Friday, June 14, 2013

Making It To The Big Leagues In Hockey Is As Much About Surviving The Change-Room As It Is About Hockey Skills

Jay Baruchel's jaded valentine to hockey, Goon, makes such a big deal out of the titular hero's Jewishness that it's easy for this viewer to chart a subtextual question: why are there so few Jews in pro-hockey? Baruchel's answer: you've got to get in touch with your inner goon, if you're going to survive the endless feedback loop of change-room hazing, never mind the on-ice brutality. It's a backhanded compliment to his own tribe, I think, in a movie that's backhanded about everything it purports to admire.

The nicest guy you'll ever fight.

A quick Google indicates there are actually four Jews playing in the NHL. Google doesn't help me with the next question, but from limited personal observation I'd say there are three Mennonites in NHL uniforms: Dustin Penner (L.A. Kings); Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks); and my namesake James Reimer, goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs. My tribe is a little smaller Baruchel's, so I suppose I could take some pride in the numbers.

Perhaps I presume, but I don't imagine these three had any trouble getting in touch with their inner goons as they rose through the ranks. The Mennonites I learned how to play hockey with were as pugnacious as any other player from any other tribe, and often worse (it was a bad scene whenever our town's farm team played one from a French community). And while I could quibble with what Baruchel gets wrong about hockey, there is one aspect of the game and its culture he absolutely nails: the change-room hi-jinx.

Viewers unprepared for how crass and intimately offensive this horseplay is are likely to find the change-room scenes more disturbing than the blood-swinging-in-langorous-loops-before-it-hits-the-ice scenes. But that's how it is, at least in Canadian change-rooms. If anything, Baruchel soft-sells it.

After listening to the Q Sports Panel debate the merits of banning body-checking from Peewee hockey, I have to wonder if Baruchel wasn't cross-checked out of his own hockey playing aspirations. Tempers got warm, particularly Dave Bidini's (why Scott Walker thought he should resuscitate Mike Milbury's homophobic slur, “pansification,” is completely beyond me). In an attempt to cool things down a bit, host Jian Ghomeshi confessed he quit hockey after he got hit in the corner. Out came the horror stories, and sure enough, Bidini and Walker admitted to similar incidents.

I recall taking my first hit. It changed the way I thought about the game, in ways that flattered neither me nor the game I was playing. I finished the season, then quit — not because of the hit(s), but because I wasn't friends with anyone playing. At a certain point you have to have love for more than the game if you're going to continue. Without a baseline of camaraderie, a change-room full of adolescent boys is a Darwinian petri dish that makes ice-time look like a Strawberry Social.

So to my brothers in the big leagues, I salute you — for surviving the change-rooms, if nothing else.

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