The NHL, From Eh to Zed

November 17, 2003

Top to bottom--Antti Aalto to Zarley Zalapski--hockey is the most
exotic of our major sports, and what the novice fan needs is an
A-to-Z guide to the game. Or rather, an Eh-to-Zed guide, Eh being
hockey's all-purpose rhetorical intensifier, Zed the Canadian for
Z, as in "Peter Zezel has two zeds, not three, eh?"

With a little instruction, you too will grow to love the game,
whose legends have snub-nosed names like Mush March, Muzz
Patrick, Punch Imlach and Gump Worsley. (Who wouldn't enjoy
making those cocktail-party introductions? "Mush, Muzz. Muzz,
Punch. Punch, Gump. Gump, Mush....")

Sadly, this hockey season has, in its opening month, all the buzz
of a five-watt bulb. Basketball--with LeBron v. Carmelo, Kobe v.
Shaq, State of Colorado v. Kobe--is marquee. Hockey is more
Marquis de Sade.

But it isn't, really. True, Toronto defenseman Ric Jackman scored
a game-winning goal the other night after having a tooth
extracted by a high stick. Afterward, Jackman told reporters that
he's happy to trade teeth for goals and that he was certain his
assault was an accident. As he spoke, he discreetly spit blood
into a cup--presumably with pinky raised. "Tonight," Maple Leafs
forward Joe Nieuwendyk told The Canadian Press, "we won the game
by losing teeth.... But sometimes that's what you need to do."

There's a civility to hockey's incivility. The most feared
fistfighter in the NHL has a name, Georges Laraque, that belongs
on designer tea cozies. The game is, more often than not, a
pleasing combination of chivalry and brutality, Lady Byng at the
Bada Bing.

And so, in September, Florida veteran Todd Gill mugged teammate
Max Birbraer while the latter was recumbent on the ice,
stretching between periods of an intrasquad scrimmage. It was
payback for a hit earlier in the session, and afterward Birbraer
called his attacker "a respectable person," adding, "I deserved
it."

It's a pity, then, that so many Americans don't follow hockey,
don't know Jacques Martin (Senators coach) from Jacques Lemaire
(Wild coach). The latter has sport's most comely comb-over, a
white wave forever cresting across the sandbar of his scalp.
Lemaire's comb-over wins in a walkover when matched against
Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy's.

It's one of many areas in which hockey trumps basketball. Hockey,
for instance, had the first and most prolific MJ. Indeed, Moose
Jaw, midwife of manifold NHL careers, celebrates its centennial
next week. Where exactly is this fabled Canadian city? As
ex-Islander Clark Gillies, a Moose Jaw native, likes to say, "Six
feet from the moose's ass."

You should know, too, that Moose Jaw is always twinned by
alliterative scribes with Medicine Hat, hometown of Canucks great
Trevor Linden, so that any story on Canadian hockey must begin,
"From Moose Jaw to Medicine Hat.... " The Moose Jaw Warriors of
the Western Hockey League play in the squat, cylindrical Moose
Jaw Civic Centre--known to locals as the Crushed Can--which
points out a pleasant eccentricity of Canadian sports pages, in
which sceptics deny rumours that centres will practise at
defence. Or that cheques will not be honoured by the
organisation.

More important than spelling is proper pronunciation. It's
everything in hockey. One simple mnemonic: Uwe Krupp ("Ooey
Croop") is what you clear from your throat before Hakan Loob
("Hockin' Lube").

Last January, Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish tried to silence the
Calgary Flames mascot, Harvey the Hound, by Talibanically tearing
out its tongue and tossing it to the braying crowd. That
instantly evoked fond memories of Cincinnati Cyclones coach Don
Jackson, eight years earlier, speedbagging the oversized melon of
Atlanta Knights mascot Sir Slapshot.

Sir Slapshot. Hockey history is enlivened by jaunty names
redolent of monarchy. Rather than awards crassly named for
corporate sponsors--Rolaids Relief Man, Edge MVP--hockey names
its trophies for people who were, to judge by their names,
colleagues of the man on the Monopoly card: King Clancy, Lady
Byng, Lord Stanley. Hockey's most euphonious aristocrat played
just a single NHL game, for the New York Rangers in 1948. He was
named, blessedly, Larry (King) Kwong.

In 1843 Charles Goodyear removed sulphur from rubber, which he
then heated, rendering the rubber waterproof and winterproof.
Voila, vulcanized rubber. Which is why Al MacInnis--hockey's real
Sir Slapshot--shoots frozen pucks today and not stale Ding Dongs.
MacInnis, unlike Allen Iverson, really does break ankles, another
advantage hockey holds over hoops.

Vulcanization also made possible snow tires, which in turn made
possible the Zamboni, which in turn made possible the
intermission beer run for either brand: Molson or Labatt's.

For this time of year, the mind turns to Canadian beer and nachos
avec fromage, and one's storehouse of hockey memories. All of
which--the beer, the nachos, the memories--are like the Zamboni
itself. Which is to say, they resurface periodically.

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

Hockey is a pleasing combination of chivalry and brutality, Lady
Byng at the Bada Bing.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)