By E. Martin Nolan
(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. 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
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:
We stand up in our seats with such a rapid pouring
of delight exploding out of self to join them why
theirs and our orgasm is the rocket stipend
for skating thru the smoky end boards out
of sight and climbing up the Appalachian highlands
and racing breast to breast across Laurentian barrens
over the Hudson’s diamond bay and down the treeless
Here we have an intense inward-outward movement happening. The breakaway grabs the attention of the “bored and sleepy” fans, then the “orgasm” of intensity on the ice leads the speaker’s mind to wander into contemplating his nation’s geographical wonders, before he catches himself: “it’s men/—just men?” Yes, Purdy reminds us, “our opponent’s never geography,” meaning: let’s not get carried away.
Yet, Purdy can’t escape the national pride tied up in the game. “How do the players feel about it,” he asks, “this combination of ballet and murder?” Again, here is the combination of beauty and horror with which the poems opens. Then Purdy answers his question with a skeptical nod toward nationalism:
For years a Canadian specific
to salve the anguish of inferiority
by being good at something the Americans aren’t—
Not exactly hitting Whitman’s “this nation shall be the new Garden of Eden” tone there, but that instinct not to boast, but to instead “stop and look at self and one another,” might just mark this poem with a uniquely Canadian kind of nationalism, one covered in a solid layer of doubt and shame, both of which are occasioned by an unexpected, or uncommon, sense of national pride.
I’d argue that’s a good thing, because it leads to the kind of healthy skepticism to which the poem then moves:
what’s the essence of a game like this
which takes a ten year fragment of a man’s life
replaced with love that lodges in his brain
and takes the place of reason?
Americans are just now beginning to ask a similar question about football in light of the recent discoveries concerning head injuries and the resulting lawsuits from retired players. That is not to say that in 1965 (when the poem was published) Purdy was with the majority in his doubting stance towards the game’s heroes, but his willingness to be lost in the excitement—to lose his reason—but then to doubt that loss expresses a common fan experience. The great thing about these games we so love is that they are all-encompassing, existing in a universe of their own, inviting us to forget our bills, our debts, our jobs—but they end just as utterly, and then what?
Purdy’s answer brings the poem back to Earth, lamenting the player as a hero “knowing/ everything ends in a pot-belly.” The player’s pot-belly comes with age, but you might say the fan is left with their own emotional pot-belly when the game ends and they realize it’s back to everydayness, back to the land of a million low-stakes. Purdy’s not done with the game though, not quite yet. He asks, “out there on the ice can all these things be forgotten/ in swift and skilled delight of speed?” He then attempts to regain the feeling brought on by the breakaway earlier in the poem, but he can only do so for another few lines before the feeling fades into an exhausted ellipses:
Or racing breast to breast and never stopping
over rooftops of the world and all together
sing the song of winning all together
sing the song of money all together…
The poem then ends by describing a suburban boy “whose reflexes were all wrong” and for whom hockey glory would forever be a distant disappointment. The poem ends much as it began, on one of the sad notes casually covered over by the commercials and promos.
In his essay, “A puckish reflection on religion in Canada,” Tom Faulkner uses Thomas Luckmann’s notion of “invisible religion” to seriously consider hockey as a kind of secular Canadian religion. Faulkner cites Purdy’s lines about “resurrection” and “crucifixion,” cited above, as evidence in this regard. But while Faulkner concludes that “one is justified in speaking of hockey as a religion,” he’s not in favour of that belief. “It functions as a religion for many,” he writes, “and does so at the expense of its own playfulness.” Faulkner believes an essential non-seriousness is lost when the game is treated with too much reverence and didacticism. Purdy comes to a similar conclusion, but does so by a more personal avenue. For Purdy, it is not just that the game, at its best, fails to relieve our essential anxiety and alienation—because it ends and delivers us back to the world of the everyday—but it is also that the game can offer that momentary rush then rudely take it back before it even begins. It’s fine, as both authors suggest, to lose yourself in the game, but not to take it so seriously that one cannot detach.
Perhaps it is the expectation that hockey will fulfill some spiritual need that leaves Purdy’s “six year old kid … who always fell down and hurt himself and cried” in such distress. He certainly wouldn’t be the first to pay for taking a game too seriously. Those like him would probably do better to seek refuge from their alienation elsewhere, and to keep the game as the endlessly engaging but temporary amusement it is in its true nature. So, one game left in the Cup Finals. Enjoy it, but ready yourself for its end.
 For the record, those ways focus on, respectively: injuries, fans, play, Canada, contemplation and, finally, rejection.
2 thoughts on “This combination of ballet and murder: Al Purdy’s “Hockey Players” and the perils of making the game religion”
Thanks for this post Ted, I enjoyed this perspective on hockey!
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