Why High School Hockey?

19 Nov

Some people who read this blog know me first and foremost as a commentator on high school hockey. Others, who come for the other stuff, tend to skip over it, with reactions ranging from bemusement to downright incomprehension. I don’t blame them; I know this place is eclectic, and a high school sport may seem a strange obsession for someone whose other interests include local politics and intellectual musing. So why do you do it, Karl?

The easiest explanation is that it’s just an accident of history: I grew up on the east side of Duluth during a time when that part of the city put out plenty of hockey talent. I went to a high school blessed with a strong hockey legacy, and even the kids who didn’t much care for the sport would come to a few games and join the party in the stands. The juicy storylines surrounding our coach—Mike Randolph was headline news my eighth grade year when he temporarily lost his job—added to the intrigue when I went to Duluth East. Those stories only got crazier my freshman year, as a tumultuous season on and off the ice resulted in a surprise playoff run. The Hounds missed the Tourney my last three years in high school, but those section losses, each more excruciating than the last, left a feeling of unfinished business. Those years also aligned with the peak of the East’s rivalry with Cloquet, a legitimate war that was on par with any high school sports clash in the country. The program seemed bigger than life, and came to define the East experience.

East has made the State Tournament every year since my graduation, which has made it easy to stay in touch. Even when I lived on the East Coast, I’d fly back for the Tourney, and it was always an impromptu reunion, a way to keep those old ties going as I crashed on friends’ couches, bumped into them in the upper deck, or joined them for drinks after the games. That tradition now has a life of its own, and I expect it to endure no matter the Hounds’ fortunes in the coming years. It’s a ritual that keeps me true to my roots.

And so I’ve been sucked in. I’m not the sort who can half-ass anything, and so I couldn’t just be a casual fan; I had to learn everything I could about every team, and before long I was posting about it on an internet forum, and one thing led to another. I now moonlight as a high school hockey talking head, putting in many hours, compensated only with the occasional beer and some nasty anonymous comments. Those internet ties kept me in touch when I moved away, and are even more important as my own time at East fades into the rear view mirror. There are moments where the madness of it all wears me down, but they never last long, and I’ve built some real connections with people through my work, too.

Still, hockey goes deeper than a mere childhood backstory. It has quirks that are downright fun, from hockey hair to public-private rivalries to opportunities to remind Edina that they’re still cakeaters. Hockey is also a marker of regional identity, and an eternal point of pride for those of us who hail from the North. American hockey was born here, and while the tropes of hard-working northern boys can wear thin, there’s still enough truth to it that we take this mantel seriously, and there’s always that air of allure when an entire town heads south and shocks St. Paul in March.

On another level, the allure is aesthetic. Hockey is a beautiful sport. This will baffle anyone who immediately associates it with fights and lost teeth, but where else can one find such consistently smooth play? It has much longer stretches of action than football or baseball; scoring is neither as incessant as in basketball nor as sparse as in soccer. Two minutes on the clock actually take about two minutes. To even begin, hockey players must master movement on two thin blades of metal and glide easily across a rink. Next come the soft hands and slick passing, the ability to wield a stick and flip a puck across the ice on instinct. Add a layer of strategy, and you have units of players floating about in forty-second spurts, making extreme exertion look seamless. High school skills on all these fronts run the gamut, making it that much easier to enjoy the best of them.

And then, yes, there is the violent side. Hockey combines its grace with some punishing body blows, though unlike other contact sports, it’s possible to play it well without the brutality. While there are obvious limits—no kid with repeated head trauma should stay on the ice—I also think there’s an unfortunate, growing societal stigma around raw, physical activities, as the parental sheltering becomes ever more oppressive. Sports like this are not for everyone, but they are wonderful releases of pent-up forces, particularly young men with an excess of testosterone. It taps into that primal urge without putting it center stage, and channels it toward a greater goal.

So why high school, in particular? College and NHL hockey are also big in Minnesota, and my loyalties could have progressed with my own added years. High school is cleaner in a number of respects, but there’s no shortage of things to decry about the state of youth hockey today, from exorbitant costs to some unseemly searches for greener grass. (Note that I certainly don’t lump all transfers or early departures into that category.) Defenders of the sport, including a famed Sports Illustrated piece from a few years back, point to its purity. To an extent, this is true, though as I’ve noted before, few things are less pure than the minds of teenage boys. But if purity isn’t quite the right word, it does hint at something: the sheer, unbridled joy of doing what one loves. High school hockey has a special panache to it; a combination of raw force and light artistry that fuels a fire on the ice, and taps into a restless hunger that I hope I never lose. At the high school level it spills over into the stands, where student sections let loose and feed an atmosphere that can sweep up an entire community. All of the petty divides that often define high school fall away behind a common mission, if only for a few hours. It helped turn an often awkward stage in life into something I now recollect with nothing but fondness.

A few people are weirded out by the fixation on high school kids, but hockey in Minnesota is cross-generational, something that ropes in parents and grandparents as much as the kids. I also think it’s a healthy thing to take an interest in people outside of one’s often myopic age group, and high school is a particularly formative time. The experiences many of these kids have here are some of the most important forces in shaping a life, and hockey can push them to achieve things they never could have before. Readers of my Tournament reflections will know that some of the most crystallizing moments for me have been those press conferences after losses where I see kids contemplate life beyond high school for the first time, now that a run for one of their greatest passions has come to an end. It’s an essential part of a coming-of-age story, and the commitment and work ethic and sense of camaraderie many of these boys build do indeed serve them well in whatever comes next. The attention we heap on high school students can go far; I’ll admit to some squeamishness about media outlets that fixate pre-high school hockey (especially if they try to rate or hype up individuals), and take my role on the Forum as a defender of high schoolers from slander or libel more seriously than anything else I do in the hockey world. But this is also a time to begin that transition into life in the public eye, and once again, I’m skeptical of anything that shelters anyone for too long.

Hockey intertwines with my own story, too: it can’t be a coincidence that my two greatest sports loyalties crystallized immediately after the two most disruptive incidents in my personal life. For a little while, it was both a release and a distraction, and those bright spots endure. No doubt sports obsessions can grow unhealthy; people make dumb decisions that prioritize sports over life, or fall victim to a broader athletic culture that doesn’t always have its priorities right. But for every skipped test or Twitter dust-up, my hockey work has become one of the healthiest things I do: it puts it all into perspective. Just as it pushes us out into the world, it also lets us retreat from it, if only for a few moments. It’s an entirely different realm from school and work life, and it’s a blessed relief to come down from weighty real world affairs and watch a bunch of kids scoot around in pursuit of a piece of rubber. Anyone wanna join me at a rink this winter?

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