TORONTO — The things that make hockey beautiful are the same things that limit its popular appeal. It’s almost too exotic for its own good. It requires ice, and not a little bit: great big sheets of it, clean and flawless. The ice means that hockey also requires skating. Like mastering a language, learning to skate rewards early adoption. Most of us can run, so we can come to understand and even play a lot of sports that we didn’t grow up playing. We have already met their first demand. Hockey has a higher barrier to entry. If you can’t skate, you can’t play.
I can’t skate. I’m Canadian, but my family is an immigrant family, and I was too late to the pond. A Canadian who can’t skate is like an American who can’t light a firework. You’re surrounded by people taking delight in something that has escaped you, everybody laughing at a joke that’s gone over your head. There’s a fountain in front of Toronto’s iconic City Hall. In the winter it becomes a rink, of course, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched people circling that square with a grace and speed that fills me with envy.
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But I still love hockey, and I can identify the moment I fell for it and why. When I was very young, maybe 5 or 6, my dad took me to my first hockey game. We watched the Toronto Maple Leafs at Maple Leaf Gardens. We didn’t have a lot of money, and it’s the only game we ever attended together. I can remember walking to that fabled arena, holding my dad’s hand so I wouldn’t get lost in the bustle of the building crowd. I can remember being almost blinded by the glare off the ice. I can remember watching the first period and maybe part of the second, trying to take in all of hockey’s crazy action, to parse its peculiar brand of collision physics.
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And then I can remember leaning into my dad and falling fast asleep.
In Canada, hockey occupies the same place in our collective consciousness that baseball does in America, only it has inspired more riots. The rink, the heart of so many of our small communities, is our version of the ballpark as cathedral. The back of our $5 bill used to have an engraving of kids playing shinny on it. The prime minister prior to our current dreamboat was a hockey historian. Arguably the most famous song by The Tragically Hip, our unofficial national band, is about a hockey player who was killed in a plane crash. Most Canadians can tell you that the last goal Bill Barilko ever scored won the Leafs the Cup.
If you haven’t watched a lot of hockey, that romance and poetry will probably be lost on you. That’s understandable. On the surface, it’s a brutal game, bloody and ferocious, with its welts and bruises and lost teeth. It moves at a frenetic pace, too, the tiny puck sometimes lost in the blur, the shifts only a minute long, the changes in momentum almost too quick to appreciate. Baseball is complicated but slow enough to digest. Hockey is simple but too fast to see.
I think everything changed that night at the Gardens when I fell asleep. That’s when hockey started making sense to me, when I didn’t try so hard to watch it and instead let it filter through my dreams. The sound of the game stuck in my brain like a song that makes you smile every time you hear it.
The distinctive sound that hockey makes is one of its happier accidents, the twin benefit of constructing a game exclusively out of hard surfaces and playing it during the quietest time of year, when the birds are gone and no leaves are rustling in the trees. Ice instead of grass, boards instead of chalk, skates instead of shoes, sticks instead of hands, pucks instead of balls — each of its base elements makes a noise when it comes in contact with any of its others, all of them frozen solid. The hiss of a blade carving into a wet rink or the bang of a puck shot wide are unmistakable, as distinctive as fingerprints.
Hockey might be the only sport that you can follow nearly as well in the dark, which is handy when the winter sun sets well before dinner. Other sports have their telltale noises — baseball’s crack of the bat, basketball’s infernal squeaking of sneakers — but hockey’s sounds combine to make a symphony that tells so much more of its story. In other sports, the best plays are often lauded for their relative quiet: the swish of the perfect basket, the soundless connection between a quarterback’s spiral and the soft hands of his receiver. Hockey might never be still, but it is also never silent.
I didn’t wake up that long-ago night in Toronto until my dad carried me outside the Gardens and the cold hit my face. I can remember looking up at him and feeling confused and lost, except that I was in his arms. That was good enough for me. I closed my eyes again, and for the second time in the same night, I didn’t need to see to know everything I needed to know.