Of Hockey and Politics

Calling the political game properly.

When I was a kid, like most Canadians I was an avid hockey fan. My consuming ambition in life was to become the goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens, whom I would lead to an endless series of Stanley Cups. At the age of five or so, I started listening religiously to the radio broadcasts of the Canadiens’ games, enthralled by the cadences of perhaps the greatest play-by-play hockey commentator of all time, Danny Gallivan, a true poet of the game.

Gallivan not only carried the play in the lilt and tempo of his voice, culminating in the soaring “He shoots! He scores!”—a clarion even more rousing than that of the Toronto Maple Leaf’s Foster Hewitt, the granddaddy of play-callers—but also coined various phrases that inserted themselves into the rhetoric of the game. “The puck caroms off the boards” is still caroming off the airwaves, and the word “carom” ricocheted into my fledgling vocabulary to stay. “He dishes out a crushing body check” remains in the lexicon. But the phrase I liked most, delivered at the top of Gallivan’s register and conjuring graphic and colorful visions in my pre-TV imagination, was the exhilarating “They bang away at it,” referring to a goal mouth scramble when players whacked at the puck until it either went into the net or the goalie “smothered” it in his pads.

I’ve long lost interest in the Montreal Canadiens, a perennially weak, mismanaged and shamefully uninspired team, little better than the current crop of lame and fatuous broadcasters burbling away on the catwalk. And of course I no longer play the game. But I bring the same sort of enthusiasm to the political arena that I felt as a child for the game of hockey.

Once I cheered on the heroes of my youth: Maurice “the Rocket” Richard, his diminutive brother Henri, the “Pocket Rocket,” defensive whiz Doug Harvey, slapshot artist Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, “Le Gros Bill” Jean Beliveau, corner-digger Bert Olmstead, goaltender Jacques “Jake the Snake” Plante who introduced the goaler’s mask, and later in the day, Guy Lafleur aka “the Flower,” Larry “Pile-Driver” Robinson, and goaltender Ken “the Kid” Dryden (now a Liberal politician, alas).

Today I follow the textual exploits of the compelling political writers of our time, as impressive in the pursuit of their métier as the towering figures I once admired were in theirs. There’s Efraim “Killer” Karsh, “Big Bruce” Bawer, David “the Howitzer” Horowitz and his linemate Jamie “Sock-it-to-‘em” Glazov, Victor Davis Hanson aka “the Scholar,” Ibn “the Warrior” Warraq, “Fearless” Phyllis Chesler, Mark “the Rapier” