those same players often laugh at how upset they used to get about losing games, cringing about their mothers insisting on keeping all their old trophies on display in the living room, all because of a perception that this is ‘lame’. But a few years later, when these same teens are spending their days studying a subject that they’re not actually too interested in, and the evenings drinking something alcoholic they don’t really like that much in a bar whose music they can’t stan and with people that they don’t actually share much in common with, they might remember those younger teenage years. They’ll remember how nice it felt to be part of a team, to have shared goals and feel pride in shared success. Aside from a desire to keep fit and socialise, it is perhaps a subconscious longing to relive teenage years that leads people in their early-mid twenties to return to team sports once in the world of employment, as if craving a return to that time when one didn’t have to worry so much about responsibilities and future paths.

As spectators left the stands, the high school chicks gathered outside to wait for the dream boys to appear in their suits (yes, they are made to wear suits to every game). The girls’ hands were placed in pockets, hips bent, hair being puffed up every 15 seconds. My mind flashed back to girls in sports kit at school waiting for the changing room door to be opened, leaning against the wall nonchalantly with skirts hitched up two inches, hoping to make eye contact with the boys passing by towards the gym. Whilst these present-day girls waited, the old man ambled slowly towards his car. Despite a 9-2 defeat for his beloved Panthers, he would certainly be back next time. The players then walked out sporadically in their dishevelled suits, looking sheep-faced about their big loss. Some passed non-stop by the group of girls reluctantly,  wary of their waiting parents cramping any style. For those who could drive, one could picture a ‘guy-gets-the-girl’ scene in which the top goal-scorer would lead the hot cheerleader off to his ride. I watched a pretty girl in white skinny jeans accompany a boy to his car, hand hanging low hoping for him to hold it. He avoided her keen gaze and I wondered how many hearts would break in this parking lot.

And so another Friday night game of ice hockey ended. The guy went home with the girl; the parents went home with the kids; the old man went home alone. Members of the local circle brought to the game different motives and took away different experiences. Their lives skated in different directions, but all took their course on the same piece of ice. For the players it was the end of another routine Friday night of sport that in years to come, would be recalled fondly as a community event which accompanied that both complex and care-free process in life of growing up.

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2 thoughts on “Circles in Ice

  1. I was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada. For me, the ultimate irony is I was able to play more ice hockey every Friday evening at an ice rink just outside of Heidelberg, Germany in two years than in the entire three decades previous. I worry about how truly accessible hockey is to the general Canadian population. I believe there are important lessons to be learn from soccer (football) and basketball.

    • Interesting, thanks for commenting with your experience! It appears to be a very expensive sport which I imagine prevents many keen kids from participating; I wonder what makes it different in Germany..? P.s jealous you’ve lived in both Vancouver and Heidelberg – big fan of both!

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