Essays

Rinkside Intellectual

Stephen Smith

They fire at you from all directions, jab you with sticks, trip you up, knock you down—boy, this is real rough.

Hockey befuddled the French semiotician Roland Barthes the first time he saw it in Montreal in 1961. Hubert Aquin was making a documentary for the CBC, and Barthes was brought in to cogitate on the meanings of bullfights and bicycle races, and what makes us pursue pucks. He was confused by the offside rule, which to him “dominated” the game. Children who seemed to be fighting, he observed, were merely learning how to inhabit their country.

William Faulkner’s first game was Rangers and Canadiens at the old Madison Square Garden in 1955. Babe Ruth saw the same two teams play as early as 1926. He’d even played a bit before that, in Baltimore. And? Loved it. It looked hard and fast. In baseball, you knew where the ball was coming from. “Here,” he told a reporter at Madison Square in 1930, “they fire at you from all directions, jab you with sticks, trip you up, knock you down—boy, this is real rough. Did you see that goalie get kicked in the face by a skate?” Still, if he tried it again, goal would be his preferred position. “But I’d play behind the net instead of in front of it.” Okay, great, Babe. Anything else? Just that fighting is, quote, apple pie to hockey. He wanted to mention that, too.

Faulkner can be excused for ignoring hockey in 1918. That was the year he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, which was so new at the time that it wasn’t Royal yet, or formally called the Air Force. It was summer when he arrived in Toronto, and on into the fall he was busy with training, so there wouldn’t have been time for hockey even if they’d been playing. By November the war was over and Faulkner was demobilized, and while he was waiting to leave, a lot of the city was in quarantine, trying to avoid the Spanish flu, and anyway, that was a year of disarray for the fledgling NHL.

Another Nobel Prize winner, Ernest Hemingway, is truly problematic, given how much he would have had to disfavour hockey to avoid it so entirely when he was in Toronto two years later. Hemingway was working as a reporter at the Toronto Star, where his good friends included Morley Callaghan and Greg Clark. Are you telling me they never took him to a St. Pats game at the Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, barely a mile’s walk from the Star’s offices on King Street West? This was in 1920 and into 1921, when the Ruthian Babe Dye was playing for the St. Pats, leading the league in scoring, and the defenceman Harry Cameron, about whom I knew nothing at all until I looked him up, was his teammate. The man who curved his shot, let the record show, before anyone was curving a shot. And Sprague Cleghorn! Sorry, but if you know anything about the man, you know that the exclamation mark is automatic. Apart from how great his name is to say aloud, Cleghorn! was one of hockey’s best players and also, truly, one of its worst.

Just the name in and of itself sounds like two hockey words, sprague cleghorn, maybe a serious though seldom-called penalty, or else a medical condition occasioned by a stick hitting your skull. When you read about the man himself, many times it’s in association with words like melee and (truly a hockey adjective) fistic, and also the phrase he’d kick your balls off. Sentences that begin with Sprague Cleghorn sometimes go on to report that on February 1, he almost wiped out the Ottawa team single-handedly. A fearsome, fascinating character. I can’t believe that Hemingway could have resisted writing about him, if he’d seen him. Grace under pressure? The great Spanish bullfighter Manolete, whom Hemingway met and championed and hung around and wrote about in Death in the Afternoon—I’m sorry, no disrespect, but Hemingway would have had exactly no use for Manolete if he’d come across Cleghorn. All I’m saying is, if Hemingway had discovered Cleghorn! in Toronto, I think he would have stayed, and if he’d stayed, soon enough he would have run into Eddie Shore and the rest would be history, except that it isn’t. Since I can’t believe that Hemingway didn’t go to a hockey game, the alternative might be that he went and it left him cold. Hemingway saw hockey in Toronto and turned his back on it.

Faulkner had it almost as good. In January of 1955 he was commissioned to write a hockey essay for Sports Illustrated. Maybe you know it. Certainly it’s one of the most anthologized pieces of hockey prose, which isn’t surprising, given how rarely Nobel Prize winners write about hockey. Looking at a hundred years of laureates leading up to Alice Munro, it may in fact be one of the unwritten Nobel codes that in order to be considered for recognition from Stockholm you have to have avoided the game entirely. Faulkner ignored the ban; of course, he already had his Nobel, and what were they going to do, grab it back?

“An Innocent at Rinkside” the essay is called. For all its anthologification, I’d never read it. I guess I expected big things, though if I’d thought about a bit more, I could have worked it out. If the result of Faulkner’s exposure to Rocket Richard and the rest of the powerful Habs of the 1950s had been enchantment—well, we’d all know that, wouldn’t we? Faulkner would have hurried home bearing the seed for a hockey trilogy in which he’d chronicle the up-and-down exploits of the Yoknapatawpha Unvanquished, their changeable fortunes in the old Southern Broiler League, and that’s how hockey would have filled his last years before his death in 1962 with late-blooming joy. Faulkner’s eighth novel, Pylon, sounds like it should have some hockey in it (nope). Same with The Sound and the Fury (zilch). Best of all, though, would have to be Go Down, Moses, which might be the greatest goalie novel never written, the story of a stand-up netminder grown weary of watching the low shots sneak by. Whereas, in fact, nothing of the sort. If I was looking for a model of hockey disenthrallment, I found him in Faulkner.

