It's that time of year again. The time when summer finally lets slip its months-long chokehold on our sweat glands, when autumn settles in for a few weeks of civilized discourse before cranky Mr. McWinterpants arrives and busts us right in the chops. It's a time when birds flap en masse towards warmer climes to avoid falling out of the sky like so many flash-frozen, feathered projectiles, when the essence of woodsmoke wafts on biting winds and when a young Canadian's fancy turns to gloves, sticks, and pucks.
I know a lot of people who can't stand sports games, and with the lone exception of my yearly foray onto the digital ice, I count myself among them. In fact, I can't stand most sports, but for nearly as long as I can remember, hockey has been the shining exception. Ever since I first displayed a fourth-generation genetic disposition towards the New York Rangers in 1981, and discovering Activision's two-on-two Ice Hockey (with the puck constantly moving back and forth on the stick) on the Atari 2600 the following spring, hockey has been part of the foundation not only of my entertainment, but of my entire life.
I don't know about you, but I spent the ages between birth and 25 in a constant state of anxiety about everything from the color of my hair to the length of my pants to the way I walked. As a kid, if there was something to feel insecure about, not only did I find it, I clubbed the bastard over the head, tossed it into a cage, carted it back to civilization and charged admission for people to gawk at it while "oohing" and "ahhing" in curious, indignant revulsion. I was, in effect, the Carl Denham of my own self-doubt.
Learning to play hockey at 13 didn't exactly change all of that; I was still ungainly and insecure, but stopping pucks - or in my case, mostly blue Mylec cold-weather balls (yes, yes, I know) - was the first thing I was ever truly good at. At an age when identity crisis was a constant, clown-under-the-bed companion, I was fortunate to find something that helped bolster my sagging self-esteem well enough to make the rest of life's carnival o' horrors much more bearable.
It wasn't winning, specifically, that hooked me on the game, but rather the isolated achievement of individual actions; a sweeping glove save, a darting skate placed in the way of a well-aimed wrister, the sting and sense of fleeting invulnerability from a shot to the mask, all merged to define an experience that was simultaneously more - and less - than the sum of its results. It's not quite the same as claiming that it's not whether you win or lose, but I much preferred playing well in a loss over sucking in a win. I suppose this is why the Wheaties endorsement deal fell through and why I haven't seen a pair of sneakers with my name on them since I was in kindergarten. (Okay, since college.) The point remains: Performing any task with pride and skill, regardless of the outcome, is a worthwhile end in itself.