Friday, May 30, 2008


Glancing at the television for a few moments Wednesday night had my heart unexpectedly flying and catching, soaring and breaking. Not for Pittsburgh, whose fans were 4000 deep at the tailgate party outside Mellon Arena, but for the hockey players themselves. Not only hockey, but hockey far more than other sports, does this to me: I watch the game from the eyes of a former big sister. A big sister who watched devastated 9 year olds shaking hands (“good game - good game - good game”) with the winning team in Little League, who saw the sophomore soccer goalie’s eyes reveal a split second of terror before performing scowling acts of heroism, hurling the ball safely to midfield.

Do I watch sports like this because I was once a big sister? No, I already watched sports like this AS a big sister, so the roots are deeper. I watch sports like this because I once held my brothers crying in pain and in sorrow, once watched them giggle and need help and entertain a room with unfettered silliness. And then I watched them move into scowling and aggressive and stoic and walled off and monotone years. I watched them mock the weak links and the girls and the mothers and each other; I watched them choose allegiances and move in packs. And all of these years of morphing were tangled up in soccer and baseball and basketball, and me in the bleachers. In these years when my brothers turned from creatures “like me” into “men,” I watched helplessly from the sidelines; the morphing was its own spectator sport.

Hockey (which wasn’t part of my youth) moves me more than the others because its shifts are so contrasted and so constant: The shifts from hopeful heroic offense to angry, edgy defense, with a barely-perceptible note of personal fear, individual sadness, and bottomless loss in-between. But this between moment is perceptible, and to me, palpable, searing, all-pervasive. On the ice the people see this: The home team has the puck, they’re gliding with speed to their goal, the opposing team intercepts, the home team slams the player into the wall, the game is moving again, there’s a near score, there’s a pile up. The only time I saw the game live (once in Madison Square Garden), this same rhythm and flow struck me as a dual-gendered performance. One moment, it was as elegant and feminine as a ballet on ice--the next second, as territorial as a street fight, with sticks and blades threatening to cut, to wound.

Territorial: The player with the puck is all powerful, he’s a legend in his mind, he’s alone but he’s gonna do it for the team, for the fans, for the city; he’s gonna make up for the lousy economy, for the last lousy forty years, man. But when he loses the puck, when he misses the goal, the fleeting sorrow I can read in his face is very young and it’s all his own. Like it’s the fear of ceasing to matter for the team, the fans, perhaps ceasing to exist for himself because he’s lost all heroic purpose. Next it’s a quick shift into pack mode, as his team works to defend the goal, and sometimes to swoop in and surround the opposing player, pin him to the wall, let him know whose town it is. Together they can protect, instill fear, together they can maim and kill.

I turn away from the TV set and remember my small brothers, and wonder if they remember me, watching.

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