His piece starts promisingly enough. “The vacant ice looked tired.” That’s not bad. Then the game starts and Faulkner gets the hell out of there. Unwilling to implicate himself, he hands the narrative to the third person:

To the innocent, who had never seen it before, it seemed discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools.

Did you catch that? The dismissal followed by the sneer capped off with the kick? You’re still dealing with discorded when you hit the word that really hurts—inconsequent—and then he lays on bizarre. And he hasn’t even reached the insects yet. The weightless bugs. The bugs of no weight whose outlandish skitterings have no significance. And that pool of theirs, also? A brackish pool like that is nothing to be proud of.

There’s a specific hockey word for what Faulkner’s doing and here it is: deking. Because as soon as he swerves at you, right away he’s swerving the other way and then, before you can think too much, Faulkner’s gone around you. Forget about ugly Nature. Hockey speaks to him, it’s urgent and important. It’s a dizzying turnaround, but that’s what we like about hockey, isn’t it, one of its virtues. Actually, no. Faulkner starts to discern meaning, but just like that, it’s gone. He catches a pattern, a design “which was trying to tell him something, say something to him urgent and important and true in that second before, already bulging with the motion and the speed, it began to disintegrate and dissolve.” He doesn’t appear to mind too much. Easy come, easy go. This is the moment in which hockey loses Faulkner. Truth and importance are right before him, playing hard to get, but he doesn’t care to play.

Maurice Richard catches his notice. That’s the next thing. But only briefly the Rocket holds him and here’s what he says—get ready, because it’s his high note, the best thing Faulkner will write when it comes to hockey, all in a fragment of a sentence:

Richard with something of the passionate glittering fatal alien quality of snakes.

And that’s it, done. Geoffrion gets a mention after this, and so does Edgar Laprade from the Rangers, but really, though Faulkner has another eight hundred words to work through, as far as the hockey goes, he’s lost, as they say, the plot. Doug Harvey is playing in this game, Jean Béliveau, Jacques Plante. These are Dick Irvin’s Canadiens Faulkner is watching, and later on in the year they’ll play the Detroit Red Wings for the Stanley Cup. I didn’t even mention Mosdell or Olmstead. Not that Faulkner does, either.

Who’s to blame? Faulkner himself might have claimed it was the cigarette smoke that ruined the game for him. He certainly has a lot to say about this. His innocent eye follows the tiers of seats up and up until they vanish into the pall of tobacco smoke trapped by the roof. To Faulkner, the haze that fills the rink represents more than the promise of future cancers. While the hockey plays out in front of him, Faulkner worries about exhaust, not just of air but of violence being stirred up on the ice. This is hard to follow, but after many re-readings I think I’ve got it. It seems that the attention of New York fans is, to Faulkner, as palpable as the smoke of their cigarettes. Faulkner sees it: “All that intent and tense watching,” he writes, blending with the smoke. The resulting brew rises to the roof and then, trapped, drops back down iceward where it comes in contact with—stay with me, now—the violence. The violence, which Faulkner identifies as a byproduct of hockey’s speed and motion, has nowhere to go. Without the roof, the smoke and the watching would float free, apparently. And this, as it turns out, is Faulkner’s whole point. He brings in sloops and lions and little Norwegian boys after this, and then (no kidding) there’s a beauty pageant and Miss Sewage Disposal takes a turn while the hockey fades out of focus.

I was worried that the blow that Faulkner was getting ready to deliver was that hockey isn’t worthy of anybody’s notice, let alone a Nobel laureate’s. But Faulkner was never interested in hockey, not in Toronto in 1918, and not in distractingly smoky New York thirty-odd years later. Sports Illustrated would have done better to hire T.S. Eliot, the 1948 Nobel winner in literature, or better yet, Sir Winston Churchill, who won in 1953.

It wasn’t all Faulkner’s fault, I guess. Hockey does have to shoulder some of the blame, the hometown Rangers in particular. They were awful that whole year, in fact. Asked what he needed to help the team, coach Muzz Patrick replied, “A pistol.” They’d won just one of their previous eighteen games, and with the crowds dwindling away, management had come up with an answer: start the losing earlier. At Faulkner’s game, instead of 8:30, the puck fell at 7:00. It worked, too, in its way. Instead of their usual six or seven thousand, the Rangers that night had 13,607 smokers and intent watchers in the stands. With Montreal winning 7–1, the masses began to boo and stamp their feet—and laugh. It was a shame that so many youngsters were there, a columnist commented next day in the World Telegram. “Judged by what they saw,” he wrote, “they will not become the customers of tomorrow.”

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Stephen Smith

Stephen Smith has written for the Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, Canadian Geographic, Outside, Quill & Quire, West End Phoenix and the New York Times Magazine. He lives in Toronto and at puckstruck.com.


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