The Pittsburgh Penguins play the Montreal Canadiens during a game in Toronto in August (Photo: Getty Images)

Puck this year: How 2020 turned a sports hater into an ice hockey superfan

Some people made sourdough. Some took up sewing. But Sacha Judd and her friends got through this pandemic-dominated year by developing a curious obsession with a curious sport.

No one needs another thinkpiece about the effect of 2020 on our exhausted brains. You’ve already read a hundred hot takes bemoaning the fact that we can’t concentrate on reading books, or on prestige television drama, or that we’ve made all the sourdough the planet can possibly sustain. But last month I heard a clinical psychologist on a podcast put it in a way I hadn’t thought about before. Our brains are craving novelty. Dr Ali Mattu said, “our days look so similar. We haven’t had a lot of new experiences.” Time has no meaning. Zoom hangouts are the worst. Find something new to do with your friends, he said. 

I realised how right he was because I’ve spent the last couple of months doing something extremely new with my friends and it’s been excellent. I’ve become an ice hockey fan.

Going into the pandemic, I knew maybe two things about ice hockey. That the players were allowed to fight each other, and that many of them lacked teeth. I wasn’t sure if those two things were related.

Then a few things happened in quick succession. I came across a tumblr post describing the truly delightful fact that during a hockey fight, the uninvolved players hug their opponents to keep them out of the fray.

The Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders hug a little bit during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs in September in Alberta, Canada (Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

“They do it because it’s fair. And it’s kind of cute sometimes.” 

Then the NHL announced they would be going ahead with the 2020 playoffs by creating two bubble cities in Canada. And they would be housing all these teams of professional athletes that fight and hug each other for a living in a single hotel in Toronto called (and this is not a joke) Hotel X.

 

I have a group chat of friends I’d usually be attending Harry Styles concerts with about now. It’s an amazing group of women: software engineers and lawyers and surgeons. In a normal year, if we weren’t together at a gig we’d be gathering online to marvel at Harry’s latest outfits, peering at grainy periscopes streamed from the GA pit. Covid put paid to all that, but why not something else we could do together that would be new every day? I’ve never been a sports fan in my life. I usually can’t discern one kind of sportsball from another. But why not watch the Stanley Cup? It wasn’t like 2020 could get any weirder. One subscription to the NHL TV app and it was all downhill from there.

When we watched our first game, it was pretty confusing.

Now, in addition to understanding “icing” and “backchecking”, I can tell you many other things about hockey. For example, this is Tyler Seguin on a zamboni. He plays for the Dallas Stars, who made the Stanley Cup finals and went all the way to game six before bowing out to the winners, the Tampa Bay Lightning. He is obviously very talented.

Image from ESPN Magazine’s 2015 body issue

I’ve learned that hockey players’ uniforms are straight up the weirdest collection of garments you’ve ever seen. Some of them wear garter belts. To keep up their “hockey socks” – which are not socks, but some sort of leg warmer that goes over their knee pads but not their feet. Under shorts. For a game played on ice. None of this makes sense.

The thing that makes the least sense are goalies. James Neal, winger for the Edmonton Oilers: “So I’m the guy who’s supposed to put the little rubber puck into the back of the net. Pretty simple. The only thing is, there’s a 6’5” monster wearing pillows standing in my way — and for some reason the dude can do full splits on skates. It’s insane.” And you know, he’s not wrong.

Photo: Getty Images

As far as I can tell, hockey players are the most superstitious, ritual-bound creatures I’ve ever come across. Three-time Stanley Cup winner Sidney Crosby, captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, can’t walk past the visitors’ locker room, has to eat a peanut butter sandwich at the same time each game day, and (most revoltingly) still wears the same jockstrap he’s played in since high school.

My favourite team, the Penguins, agonisingly went out in the first round (on Sidney Crosby’s birthday – the outrage). But what are playoffs for if not constantly shifting allegiances? By mid-August I’d developed a great fondness for the extremely chaotic Dallas Stars. Underdogs who lost their coach midway through the season, they play the sort of hockey where they’re down 3-1 to the Calgary Flames and then just score six more goals to romp home to victory.

The Stars brought nothing but drama. Key player after key player was benched with injuries. Back-up goalie Antonin Khudobin (the team calls him Dobby – his mask has the house elf painted on it) rolled into the net and played the best hockey of his life. They fought the Colorado Avalanche all the way to game seven before Joel Kiviranta won it for them with a hat trick in overtime. Facing the Bolts in the finals, the Stars were a battered and broken team, and they still pushed it all the way to game six before it was over. I hate sports. I love the Stars.

My brain is now full of hockey facts. I can bore you to death with talk of penalty kills and power play units. We’ve planned our fantasy draft for next year’s expansion team, the Seattle Kraken. I own a Geno Malkin t-shirt. I have a hockey blog. Is it weird? Sure. Any weirder than any other fandom hole I’ve ever fallen down? Absolutely not. Weirder than the fact that if both goalies on a team get injured they have to call on the “emergency backup goalie” and it might be the zamboni driver? I mean, come on. What’s not to love?

Hockey is unbelievable fast-paced – so fast in fact that a shift is only about 45 seconds long before the players change. It’s skilful and, yes, incredibly violent. And at the end of a game the whole team lines up to hug their goalie and pat him tenderly on the head. It’s pretty compelling. 

But mostly I just can’t overstate the joy of getting together with friends all over the world, people I feel so physically separated from at the moment, to enthuse over something entirely new. It might be a while before I’ll be able to be in North America again, but you can guarantee that as soon as I am, you’ll find us all together at a rink. 

The season’s over now, so you’ll have to wait for a while to enjoy some live ice hockey yourself. But if time’s become a flat circle, find yourself some novelty. Pick the thing you know the least about; the thing you’re least likely to be into. In a year in which everything is endlessly the same, you just might find it makes all the difference.




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