This vulcanized hard rubber disk is exactly three inches in diameter and an inch thick. It’s cylindrical side is knurled for traction but the flat faces are machined smooth. If you give it a gentle tap on a professionally surfaced arena, it will keep sliding all the way till the other end, without losing momentum.
The origin of it’s name, ‘puck’, is obscure but since the game has its roots in Halifax, in Atlantic Canada whose original settlers were Irish, the name is believed to have originated from the Irish word ‘poc’, which is a verb that means “to poke, punch or deliver a blow”. Apt, as you will find out if you read on.
On a normal long-range pass, the puck usually reaches a speed of 100 kmph and if you are shooting for the goal, speeds of up to 160 kmph are common. It is this aspect that separates ice hockey from other sports. Lightning speed. It also makes the game far more dangerous. A direct hit on any part of your head at such speeds could open it up like a melon and you could live the rest of your life, a vegetable and sometimes you could even discontinue living (many have, in the past, when helmets were not mandatory).
In Canada, we know the sport as hockey. Folk here are just as crazy about ice hockey as we are about cricket, in India. Their stars are just as revered. I have never heard of match fixing or organized crime involvement in ice hockey, even though the betting is just as heavy.
Ice-hockey is played within a tight club of nations. Wikipedia says 162 out of the 177 medals in ice hockey world cup championships so far, have been won by just 7 countries – Canada, The Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden and the United States. North America is ground-zero of world ice-hockey, the game governed by the National Hockey League(NHL) which is head-quartered in New York, with 23 American and 7 Canadian member club teams. In the US, the top teams are the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Anaheim Ducks and in Canada, the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks.
Everything in North America being larger than life, professional hockey players sign lucrative contracts worth millions of dollars. The NHL attracts brutes, I mean players, from all the seven nations that I mentioned above. They are a bunch of fast-living, testosterone-soaked multimillionaires who are barely out of their teens.
Though it is called hockey, ice hockey bears very little resemblance with its cousin, field hockey, though the rules are pretty much the same overall (you try to put the puck into the other guy’s goal, end of story). You do it with 6 players as against 11 in field hockey. Field hockey players don’t get maimed or brain damaged. You’ll be banned from a tournament if you beat up the other guy on the field.
But ice hockey? Why, without actually placing it on record, the NHL actively encourages players to bash each other’s heads in. The reason for the need for violence is a simple one. The spectators need the fix. The only way to fill the arena seats and top the sports TV ratings charts is to shock them, give them gore in real-time. The fans come to see teeth, saliva and blood spraying out of the mouth and dripping on the ice. They won’t be happy unless at least one player is carried out on a stretcher, trailing blood.
The color, crimson, when sprinkled on ice, is stark and mesmerizing. Have you ever seen drops of blood on ice? They sort of retain their spheroidal shape and don’t spread easily, much like mercury. Unless of course there’s simply too much of it. Unless it is a bloodbath. Which ice-hockey really is – a bloodbath. I once read a statistic somewhere that says that 86% of all NHL games have at least one major fight involving multiple players.
Those statistics are not surprising at all, given the fact that the players are taught to be violent from a tender age. Unruly and boorish parents bring their tots to hockey camps from the age of six. You should see the scraps and the expletives that fly from the parents toward the referees. Once in a while, an irate mother scales the Perspex and slips and slides over to the referee and starts an expletive-laced screaming match, because her son got shoved unfairly or was told to sit it out because of an infraction that his Mom thinks he didn’t commit.
These mothers are vicious women and they even have a nickname – ‘hockey moms’. Ring a bell? Remember Sarah Palin, the apology for a 2008 US Vice Presidential candidate? She liked to project herself as a hockey mom during the campaign. I suppose that shouldn’t have surprised anybody.
The violence is orchestrated. A 6 ft, 190 lb player, zipping around on his skates, cannot have complete control over his deceleration, if he needs to suddenly stop. If he is heading toward a player from the other side, he makes no effort to slow down but just caroms into the other guy, using his body like a cushion, to avoid smashing into the hard perspex sheeting of the arena boundary wall.
The other guy lets out a whoosh as the impact squeezes the breath out of his body. Both go sprawling and a brawl ensues. There is no attempt by the referees to break it up. They just step back and watch as fists fly and the crowd roars in approval. Star players are usually targeted this way. If the ace is carried away on a stretcher, it could make the difference between winning and losing the game.
Ice hockey is not a contact sport. It is worse. It is a gladiatorial sport and the place where the game is played is not even called a stadium. It is actually known as an arena. You will feel like you are a plebeian sitting inside a Roman amphitheater. If there is a pot-bellied guy with a glass of wine and blondes, inside the VIP box, his name might be Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, you never know. All around you there will be hysterical screams erupting, ‘Hit ‘im, Mike!’, ‘Beat the f—k out of him, Sidney’, ‘That’s my boy, kick him in the balls, Brian’. And I can confirm to you that the baying for blood isn’t restricted to male voices only.
Every ice hockey team has a hulking thug of a guy who is known simply as the ‘enforcer’. He is usually a middling player himself but his playing skills are not what he is selected in the team for. He is chosen to perform three basic tasks. Foremost, to make sure that the top goal scorers in his team don’t get targeted by the other side. Next, to exact retribution should a star teammate be deliberately beaten up and last but not the least, to go out there and hurt the top players of the other team.
