An Ode to Hockey Commentators
by Stephanie Earp, posted May 11th 2010 4:54PM
I didn't grow up watching hockey. I know, that makes me questionably Canadian, but I'm trying to make up for it. Last year, I joined an office hockey pool for the first time, and this year I came within four points of winning the regular season thanks to my judicious picks - both Sedins, Alexander Semin and Roberto Luongo.
I can now say that I love watching hockey. I think I've missed only one game since the playoffs started, though I'll grant you that I do a lot of knitting and laundry-folding during the east coast games (for some reason it's the teams in the west that I really dig). I now have an appreciation for the skill and heart it takes to play the game, but my true admiration is reserved for the announcers and commentators.
Most of the time, I don't know who I'm listening to, but without them I'd be hopelessly lost. I'm not sure I could follow a game if I went in person - I need the the voices of CBC's 'Hockey Night in Canada' to make sense of what I'm seeing. They are the storytellers, turning a lightning-speed battle for a tiny chunk of black plastic into a soap opera. And the mind-blowing thing is they're improvising.
Even with all the stats and past history, no one really knows who's going to win a game or a series. Just look at Montreal's upset over Washington in the first round of the playoffs for proof. And these invisible guys sit in a booth somewhere above the fray and make up a story as the game goes along. Sometimes I forget they don't have a script. In the first period, they'll be crowing about the resounding defeat the visiting team is in for, but a goal or two later, the story has changed. In the second period, they're suddenly reminiscing about the time this visiting team rounded on their opponents and spanked them, and how they are surely going to repeat tonight. "That's not what you were saying 10 minutes ago!" I yell at the screen, much to the consternation of my beloved, who has had years of practice ignoring these fellows.
But I don't want to ignore them. My guy thinks intermission is the time for chatter, but I shush him so I can hear how the panel is going to play it. This is the time that my favourite players emerge, not during the game. Ron MacLean, Kelly Hrudey, P.J. Stock and the rest of them will talk about someone playing injured, or someone back in the game after a few weeks off for bereavement, or the way the Sedin twins always know where the other is on the ice, and I fall in love.
They are the narrators, they make sense of the chaos of hockey, and they do a great job of it. I often think that if CBC is really looking for new writing talent to create shows, they should ask these guys to come up with something. Anyone who can make the Detroit Red Wings seem interesting can surely handle a 22-minute sitcom.
There is something Homeric about hockey commentary. Like in the Iliad, there are naming conventions that help us to remember all the players. Some guys are always given both first and last names (Pavol Demitra, Brooks Laich) some go only by their first (Henrik, Daniel, Sid) and some get descriptions (Big Joe Thornton, Little Joe Pavelski). There are long-running stories about the personality of the players, some of which have the true ring of Greek tragedy.
Take Montreal goalie Carey Price, for example. I'm not sure I've ever seen the kid play, but I know that he was a prodigy put in a pressure-filled situation, where he showed flashes of brilliance, but not enough to satisfy the demanding fans of an ancient and storied franchise. Slowly his talent died away, leaving him nothing but a shell traded to a faraway land - namely the Western Conference, where perhaps one day he will recover enough to play starting goaltender for an expansion team. He's practically Orpheus, poor guy. Who can say if this is an accurate description of the story Carey Price tells himself about his life, but it's the story hockey fans know.
Thinking about commentators as storytellers instead of all-knowing sports experts probably explains why I like them so much more than most of the hockey fans I know. If you are looking to Don Cherry -- who can barely finish a sentence most of the time -- for clear-eyed analysis of the game, I can see why he might infuriate you. But think of him as an entertainer, and his appeal can't be denied. He's definitely the Homer of this metaphor, with his love of fighters and goons, while I prefer Ron MacLean's dulcet tones. He's more of a Virgil figure - he keeps his language simple and has a bit of sympathy for everyone. The rest of the 'HNIC' team falls into various roles - soothsayers predicting doom for everyone (Kelly Hrudey), the reasonable older king (Scott Oakes) or the court jester, making everything into a joke (P.J. Stock).
Needless to say, I share these thoughts with you, readers of a television column, but I don't mention them to the guys in my hockey pool. They already think I'm weird for liking more than one team at a time. I never did know who to root for -- the Greeks or the Trojans. That's the power of a good war story: it doesn't matter who wins, the story is the point. (But just try telling that to a Habs fan after a defeat...)
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