Olympic Dissonance

Games Against a Messy Background

from thestar.com

Sport lends itself to a condition of moral simplicity. A major reason we turn to sport is for the undeniable certainty of its win/loss, rule-bound dynamic. At no time does sport’s artificial certainty stand out more than it does at the Olympics, because at no other time does it clash more with the deviousness of the world at large. Like the World Cup, the Olympics produces the same tension each time: between the simplified morality of sport itself and the problematic morality of the forces that control sport, or of the nations represented.

Putin’s games provide a case in point of that. Read more of this post

A League Falls in the Wilderness

 The Detroit Hockey Association is done. Dissolved. How did I just hear about this?

In the Spring of 2012, I published a piece here on Jack Adams Arena in Detroit. I meant to follow it up, but it got lost in the shuffle—until recently, when into the comment section of that first piece someone dropped the troubling news that the Detroit Hockey Association is no more. The DHA ran the leagues and teams hosted at the arena, so while the ice remains, the organizational structure around it does not. It turns out the DHA dissolved before this hockey season began. The causes and consequences of that dissolution are still not clear. But all signs suggest this is bad news.

Those signs, however, are scant. There is hardly any information out there on the demise of the DHA. It looks like the commenter who tipped me off, who has a long history with the organization, had been the primary keeper of the DHA’s blog. After the dissolution, it seems the blog followed him and became his personal outlet, which he used to tell his side of the story with a mix of anger, frustration and ODDly placed CAPLOCKS. Meaning, the only news on this issue is from a few blog posts that often swerve into rants, the merits and accuracy of which are difficult to decipher. What we can decipher from his posts is that the DHA was officially dissolved by the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association for failing to complete elections. Why that occurred is not clear. Full disclosure: I remember the blogger as a coach at Jack Adams who was both devoted—he was still there ten years after I moved away—and not someone people always got along with. So his perspective needs a bit of salt to go with it, but he should also be acknowledged as the only person to make an effort to broadcast this story.

There was nothing in the Detroit News. Nothing in the Free Press. Both are sports-obsessed papers in a sports-obsessed city. They have all the time in the world to cover high school sports and to chase around seventeen year old running backs picking a college. Yet, no coverage at all on the fall of a unique and valuable, if small and troubled, youth sports organization.

In the internet age, if a small community-oriented youth league falls and no one hears, does it matter? Yes. The fact that the comment section of my previous piece has now generated more updates on this issue than the rest of the internet combined shows there is interest here. So yes, it matters, but it also matters how it fell, why no one cared enough to cover the fall, and what people are doing to make up for it. So over the next few weeks, we’ll gather some firsthand accounts on what went wrong, what’s happening now, and why it matters.

First, a follow up on my interview last spring with Will McCants.
Read more of this post

What’s the true intention here?

Just Drop It and the need to fight against the lockout’s bullshit

Forget the economics, the creative accounting, the refusal to own up to the botched expansions of both franchises and salaries, the legal maneuverings, and on and on. We all know one thing about the current NHL lockout: it’s bullshit. How right we are. In his awesome little book On Bullshit, philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt defines “bullshit” as the misrepresentation of the information provider. This is different from “lying,” which involves the misrepresentation of the information itself. Of course, you can be both a liar and bullshitter, but the bullshitter, Frankfurt writes, does not necessarily attempt to deceive us “either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be,” but “he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about his enterprise.” Put another way, “he misrepresents what he is up to.”

Frankfurt’s best hypothetical examples come from politics, where the issue at hand is often less important than the politician’s need to seem a certain way — as in: I feel this way on this issue, so I’m a “real American” from the “real America,” or whatever, so you can trust me on all sorts of matters. It’s not really the particular stance that matters, but how a politician’s stance makes him or her seem. Thus, the immediate issue becomes the “wedge” playing on the public’s emotional response to issue X and implanting a certain feeling toward politician Z or party Y.

The public discourse over the NHL lockout has followed the same pattern. Read more of this post

The fans are assumed

The NHL and NHLPA battle for our cash, what can we do? 

Will your protest change a thing?

No one ever put a poster of a professional sports team owner on their childhood bedroom wall and no one ever pretended to be Mike Illitch or George Steinbrenner when paying a bill (“the waiter hands over the bill–he signs, and payment is accepted! The table goes wild!”). That’s probably not totally true (we’re told it’s right to envy the achievements of the wealthy, after all), but it is true that our devotion to professional players is far more widespread and emotional than any directed to an owner. I respect Mike Illitch, from what I know of him and his deeds, but he never beat John Casey over the right shoulder in double overtime. For that same reason, it’s no surprise that the players are receiving the bulk of fan sympathy in the most recent NHL labour dispute.

