My passion for hockey begins at the stadium entrance and dissipates at the exit. Other than tennis and soccer, most other sporting events are simply that – an event, a primeval gathering of people watching the few chosen to perform and put on a good show with tact and sweat and skills beyond the average denizen. The universality of sports is an infectious and powerful thing: it is the tangible manifestation of good and evil, a time when you have no choice but to be dangerously on edge, your mood subject to more fluctuations in half an hour than a manic depressive person off their meds. When your team approaches the goal, you feel something bubble up inside and you’re dizzy with excitement, or you suddenly feel depressed and loathing for a certain people who did nothing to you personally. It’s all a welcome part of the game, especially when I leave the stadium once again a rational individual thinking, “what the hell just happened to me?”
I was recently invited to a Washington Capitals game by a friend who was with me in Russia. I hadn’t been to an American hockey game before, and I was excited to play ethnographer and compare the experience to the Russian hockey in Petersburg I enjoyed a few months ago. The differences are vast, interesting, and telling of the respective societies they represent.
In Russia, everyone around you is focused on the game. They cheer vigorously and unanimously, as everyone’s hatred of Moscow or Kazan is an undeniable collective. It makes sense. Why go if you’re going to be filing your nails or discussing your next availability for brunch? Individual spectators regularly shout things at specific players and plays, and normally their neighbors happily join in. A phrase hollered by one individual will soon be the cheer of the stadium in its entirety. Russians are focused on the sole phenomenon before them, and come to think of it, any other variant at a sporting event is just irritating. It just so happened that my seat at this Caps game was beside a woman who wouldn’t know a moment of silence if it bit her in the ass. I think her name was Diane. Her significant other, beer in hand, sat mesmerized by the action, and he had trained himself to nod in agreement with her incessant talking and release several deep mmmmms to let her know that her latest work drama is indeed very important and there is no better time to discuss it than right here right now. Why, pray tell, were you there Diane? It’d be much cheaper for you and much better for me if you’d resumed your thoughts on why that bitch Kelly totally bought the same perfume as you elsewhere.
In Russia, the actual hockey game lasts no more than an hour. It makes sense. With three fifteen-minute periods and a break for the players, the whole endeavor is amazingly efficient, ironic considering seldom can one label any aspect of Russia “efficient”. There’s no nonsense with Russian hockey, you get in, you get out, often with time to spare at the pub. American hockey is a capitalist’s delight and a haven for consumerism. The breaks between periods were longer than the actual periods, during which announcers would have the crowd do everything short of rolling in shit to be aimed at by a t-shirt cannon. Every five minutes the screen would solicit the audience to text a number to win a soda or t-shirts. The same screen would feature commercials so long they were headache-inducing, and it would call out certain sections to have “wave-offs”, meaning the people in that section were to wave their arms as intensely and crazily as they could muster in exchange of the possibility of winning more t-shirts. It’s all about winning, branding, and free t-shirts here in America. All these commercialized shenanigans amounted to more time than there was actual hockey being played, which was kind of like receiving a giant cardboard box filled with foam peanuts, only to find out, after three hours of digging, you’ve received one, albeit juicy, grape.
In Russia, the players were aggressive, naturally. But if some tiff on the ice were to emerge, generally they moved past it quickly and quietly (goes back to efficiency and, you know, generally being an adult). During one point in the first period at this Caps game, I looked towards the ice after wondering whether Diane went with the pink shower curtain or white shower curtain (It was pink! For shame!), and I became quite confused. Two opposing players stood facing each other in confrontational stances, like in Mortal Kombat, with their respective comrades watching from a safe distance. They began shedding their hefty equipment piece by piece. First went the stick and then the gloves, sliding across the ice with knowledge of the imminent doom that awaited their sorry owners. I thought, “hm, that’s strange. I’ve never seen it played like this.” And then they started going at it, clenching each other’s jerseys with their left fists and punching with their right. Some heavy rock music started playing to aggravate the thick emotions in the stadium and finally Diane shut her dumb mouth to observe this strange ritual. And what a ritual it was! What primitive people! Was it all for show? Wasn’t that a misdemeanor? Are athletes even subject to laws? (ha!) Did they feel embarrassed that they chose to reduce themselves to animals with a mere transitory impulse to beat the brains out of the other under the watchful eye of thousands of people? Did they feel ashamed for being banished to the penalty box, like children in time-out, while their teammates were forced to go on with one less man on each side? Are their egos really that big and easily bruised that they needed to have this pathetic little tantrum before everyone? Why not save it for the locker room where things could get more interesting? Who were they trying (and failing) to impress? All these questions flashed through my head as I fixated on this bout of strength and mental dullness. Maybe I just don’t understand hockey, but I felt embarrassed for them and I felt embarrassed to be enjoying the show (in a where-the-hell-am-I kind of way). In Russia, men fight honorably: when they’re drunk. And while they are just as aggressive and overflowing with testosterone – to a fault – I can see past it because their hockey isn’t impaired with commercials and Diane.