The enforcer also keeps scores on who bashed whom up and how bad it was. The brawl could have been in an earlier game even. The enforcer ensures that retribution is exacted in full and by the same measure, stitch by stitch, fracture by fracture. If you hit someone in tonight’s game and the guy has had to get six stitches, don’t think it shall be quietly forgotten. They’ll get you when you play against the same side the next time.
This system of retribution is evident in the following TSN video clip, showing Vancouver Canucks enforcer, Todd Bertuzzi, chasing and then hitting Colorado Avalanche forward, Steve Moore. Moore had bashed up a Canucks player in an earlier game.
The combination of the hit, the fall, and the piling-on that you saw, resulted in three fractured neck vertebrae, facial cuts and a severe concussion that Moore barely managed to emerge alive from, later on.
The above incident ended Moore’s professional hockey career, and resulted in criminal assault charges being laid against Bertuzzi and a civil lawsuit against him and his team, the Canucks. To his credit, Bertuzzi did seem genuinely remorseful in the video.
The violence has a common thread. First, some fights break out as if they had been pre-arranged. Second, the referees stand back and do absolutely nothing to stop the fight. Third, the spectators, some having little children with them, are up on their feet, screaming hysterically when a fight starts. Last but not the least, even the commentators are heard screaming themselves hoarse, their words making it seem like they are delivering live commentary of a heavyweight boxing match, not hockey.
The rules of the game are quite simple – there are few rules. Two murderous teams, six to a side, dressed up like gorillas in heavily padded gear, charge at each other’s goals and you have two goalies who have given up trying to actually follow the puck. You cannot follow the puck, it is so tiny and so fast. Sachin Tendulkar might have been able to actually follow a cricket ball after it left the palm of a pace bowler, but even he wouldn’t be able to follow a hockey puck, believe me.
If you are the goalie in an ice hockey game, you have an unenviable job. No level of skill in the world can stop a 3-inch / 160kmph projectile that you cannot even see. It is only when you see all the guys heading at you, that you have to assume they have the puck and are racing to put it in your goal. You do the only thing you can do. You sit on your butt, your knees together, legs splayed outward in a kind of butterfly position, trying to cover the whole mouth of the goal.
You pray you’ll stop the damn puck and won’t get too severely concussed or have your shoulders dislocated in the process, because those charging goons won’t even try to evade you. They’ll steamroll into you with full force. The goal being a lightweight structure that is not tethered to the ice, it will get shoved aside and you’ll have a slipping sliding mass of bodies and flailing razor sharp skates, a slash from which will open your cheeks up like a jackfruit.
Usually a fight starts when a player is seen to do something unfair, like skating into another guy deliberately and bashing him up against the perspex. The agg (the aggrieved player) nods at the perp (the perpetrator of the unprovoked assault) and the perp nods back. That is the declaration of war.
The fight begins. Believe it or not, in this Neanderthal blood-letting even, there are some ‘accepted norms’ of scrapping. The fight has to be bare-knuckle and if the other guy has his helmet off, you have to doff yours too. The referees circle the two fighters as they maul each other, without making any move to break it up. Of course they won’t. They have been instructed not to. This is what the crowds have come to salivate over. This is a reality show.
The referees charge in only when the two opponents are not evenly matched and things get out of hand. They have to think of possible law-suits and ensure that any injury is not life threatening or permanently debilitating. Profuse bleeding from wounds that shall be fine with a few stitches, broken teeth and jaws, fractured noses and knuckles, dislocated shoulders, cracked ribs, concussion – these fall under ‘acceptable behavior’, within the unwritten NHL norms. One wonders, if there is any unacceptable behavior at all…. kill, maybe?
While the game is essentially a no-holds-barred two hours of sustained blood-letting, there have been exceptions. There are examples of sportsmanship and respect for the other guy. During a 2009 game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Detroit Red Wings, a Detroit defender rammed into an Oilers forward particularly hard. No one remembers if it was a score being settled or a genuine accident. By the end of the next 60 seconds it didn’t seem to matter.
What happened next left the spectators gaping and changed the texture of the rest of the game. The Oilers player removed his gloves and helmet, a sign he wanted to settle this with a scrap. The Red Wings player, a far bigger guy, noticed a stitch in the forehead of the Oilers player from an earlier game. The stitch had opened up in the bang-up and blood was oozing from the wound. The Red Wings player dropped his guard and skated away.
And in case you think otherwise, I am not trying to say that the game requires no skills, only brawn. No. I have seen highly skilled players who always seem to anticipate where the puck is, guessing it from the motion of the ensemble of players around him. Then there have been some goals that are a treat to watch, leaving you in awe of the player’s dexterity with his wrists.
I was watching a CBC documentary on the legendary Wayne Gretzky, the player universally acknowledged as the greatest that ice hockey has ever seen and aptly nicknamed ‘The Great One’. Gretzky was the unchallenged king on the ice from 1979 till his retirement in 1999. When asked what makes a great ice hockey player, he made a comment that is probably true of all endeavors….
“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be”.
The Great One forgot to add a corollary to his comment….
“Whether you are great or just good, you have to be able to take a beating.”