Nowhere is that more evocatively evident than in “Together We Can,” a tribute to the game and a protest of the looming lockout produced by a 21-year-old Finn, Janne Makkonen.

In the words of Cathal Kelly, Makkonen has harnessed the power of the montage coupled with a slowly built elctro-rock crescendo to “cast the players back into their mythic roles.” The surprising thing is that the players ever lost their roles, but they did, in 2004-5, when even most former players frowned upon their actions. This time around, though, it’s the owners who seem more ridiculous, with the players both seeming the more fair business partner, and being the ones we’re used to cheering for.

But let’s look at it another way. The owners seem more ridiculous, but does that make the players not ridiculous? And where do the fans fit in? Read more of this post

This combination of ballet and murder

 Al Purdy’s “Hockey Players” and the perils of making the game religion

Hockey Hall of Fame: Not REALLY a cathedral.
from Wikipedia

(It’s best if you Read to the poem first.)

How many ways are there to watch a hockey game? Judging from Al Purdy’s “Hockey Players,” there are about six[1]. The poem begins with the player’s “worry” over “broken arms and legs and/ fractured skulls opening so doctors/ can see such bloody beautiful things.” By opening with players’ bodily risk and the “beautiful” sacrifice implied therein, Purdy is tapping into a well-known gladiatorial motif, but there’s a coldness to Purdy’s delivery that undermines the usual sentimental heroism trotted out by hockey’s beer-funded television celebrants. In beer commercials and CBC promos, hockey players lose teeth, but Purdy’s more focused on the “bone rooms” where the real damage occurs.

Then the poem shifts (the free-ranging poem moves by way of the long dash, which works something like the film director’s jump cut) to the fan-base, made up of “passionate business men/ and a nation of television agnostics/ who never agree with the referee.” But though they applaud “when he falls flat on his face,” you sense the speaker’s envy of the ref, who is “not out of sight among the blue gods” racing down the ice. Which brings us to Purdy’s next jump, and to the game itself. Here the poem focuses, becomes more concise, as it describes a breakaway:

I’ve seen the aching glory of a resurrection

in their eyes

if they score

but crucifixion’s agony to lose

—the game?

Yes, the game, that is what pulls the poem out of its morbid focus on injury and fan pettiness. When “three men/ break down the ice in roaring feverish speed” the game becomes, at least momentarily, capable of inspiring ecstatic, Walt Whitman-esq imagery. Indeed, if it’s true that Purdy was among the first full generation of great Canadian poets charged with giving the nation its first truly native poetry, then it would make sense for him to sound a bit like Whitman in describing the national game. And so the game becomes an occasion to celebrate a land specifically tailored to cultivate a fast frozen game: Read more of this post

Excellence Matters

Of Nick Lidstrom and Mariano Rivera 

from detroitsportsnation.com

I really like food. I like eating food, I like cooking food, I like the idea, at least, of growing food. And I like these things to be excellent, or as excellent as possible. Some people think of food as a practical thing, and that makes total sense. It’s  calories, right? You need energy, you intake fuel. That makes sense, and even a foodie would admit that sometimes you just need to shove it down and get on with your day. But I don’t want to live with practicality and utility as a rule, at least if it’s possible to avoid that. Van Morrison agrees: “you gotta fight everyday/ to keep mediocrity at bay.” Vann’s point is my point: mediocrity will get you by–sure that BK burger will get you through–but mediocrity, when it’s not absolutely necessary, is corrosive; every bit of it we accept is another moment of potentially inspiring excellence we miss. Every bit of it breeds dullness, dullness breeds complacency and complacency breeds, well, fill in the blank.

That’s why Nick Lidstom matters, and that’s why Mariano Rivera matters. Lidstrom announced his retirement today, and Rivera may or may not be forced into retirement after tearing an ACL earlier this season. Rivera’s five months older than Lidstrom, but Lidstrom entered the NHL 4 years before Rivera broke in with the Yankees. Rivera wasted no time, though, posting a 2.09 ERA in his second season, setting the pace for the next 16 (career ERA: 2.21, that’s sick). Anyone who has ever rooted against the Yankees (this is the main reason people watched playoff baseball all through the aughts, right?) knows the sinking gut feeling of inevitability that develops when Mariano takes the mound with a late lead. Even if he comes in to close in the 7th, the other team is hopeless, knowing exactly the pitch Rivera would kill them with–cut fastball just barely tailing away, every time. Even hating the Yankees, and extending that hatred to a system that allows a team’s riches to determine their chance of winning, you had to be in awe of that guy. He was simply the best.

