It’s penalty shot season

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 13.12.2019

Well, like it did last year, winter has come. Chilling temperatures have awoken the bones, mulled wine has been sipped, and clumps of last year’s receipts and tissues have been excavated from coat pockets. But most excitingly of all, athletes of a certain sport have put on skates and helmets, taken to the ice in pursuit of a puck, and begun beating the crap out of each other.

It’s ice hockey season.

Although the Luxembourg Tornado are a fun hockey team to watch, Luxembourg is not a hockey country. It seems, as far as I can tell, to be a football country. That’s a shame, because hockey is demonstrably, unequivocally, devastatingly more interesting than football, and yes—I am trying to start a fight by saying so. Hockey is all about fighting.

Football can be enjoyable, of course. It is sort of like a slow, dumb version of hockey. The ball is enormous, for a start, and it doesn’t move so fast. The players jog around a gigantic field, sprinting occasionally when the ball is nearby. Perfect for children. When an eight-year-old goalie fails to save a penalty shot, there is no need to feel bad. She can watch a professional do the same thing, diving the wrong way like an idiot. The fans, afterwards, will shake their heads and explain the strategy to each other yet again: “The ball is already so close to the net,” they say, wisely, “that the human brain cannot react in time. You just have to guess which way it will go.”

Meanwhile, the human brain inside a hockey goaltender, during the equivalent situation, must be active. In a penalty shot, the shooter starts at center ice, and may handle the puck, skate fast, skate slow, spin around, stop short, fake high, fake low, and so on. The goalie, like a dancing bear, anticipates the shot. It’s a pretty fair fight and both players have lots of agency. An eight-year-old goalie, sad to say, should probably blame herself for letting in a goal.

“But it’s dangerous!” people say. Not overly. True, when the Canadians discovered how to shoot a puck at a deadly 160 kilometers per hour, they didn’t do the responsible thing and quit. They had a much better idea: they put a helmet and a suit of pillows on one player, so they could fire slapshots at him without a care in the world. It’s a game of high-speed devilry, crazy bounces, and total fluidity. It’s not a game of luck, and yet luck is what the most skilled players appear to summon, as if by magic.

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of additional arguments why hockey is perfect. Nothing matches the soothing purity of the Zamboni machine when it resurfaces the ice between periods. Penalized players get locked up for two minutes in the “sin bin” as penance. Aggression and frustration are fully dramatized as jabs, hits, and full-on punches, but there is so much padding that it isn’t really serious—although teeth are, periodically, birthed out into the world. A world of ice and roaring crowds.

But despite all these reasons, the sport of Luxembourg is not hockey. Its national team did play well (though sadly fell short) in the Olympic qualifying tournament last month at the Kockelscheuer, and to sellout crowds of over 700 fans, but most people remain, I believe, unaware of the sport. Oh well. You don’t go to Italy to drink tea. In the same way, Americans cannot unsee soccer (let’s be honest about the name) as a game for children.

Sports are powerful, ambiguous forces in a society. They can shape cultural, sociopolitical, and individual identities. They can be proxies for hometown pride or petty arguments. They can be politicized by sexists, racists, or nationalists. They can be the only good thing that happens in a tough week. If nothing else, the Detroit Lions, one of the worst American football teams in history, can momentarily stop all thirty-five members of a suburban family, even that bible-thumper Uncle Jason, who took the last piece of pumpkin pie without asking this year, from arguing about politics at Thanksgiving. By uniting them in disappointment.

However, the power of sports is also uncanny. They are innately frivolous, and you can forsake them entirely without risking judgment. This pointlessness is exactly what gives them power, because it makes following sports, like ignoring them, a decision. In contrast, consider the Dräikinnéksdagkuch: every January, it emerges, no matter your opinion on it. The inevitability of the act diminishes, in a way, the agency of your love for it. But a stupid sports team? If you love it, you have only yourself to blame. So you do so willingly, and that willingness is the death of arbitrariness and absurdity as forces that would stop you. Ten players flying up and down the ice on metal knives, flinging a rubber puck at a guy to whom they’ve strapped a coat of blankets? Sure. I like it. Let me just grab a beer. Twenty-two morons out for a jog, smacking a ball with their heads towards a net the size of Denmark? Whatever. I’ll just paint my face first.

Jeffrey Palms
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