Hockey simulates the modern world: A speculation

By E. Martin Nolan

Transition is a becoming. In the sphere of logic transition is mute, in the sphere of freedom, it becomes.”

-SØren Kierkegaard on the metaphysical ramifications of hockey (20-21)

Like your life, hockey is a game of uncertain certainties. Puck possession, while attainable and incredibly important, is always in doubt. So if possession is certainty, than it is always coupled with its opposite, because if you have possession you are fairly certain your net is safe, but you are never certain that in five seconds your team will still have it, or that the puck won’t end up in your own net after ten seconds. Likewise, how many jobs have you had in the past five years?

If you’re like me, you said, “a lot, including handing out newspapers outside, in Toronto, in January,” and I’m sorry for that, but it made you stronger. If you’re average, you have a new job something like every five years, with the numbers going up the younger you are, and in certain sectors like high-tech. In any case, we all live in generally the same rapidly changing world. For instance, you are most likely reading this on “electronic paper.”

Which brings me back to uncertain certainties. You will certainly read, because you and your kind have always read. The format, however, has become uncertain, demanding adjustment and flexibility from both reader and writer. As the newspaper industry has discovered, much depends on how well that adjustment is made. Likewise: you’re a winger on a penalty kill and the puck bounces strangely away from the D-man you’re covering. You and everyone else must now adjust to the randomness of this bounce, because now you have the puck and your teammate is flying ahead of the play, waiting for you to make a difficult airborne pass. Much will depend on how you adjust. As I argued in the companion piece to this, a hockey game is made mostly of those moments that demand adjustment, or that contain the potential to become one of those moments, meaning that to understand the game you must understand the adjustments the game demands.

If you are watching this play at home, you too will experience this sudden shift from defense to offense. After the jump, I will argue that you watch largely because you intimately recognize this need to successfully adjust to surrounding circumstances, and that this recognition occurs on multiple levels, which include: in your brain’s neurons, in your relation to work, and in your most abstract sense of being in the world.

You do what you watch, especially if you’ve done it

In a fascinating article published in Grantland, Le Anne Schreiber reviews recent evidence suggesting that “the spectating brain is also the playing brain,” meaning that “about one-fifth of the neurons that fire in the premotor cortex when we perform an action (say, kicking a ball) also fire at the sight of somebody else performing that action.” She goes on to explain that the specific neurons firing in our brain when we “respond to others’ actions as if they are our own are called ‘mirror neurons,’ and they seem to encode a complete archive of all the muscle movements we learn to execute over the course of our lives.” You can think of it this way: monkey see, monkey kind-of do (appropriately, the initial breakthrough in all this came from a study of monkeys).

Schreiber also suggests that the more familiar we are with a sport, the more exact the response of our mirror neurons to witnessing that sport. The most convincing evidence cited by Schreiber comes from a study focused on free-throw shooting. The basketball players in the study activated their pinky-moving neurons while watching the tape of a free-throw, while the non-basketball people in the room had more “generalized” activity in response. Here’s where things get speculative[i], and more interesting for me: if it matters how much you know about the sport you’re watching, might the nature of the sport you’re watching also matter?

Hockey as analogy

I love baseball, but it’s a much different experience than hockey. It starts and stops all the time, and the rules of the game dictate that the play resets for every pitch. This evokes a sense of certainty in the viewer, which is calming because we always know there will be a down time coming soon. In hockey, the flow is far more fluid: the game is fast, possession rapidly changes hands between teammates or between teams, and the puck is an incredibly uncertain central focus. And so, we are always on edge when we watch hockey; when we watch baseball, we are often cracking peanuts.

That is not to say hockey is better than baseball. In fact, you could easily argue that baseball is preferable because of the simulated certainty it provides. Baseball, in this view, would be like that rock Odysseus lands on after he’s blown off his ship near the beginning of The Odyssey: a god-given port in the middle of a storm. But to argue that would be to argue that baseball does not reflect the world and, by implication, that a sport like hockey might be preferable because it does reflect the world.

