Tonight is game one of the Stanley Cup finals, and with my local team, the Boston Bruins, going up for the Cup against the Chicago Blackhawks, I can't turn in any direction without encountering someone who loves hockey.
But here's the thing: There are very few things I truly hate more in life than ice hockey: Chewing gum, glitter, and golf. Residing just a few rings of hell above these items is hockey. Why do we need another league locking out its players, bamboozling cities into building arenas, and contributing to the growing tide of concussions? All for a confusing swirl of dudes on ice in lumpy sweaters and socks. Besides I can't make sense of a winter sport that has its finals in June.
But have I missed something? Just in time to watch the Bruins continue its pretty phenomenal run, can someone convince me that hockey is worth paying attention to?
Dave Schneider is the lead singer and founder of The Zambonis, a band that writes and sings songs about hockey and hockey only.
Formed in 1991, The Zambonis have released six albums and performed at the 2002 and 2011 NHL All-Star games.
(P.S.: For those of you who are guitar players, Dave Schneider is also famous for this. Warning: This video contains graphic content for people who love Gibson guitars.)
So if there is anyone who can convince me to give the sport another chance, I've determined it's Dave. I reached out to him via Skype chat to see if he could get me to like hockey. Let's watch him try.
Dave Schneider: Good morning, fun seeker.
Erin McKeown: Hey there! I'm ready. You?
EM: Okay, first, thanks for doing this. I imagine you will take the task seriously.
DS: I am a serious person who, is not so serious. So, yes.
EM: Your job in this conversation will be to convince me why I should like ice hockey. Do you want to share how you'll do it or should we just start?
DS:We've already begun.
EM: Very zen of you!
First, so you know something about me, I love sports. I am a big baseball fan. I like pro football and most basketball. I grew up a Redskins and Orioles fan. Now I also love the Red Sox. I swam and played tennis growing up. I also played a lot of field hockey in high school. But, I have never liked ice hockey.
DS: Well, this makes no sense. With you loving and participating in all of those sports, there must be a mental block on why you don't like hockey. You obviously also love music. If you like jazz, if you like dance, then that's what real hockey is. Hockey is free-form and formed dance on ice with pucks, sticks... all of this while skating on a razor blade.
EM: That's quite poetic! Say more.
DS:I don't understand how you could like field hockey and not move into ice hockey.
EM: Well, I think this is probably one of my fundamental issues with liking hockey. I grew up in a small town in Virginia, and we didn't have ice. Even living in New England for the last 15 years, I have been on ice skates only once.
DS:: Let's move onto seeing the actual game. Have you ever gone to a college hockey game or semi-professional, or a Bruins game?
EM: I've never been to a hockey game.
DS: Ah. That's the beginning of this problem. There are many advantages to actually going to a hockey game. You don't have the typical, obnoxious fans that go to football games. You don't have the music playing all the time, like they do at basketball games. What you do have are passionate and for the most part, intelligent, fans (especially at the Harvard vs. Yale game) while watching a fantastic, high-speed, endurance sport.
EM: It's true. Baseball fans (especially at my beloved Fenway) are so obnoxious. These are good points in hockey's favor. Let's talk about endurance because it brings up another issue I have with hockey. I know there are different "lines" of players, but don't they play for just a minute at a time? Can you explain that?
DS:There are 3-4 lines on a team. When a line hits the ice, they are basically sprinting for 1-3 minutes. While sprinting they're thinking and working as a unit and gelling. Out of nowhere, as their tank is emptying, they have to somehow get to the bench to be replaced by the next line. If a player leaps over the boards to the bench for replacement at the wrong time, he leaves an opening for the other team to capitalize on his mistake. Timing is poetic. I hope you understand that no sport, to my knowledge, has this perpetual motion. When you see these guys get off the ice, the first thing you see is their head go down to catch their breath. Some guys do double shifts. They're the guys that think they can carry the weight. I find this inspiring.
EM: I can really appreciate that. It sounds like the players have a lot more responsibility on their shoulders and need a lot more awareness of their teammates than, say, a football player executing plays or a basketball player deciding to just drive to the basket. Another point in hockey's favor.
Let's return to the question of childhood. Did you grow up playing hockey? I imagine this also makes a difference. I grew up with the Washington Capitals in the Dale Hunter era, but it just never caught with me (See: aforementioned lack of ice).
DS: I played hockey semi-professionally (or what some call "mite" hockey) when I was nine and ten. I was actually a very good athlete and adapted quickly to all sports. I loved all the equipment the goalie had, so I wanted to be a goalie. Finally, late in my short career in hockey, I got to be the goalie.
A pumped up ten-year-old, I get in goal and I was completely afraid of the puck, a real puckin' neurotic. The guy took his first shot and as the puck approached, I went left -- about two feet away from the puck. I continued to avoid any contact with the puck for ten goals. At the end of the game is when I first realized I should pick up an instrument. This is a true story.
EM: Are you a Connecticut native? Were the Whalers your team growing up?
DS: I am a Connecticut native, and I was a huge Whalers fan. As a matter of fact, I'm wearing a Whalers t-shirt as I type. Actually, the Whaler logo is one of my favorite logos in all sports history. But at the time you liked the Capitals, their jersey with the stars going down the sleeve (I owned a Dale Hunter jersey from that era) was really cool.
EM: I agree, the Whalers' logo is amazing. It has actually been one of the only things I have liked about hockey. I wish more teams really dug into the aesthetic opportunities of their logos. Design meets marketing meets fashion meets fandom. It's a very unique opportunity. I remember those Caps jerseys well. They were much better than that awful blue and gold eagle thing they did for a second after. I know it's not politically correct, but I also thought the Bullets was a much better name for a team than the Wizards.
