When the NHL last week became the first major North American sports league to cancel a season owing to a labor disagreement, people reacted with the same surprise they had when Max Schmelling died a few weeks ago: Hockey is still alive? Complaining about hockey being canceled is like trying to throw a party for the last episode of NYPD Blue. ESPN doubled its ratings by replacing the cancelled NHL games with a Michael Madsen drama about poker called Tilt. They could have matched NHL ratings with a Steve Buscemi musical about shuffleboard.
But that's part of why I liked hockey. We pretend that our interests aren't willful choices, that they're some intrinsic part of our personalities. But in reality, we choose our likes and dislikes to define our identities. You don't just happen to like chocolate, horses, long walks on the beach and cuddling, and hate rude men. At some age you chose to like Led Zeppelin because it helped you fit with the group you wanted to be in, or Grand Master Flash because it made you seem quirky. And in 1980, at 9 years old, after the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union, I chose hockey. Not so much to be patriotic but because I saw it as a personality opportunity. One that would pay richer dividends than my poorly thought-out gambit of collecting puffy Smurf stickers.
A guy who liked hockey was subtle without being the least bit aristocratic. He could sit back and appreciate the nuances of a sport that allowed a 0-0 tie. He appreciated a beautiful missed goal more than a sloppy score. And compared with the freaks who play football and basketball, he could relate to hockey players, who are normal-size guys who can somehow do things while they're skating besides just skating, which is impressive enough. Far more important, hockey made me seem kind of tough. I hoped that if someone wanted to pick a fight with me, he would think twice about it, fearing I'd know how to blind him by pulling the back of his sweater over his head before punching him repeatedly in the face. Second, not knowing much about guy stuff like cars, sex, World War II or woodworking, I could seem like a hockey expert by knowing the name of the Rangers' goalie and what an icing penalty is. The trick to that, of course, was to avoid getting caught in conversations with Canadians. A small price to pay indeed.
Sure, hockey is a little white, but you know what? Those are my people. Actually, my people are the Jews, but if I limited myself by that, I'd be up pretty late watching ESPN43 for mah-jongg tournaments. While cool white people embrace basketball and hip-hop, I see nothing wrong with also celebrating my own blindingly white culture. I like country music, hockey, Nordic myths, the Tour de France, crisp white wine and the movie Ordinary People. Seriously, I needed hockey to make me seem less gay.
Being a hockey fan was my way of seeming special. So I hope when the NHL comes back, probably not until 2007, it doesn't try to revamp itself for the masses. There are lots of suggestions: making the goals bigger or the goalie pads smaller; getting rid of the red line; eliminating fighting; having monkeys drive Zambonis; putting strippers in the penalty box. Some of those ideas might be mine.
Hockey should come back smaller and more true to itself, shedding expensive failures in places such as Nashville and Tampa and Equatorial Guinea. The few players who have name recognition will be too old to come back, so we'll be forced to memorize completely new unpronounceable Swedish and Slovakian names. (Damn you for wasting my time, Miroslav Satan.) Hockey will be for the very few Americans it was meant for. Basically, me.
Whenever the NHL does come back, in whatever form, I will be there. Because far more exciting than a goal being scored is the possibility of one. And no sport can represent the beauty of hope as well as staying awake for a goal to end a triple-overtime playoff game. By stressing Beckettian optimism, the sport has uniquely trained us to sit through a lockout. Anyway, we have no choice. You feel a little too special when you tell people you're a curling fan.