Following the literary theorist Angus Fletcher, I would argue that in order to understand the world we now live in, we cannot refer to a simple, axiomatic worldview, but must instead rely on a more fluid, less certain, transitional model. The world is less like a predictable, logical deduction than it is like a vaguely predictable flow that is always capable of contradicting our expectations with regular doses of randomness. In Fletcher’s theory, what we should be seeking is not a predictable consistency but a coherence we cannot quite predict but that is also not quite chaos. He uses the term “edge of chaos.” Sound like a good back-and-forth hockey game?

Of course, hockey is hardly just a set of random occurrences, and uncertainty is a part of all popular sports. But uncertainty and randomness is especially embedded in hockey. And if the modern world is marked by its rapid developments—the rapid development of communications technology helps lead to the rapid increase of challenges to totalitarian regimes, for instance—then it would follow that hockey is the game that mirrors that pace of change. That mirror, in turn, is profoundly affected by our mirror neurons duplicating the actions captured by our eyes. Pushing this logic further, we could suspect that if the actions captured by our eyes—in this case the actions of a hockey game—mirror our experience of the world, then our mirror-neuron-based relation to that game would contribute to our understanding of the world. This would make us some kind of conduit linking the uncertain certainties we experience in game to those we experience in the world. So it’s: monkey see, monkey kind-of do, monkey make a useful and evocative analogy (useful because it’s accurate, and evocative because it’s based on what monkey see and kind-of do, which monkey feel directly).

What’s old is new, but now it’s especially important

Definitely would’ve dug hockey

Which brings us to the Kierkegaard quote at the top. It is from a letter the philosopher wrote defending his book Repetition. When Kierkegaard writes “transition is a becoming” he is referring specifically to a context that assumes “freedom,” as opposed to a more constant state that might be described by the fixed laws of logic,  which rely on the “mediation” of logical rules. In a context of “freedom,” to Kierkegaard, mediation is useless because it relies on a level of fixity impossible in such a context. Thus, if we accept that we are free, then we must also accept that transition and becoming are the foundational state of existence, not fixity.

I would argue the same, in a loose way, would apply to hockey: hockey is embedded in freedom, in that the state of play is rarely fixed; even in the most-fixed hockey state, the power play, the future is incredibly unfixed (just ask the St. Louis Blues, who lost game two of their quarterfinal series partly due to a shorthanded goal produced by an unpredictable deflection). Baseball, on the other hand, is like football: highly mediated by fixed rules that restrict movement and play. Comparatively, hockey is a game based in the uncertainty caused by freedom.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman applies a related idea to the modern world in Liquid Modernity. There, he contrasts the old “solid” industrial world with the melted-down modern one in which people, like nomads, “need to grow used to the state of continuous disorientation, to the travelling along roads of unknown direction and duration.” The individual from a “solid” society who is suddenly thrown into a liquid one (a low-tech factory worker, perhaps) must become the nomad in that analogy, and might very well be expected to react like a football or baseball fan suddenly introduced to hockey: “it’s so fast, I can’t follow the puck, I’m disoriented.” Bauman suggests that, in this “liquid” world, speed “climbs to the top of the list of survival values (209).” He quotes another prophet of transition, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “when skating over thin ice … our safety is in our speed.”

BUT, whether were talking about the information economy or hockey, speed is not enough. As Bauman claims, speed “is not conductive to thinking.” So the challenge is to think fast, but to somehow also think well. That brings to mind a certain breakout I recently watched. It was late the “Miracle on Ice” game, with the Soviets trailing the U.S. As the Soviets gathered for a rush, I was struck by how modern their breakout was. It looked like so many breakouts I had seen the Detroit Red Wings pull off: drop passes, angle passes, skip passes, crisscrosses, you name it, all in the name of getting across the other team’s blue line with possession. The Soviets are largely credited with making the game as fast and complex as it is today, and the skill set they showed off in that breakout was like a prediction of the game to come. They did not ultimately succeed in the game, but in that one high-pressure situation, they quickly pulled off an intricate task with grace and calm. I bet you’ve written something like that on a job application before.

[i] This is a fairly new idea, so there’s a lot of question it raises. Much of Schreiber’s article is taken up by her speculating to the eminent scientists in the field, and them going “that sounds really cool, and is probably right, I want to study that.”

Print Works Cited

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Modernity.  Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000.

Fletcher, Angus. A New Theory for American Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Lawrie, W. Introduction. Repetition by Kierkegaard, S.  Edited and translated by Walter Lawrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton

University Press, 1941.

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