DS: Without being sly, or blatantly plugging, I do want to tell you that coming to hockey from the music side has been very successful for me and the band as far as bringing non-hockey fans to the game. One of the best things that happens when we play shows is meeting people who say "I never liked hockey until I heard your band."
EM: I think the idea behind your band is brilliant. I am all about mixing metaphors, formats, cultures, and getting people to rethink their assumptions through art. Music is really such a great way for that to happen. The Zambonis just seem a natural.
Besides that Whalers logo, the only other thing I have liked about hockey is the gear. I am a sucker for gear. Though I like the "nakedness" of baseball or soccer or basketball, I am also fascinated by what happens when you layer yourself with protection. Kind of like a mask, yes?
DS: The very first song I wrote for The Zambonis is called "Take Off That Mask". It was about the whole idea of freeing yourself, being you, and of course that sad goalie tale I just told you. Very funny, cute and to me, touching.
EM: So is that a reason to like or dislike hockey, that players are "hiding" under padding and masks?
DS: The gear has improved over the years, and it has to be that way. If you had a rock-hard, heavy biscuit coming at you at 100 mph, I think it's completely valid to cover up flesh and bone. In football or basketball, no one is being hit with a puck. Even with the hockey gear, there are still open spots where the puck can hit your body: Behind the leg, parts of the rib cage, the neck. I don't see the progress in pads as cowardly or hiding, I see it as common sense, a necessity.
EM: You knew this question was coming, so I imagine you are prepared. I think the fighting in hockey is contrived and therefore dumb.
DS: I did not prepare anything. So. The fighting.
EM: Everybody knows it's coming. Everybody knows what's going to happen. Players circle, they threaten, they punch, then they get penalties. Plus teams have to waste a roster spot on an "enforcer." I was quite moved by the New York Times' series on Derek Boogaard.
This is probably my chief reason for not being able to get into hockey. Though thinking of it as poetry is helping. But still, that seems at odds with the fighting, which again, to me, feels contrived.
DS: First off, I was the on-ice MC for the New York Islanders' farm team, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. That means, I was the guy on the ice, pumping up the crowd, having some fun and trying not to be the douchebag, morning radio guy persona. Having that job, I became friends with the players. All of the players. Not just the skaters, but the so called goons, too. As a matter of fact, one of the "enforcers" was my roommate for three years, Jody Robinson.
To say it's contrived, or fake, is a huge error on your end. The purpose of an enforcer really came to play from the 1970's Philadelphia Flyers who figured out that if they had guys who physically beat the opposing team down, they would win the game. They won the Stanley Cup playing as such. The only thing that teams could do in defense, was bring on a couple of guys that could stand up to them. This works.
The only way a team can put up with a bully, is to put another bully up against him to say cut the shit. Over the years, fighting has waned. It's part of the game. And it's the part that some fans like. That might be sad to some, but in a 60-minute game, there might be a two-minute fight. That's it. Most of it is pushing, shoving, and words, which equates to a mental challenge. Not a physical fight. It's simply using intimidation as offense.
There are obviously sad stories. Absolutely. Being an enforcer is not an easy life to live. Hands are human and so are brains. But, these are guys who dreamed of playing hockey. For some, the fight is just part of the game. Some can get their head around what they do.
I want to share one more song: It is about a "goon," an old friend [who was] semi-pro: Alcoholic...drugs...downward spiral....as low as one can go... gets together...gets on the horse...NHL again...wins the Stanley Cup in 2009. Dream comes true. It is called "Whirlwind (The Ballad Of Godzy)" about Eric Goddard.
EM: That song is beautiful. I'm gonna have to think about your explanation about fighting for awhile.
You really got me with the "poetry/jazz/freeform" as a different way of looking at hockey. I imagine you are referring more to the process of making music than the final product, but is there a piece of music or a poem that you could point to that make you feel/hear/see something analogous to hockey?
DS: I love and could go for the more obvious songs that have the raw energy and speed of the sport like "Sabotage" by The Beastie Boys, "Ace Of Spades" by Motorhead or any Ramones or Andrew W.K. song.
But, a song by a man who has been an inspiration to me since I was 15 is a guy named Jonathan Richman. He has a song called "New England".
I'm from New England and just mentioning those words for make me feel either comfortable in fall or, chilled in the winter. It is obviously not about hockey but for me, it could be. I think of a frozen pond and a crew of kids playing hockey on it. Off the top of my head, that's the song that makes me feel, hear, see, smell and want to be either playing the game or at least writing more songs either vaguely or blatantly about the sport I stand by.
EM: Well, I think you've done your job. I'm willing to spend a little time trying to see hockey differently. Where should I start -- besides listening to The Zambonis, of course?
DS: I am going to let my wife answer this one, meet Katie.
Kate Lynch Schneider: Hey Erin. I'm not a hockey fan either! I see it and hear it all the time, but I haven't committed to liking it, really, even though I can sit there and watch the French Open for hours at a time.
I also played field hockey like you. Also, swim and tennis. I do know how to ice skate. I think I'd like to try to play hockey because it would really kick ass, but watching it isn't my thing. It's too fast, the puck is too small. To answer your question, going to a game at the Yale Whale is the way to start up as a fan and we'd like to invite you!
EM: That sounds like a ton of fun. Okay, I'm in.
The Zamboni's play June 15 at The Rock Shop in Brooklyn. Complete tour dates here.