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Why America's pastime trumps Canada's bloodsport

Michael Scoular | The Cascade | Sports | April 8th, 2013



ABBOTSFORD (CUP) - When William Faulkner wrote of the "pattern, design almost beautiful" of hockey, "that second before ... (disintegration) and dissolve," not only was his a perfect picture of the spectatorship of a sport, but the volatility of being in love with one.

Choosing Faulkner as a go-to hockey quote over any of the thousands of faces that have appeared over the years on The Sports Network, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or voices on the radio, is probably the obvious undergraduate thing to do. It's an outsider perspective of something that opens up re-evaluation. It's a moving away from expected authorities to the period after growing up with a sport — being impressed by family tradition, national identity, what's "in" at school. It's now about choosing interests, values, reasons of our own. We begin to try to rationalize what we like and face rejecting the rest — either that or ignore the questions of why we watch.

Hockey is said to be free, not bound to the rigidity of plays like football and baseball, more chaotic and physical than basketball. Yet it falls, through strategies, through this lack of form, into the most basic, uninteresting structures of power play formations, passing lanes and endless rotation.

From the 12 years I followed hockey closely, the hundreds of games and memorized names and tendencies didn't add up to a single team but patterns of play that could be, yes, almost beautiful in their conforming (the Sedins doing what they do) or breaking (to the point where "broken play leading to a goal" is a pattern in itself). But that also gives the dekes and garbage goals and glove saves of highlight reels a predictability — it's been seen before. Hockey lives in the replay, it can't be caught fully the first time, and so much of it then depends on television direction.

Already much hockey strategy has the objective of stifling creativity, so perhaps it's fitting there's often nothing that even approaches an attempt to convey the speed and attractive qualities of the game as seen on television. Distant pans cut to behind-theglass bodychecks, while the only moving camera tracking a breakout defenceman. In the one situation when it would better to see the ice in its entirety, the television camera restricts vision, keeps the game conventional, closed-in and stale.

The biggest push away from hockey is in its culture. The sport Faulkner praises for the "excitement of speed and grace," "not from the crude impact of a heavier fist" if it exists, is rarely described in similar terms. The argument surrounding fighting, of pacifists and those flipping between the game and Ultimate Fighting Championship, is not something that can be resolved, but can it be enough to say that hockey fighting doesn't even stand up on merits of being a "good" fight?

It's marked by overextending and blindly swinging and grabbing and awkwardly falling, not as something more realistic and messy, but staged and pointless. In the same way, none of the all-toofrequently life-altering injuries could be said to come from a result of a "good" hit. The physicality of hockey is more closely associated with sounds, with selective memory, than with the actual sloppy, childish menace of the thing itself. And this is praised and valued.

To compare baseball to hockey is to risk that same mentality — that one is tougher, that the athletes of one sport aren't even athletes. It's a mixture of defensiveness from fans of a less popular sport and false bravado. But this relies on another television twisting — the knowledge of the sport through highlight reels. The emphasis of home runs and diving catches, although exciting, falls into that same trap of predictability and replay. Where baseball lives is in between, the so-called "boring" parts where "nothing's happening."

Baseball broadcasts aren't groundbreaking, but they don't have the problem of failing to show — everything is before and visible, the pitcher-catcher-batter relation clearly defined and observable. When runners reach base, the imperfect but still effective solution of splitting the screen, showing multiple perspectives, with base-running coaches in the background, cuts to managerial direction and the different plate positions all held on the screen until the last possible second, when the pitch is released, the early jump of a stealing runner or stop at the realization of a strikeout just registering at the corner of the frame.

A friend that helped re-introduce me to baseball offered one observation that also helped when it comes to season and game length: with a game every day, there is less dwelling on the past, an allowance for losses because every team will with such a packed schedule.

What it also means is just more to watch — there are those that try to see everything, but the overabundance means that there's the routine of there always being a game on, to turn on for a few innings as inoffensive backdrop for an evening of trying-to-but-not doing homework.

Baseball extends through days, timeslots and pre-conceptions. Surely the greatest experience of watching hockey is playoff overtime when the game doesn't end until a goal, with no commercials to interrupt. With baseball, there is the possibility for this with every game.

Every half-inning is defined this way; it could be over in regular 1- 2-3 fashion, or take an hour, with nothing to break in and advertise. Sure, there's always the signage in sight, and required broadcaster mention, but it's a pleasant feature, and better yet an outcome of the eternal possibility in baseball — a sport unrestricted by time, where victory is always an open chance.
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