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The Beauty and Truth of the Game February 19, 2008

Posted by CapitalSpirit in Uncategorized.
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“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, –that is all/Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.”–Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

One of my main reasons for writing this blog has been to try to discover the greater truth of the game of hockey.  Some scoff at this: it’s just a game, so what am I talking about by “greater truth”?

Well, if we take Keats at face value, beauty is truth.  And there’s certainly a beauty to the game of hockey.  Remember Ovechkin’s on-his-back goal in Phoenix back in his rookie season?  That was certainly a thing of beauty; so if Keats is right, that made it a thing of truth.  A well-done tic-tac-toe play can be a thing of beauty, and thus, truth.  Similarly, a good stop by a goalie; a game-saving sliding block by a defenseman; and, arguably, even a competitive fisticuff, can be a thing of beauty, and truth.  Does that comparison hold up?

 Hat tip for the following: Dictionary.com:

Beauty (n)–the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).

Several definitions for “truth”, but this one is intriguing:

Truth (n)–ideal or fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience.

So if hockey is beauty, and beauty is truth, that would mean that the game of hockey gives deep satisfaction to the mind, because it reflects a fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience.  In other words, we take satisfaction from hockey because it reflects something real that’s beyond what we normally perceive.

But what reality does this great game reflect?  What is the reality of the game?

A couple of basic items come to mind.

The essential object of the game is to score more goals than the other team before time runs out.  And here is one basic premise: both teams begin each game at zero.  Jumping sports for a moment and switching to college basketball, I’m sure the coach of every #16 seed in March gives some variation on the theme of “just because they’re number one doesn’t mean they get to start with 20 more points.”  It’s also true in hockey: both teams begin with an equal opportunity to win the game.  There is no favoritism shown at the start of a game: if the New York Rangers really DID go up to Mystery, Alaska to play a local team, they would not start with a 2-0 advantage just because they’re the New York Rangers.  Given this, we may reach a couple of hockey truths, as follows.

Truth One: All teams stand as equals at the start of play; therefore, favoritism in its many forms runs counter to the truth of hockey.  Truth Two: All success in hockey is earned; no one else can make success happen for you without effort on your part.  Truth Three: Both teams begin the game with the same amount of resources, and it is the proper use of those resources that shall determine success or failure.

A few comments are in order.  First, on favoritism.  The NHL recently recognized its anniversary of Willie O’Ree’s breaking of its color barrier.  I’m not an NHL historian, but I do know that hockey is a very expensive sport to grow up playing.  The gear you wear in mites might not work too well once you’re big enough for peewees.  And unless you live in a very cold climate and can maintain a rink in your backyard, ice time usually isn’t free.  It all costs money, and that had to have been one of several factors in the league’s complexion in the first half of the 20th century. 

Was there racism in hockey?  Did O’Ree have to put up with racist taunts?  Yes, he did.  But the Bruins, to their everlasting credit, welcomed the Jackie Robinson of the NHL with open arms.  The Bruins grasped this Truth of the game, that favoritism does not fit the ideals of the game.

Success is earned in the game of hockey: no one else will be successful for you.  Even though hockey is a team game, on another level, there is room for individual achievement.  Most of hockey’s trophies, in fact, are individual awards.  This gives hockey an interesting dynamic: it’s a team game where individual success is just as important.

Now, could you “coattail” your way into an NHL trophy?  Theoretically, it’s not impossible: someone might rack up a ton of secondary assists to take home an Art Ross.  If a team was in hyper-competitive games all season long, and all 82 games ended with the same player potting an empty-netter, that would still be a very impressive 82 goals and a serious look at the Rocket Richard.  (Again, this is THEORETICAL: I don’t think the latter is probable.)  And the Jennings Trophy is given to the best goaltending team, so if Goalie A had 65 shutouts while Goalie B had 17 mediocre games, Goalie B might still share the Jennings.

But that’s about it.  Most of the other trophies are adjudicated awards, so doing your best Scottie Pippen act on skates won’t win you the Pearson.  As for those scenarios I just constructed, their prima facie outlandishness only serves to show how difficult it would be to actually succeed in accomplishing such feats.  So success is earned in hockey: no one else can make it happen for you.

Now, why do I say that both teams begin with the same amount of resources?  If anything is obvious about the game at the NHL level, it is that some teams have superstars, and some do not.  The level of expertise amongst the competing players varies widely from team to team. How, then, do both teams in any game have the same resources?

Well, both teams are required to dress two goaltenders.  Most teams play four lines of three forwards, and three pairs of defensemen.  The rink facilities are required by the NHL to be identical for both teams: no heated benches for the home team while the visitors freeze their derrieres off on a cast-iron bench that’s only got half the seating area.  Both teams get the same sheet of ice to play on.  The field of play is identical for both the home team and the visitors.  Both teams have the same three twenty-minute periods to outscore the other.  And so on.

But don’t disparities in talent give some teams an advantage at the outset?  Clearly, no: favorites don’t always win, even with seemingly unbeatable rosters.  The Miracle on Ice game is an example which springs immediately to mind.  Great talent doesn’t necessarily lend itself to making the sacrifices needed for victory (just ask Jaromir Jagr.)  This is not to say that talent is overrated; it is to say that talent is not always what determines victory.  And more talented players certainly don’t preordain victory.  Therefore, at the outset of play, it is true that both teams have the same resources available to both of them.

Can talent be overcome?  Yes–talent can be overcome by heart.  However, heart can be overcome by strength (that is, toughness).  Likewise, strength can be overcome by talent.

When next I write on this subject, I will explore the relationships between talent, heart, and strength.

Meanwhile, see you at the Verizon Center Wednesday night as we take on the Islanders.




1. june - February 20, 2008

Is your Major in Journalism? Was interesting reading.

2. CapitalSpirit - February 20, 2008

Actually, no. It was Mass Communications–Towson, Class of 99–but that’s close enough for the blogosphere, I guess.

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