Lidstrom’s records are widespread. Many begin with “first European to…” but here’s the one that gets me: of the top 20 all-time defensive point leaders, only five began playing after 1986, when the goal-happy era in the NHL was finishing. Only two began their careers in the trap-leaden nineties: Sergei Zubov and Nick Lidstrom. Zubov is 19 on the all-time point list. Lidstrom is six, and everyone ahead of him entered the league between ’79 and ’82, when the league was first instituting its controversial if-a-player-hits-the-net-the-goalie-must-let-it-in and no-defense (AKA, the “Paul Coffey Rule”) policies. Lidstrom won seven Norris Trophies, and it should have been nine. It took him three runners-up finishes before the NHL finally accepted that a Swede was far and away the best D-man in the game. Then he won six of the next seven Norris Trophies. Read more of this post

Jack Adams Arena: A fragile island of hockey diversity

Including an interview with outgoing Detroit Hockey Association President Will McCants

Willie O’Ree, with members of the Detroit Dragons, after they won the Willie O’Ree Cup.

Take Lyndon East from Greenfield in northwest Detroit and you’ll go through a neighborhood of detached bungalows and then random industrial parks and warehouses. It’s a quiet, non-distinct stretch of road in an often eerily quiet city. To your left will emerge, after the cemetery, a long, low, grey building. You might notice it, what with the large parking lot out front, or you might not. But if it’s hockey season, there’s a good chance that inside Jack Adams Arena there’s a game on, there’s players winding down from the last game and there’s players getting ready for the next. Unless it’s Sunday or Monday, when the rink is closed due to budget cuts, or in the early fall and late spring, when the rink is closed due to budget cuts.

Jack Adams Arena

This being Hockeytown and Michigan, nothing surprising about an ice rink. What makes Jack Adams remarkable is that it is one of only a few indoor rinks in Detroit proper, and it’s the only one that draws mainly from the city itself. Detroit is an 85% Black city and Jack Adams and The Detroit Hockey Association (or DHA, which runs the rink’s hockey programming) have been increasingly drawing from Detroit’s Latino community, in large part through cooperation with Southwest Detroit’s Clark Park, which includes an outdoor rink. As a result, DHA ices teams that are, let’s say, less White than you might expect. And you would expect that with good reason, because hockey is still a White-dominated sport.

Not that race really mattered within the confines of Jack Adams. I know from experience, because I, a white male, played something like eight seasons at Jack Adams. Later, I coached part of a season, and before I ever played, I watched my older brother play there. When we were on the ice together, we might have been aware that our racial makeup was somewhat unique, but it never really mattered within the team. When it did matter was when we left the city to play suburban teams, or when those teams came to our lonely stretch of Lyndon to play us. Even then, it didn’t usually matter all that much; we were just like any other team. But there were moments when it mattered intensely. To pick just one example, my final game was an intense playoff elimination game against Dearborn, the suburb founded by Henry Ford in large part so he could escape the city (thus helping set the segregating pace that would define the Detroit area). A fight broke out after the game. Whatever, fights happen after games, and I’m not sure race had anything to do with that. But the fact that the Dearborn police were on hand, just in case the game with all those Detroiters in attendance got out of control, just might have had something to do with race. Two of our players, one in the stands because of a previous suspension and one in uniform, were arrested. Both were Black.

I don’t want to make too big a deal out of that. I mention it only to illustrate the tension our games were capable of causing (to be fair, our team was not always the innocent party, we often gave into the tension ourselves). Despite all that, by icing a diverse team in a non-diverse sport and in a highly segregated metro area, DHA has done a whole lot to bridge the gaps between White and Black. But in doing so it has also revealed the racial gap that exists in both the Detroit metro area and in hockey. That gap is hardly flattering, as was blatantly obvious in the racism recently levelled at the Washington Capital’s Joel Ward.

The twitter-based vitriol aimed at Ward had me thinking about Jack Adams, so I called up an old coach of mine: Will McCants, AKA Coach Will, the outgoing president of DHA and a long time Jack Adams regular and corner stone. DHA works because of people like Coach Will–that includes parents, managers, coaches, etc.–who volunteer their time and effort to make hockey a possibility for kids who otherwise wouldn’t even think of playing hockey, but whose lives are often profoundly altered by the opportunity to do so. Sadly, there cannot be enough Coach Will’s in the world to run a hockey rink if the rink is shut down, which has been a looming possibility at Jack Adams for as long as Detroit has been in its current crisis. Here’s hoping something comes through to ensure the long-term existence of Jack Adams Arena and the Detroit Hockey Association.

My interview with Coach Will follows the jump, but if you want a better idea of what Jack Adams is all about, I suggest you watch the video below. Its story is two decades old, but it gets to the core of this unique hockey organization.  Read more of this post