Ice hockey as an intellectual wasteland

How come ice hockey seems so reluctant to lend itself to esthetic appreciation, let alone philosophical reflection?

Ice hockey is, after all, a reasonably popular sport, as the 2013 World Championships co-hosted earlier this month by Sweden and Finland testified. Sixteen countries participated in the tournament, among them sportive superpowers such as Germany, Russia and the USA (although the brave little Switzerland pulled off the biggest surprise by reaching the final).

As far as I know, however, no humanistic deliberation on the ‘meaning’ of the sport can be encountered in any language. By contrast, a vast number of observers have looked, are looking and will keep looking at the esthetics and the philosophical underpinnings of football and running, to name but a few sports. True, at least half of the literature consists of texts that can best be described as trite eulogies of ‘the beautiful game’ and ‘the loneliness of the long-distance runner’, but the fact remains that even such tributes have bypassed the ice hockey arenas.

Simply enough, literary fans and academic lovers of the sport have yet to announce their existence. (I’m discounting here the two or three initial attempts at sophisticated analyses of ice hockey that have recently surfaced in Finland.)

Could it be that ice hockey is shunned by highbrow commentators because of the ritual and occasionally unwarranted outbursts of violence? Perhaps the rather pathetic-looking wrestling matches on ice detract from their ability to appreciate the (purportedly) finer points of the game.

Boxing, of course, is synonymous with violence and therefore much easier to conceive as a sublime struggle for survival than ice hockey. The same observation applies to running as well as cycling, only that self-imposed suffering replaces sheer violence as the key concept when discussing the ‘essence’ of these two sports.

As regards football, i.e. the game also known as soccer, slowness surely is a factor not to be ignored. More specifically, a relative slowness of the game – just compare football to basketball or handball in terms of tempo! Is there any other sport in which a goalless and, on the face of it, eventless draw can be construed as a virtuous result by self-appointed connoisseurs of the game?

According to this line of thought, ice hockey is played at such a furious pace that meditative approaches tend to be ruled out. And since primeval-looking violence is not as pronounced as in boxing and pseudo-existential agony rarely plays a decisive role, little room is left for any kind of humanistic interpretation. What we see is what we get: rowdy entertainment for cheering and beer-drinking masses.

Is ice hockey, then, doomed to be the non-intelligent person’s game? Hopefully not. Let’s remain confident that an enterprising scholar, inspired by Heidegger, Barthes et al., will soon step forward with an epoch-making hockey treatise. In view of the current shortage of meaningful contributions, the reception should of course be rather lenient – as long as the author resists the temptation to paraphrase the much-abused bon mot by Camus, the darling of every philosophizing friend of football: ‘What I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to ice hockey.’

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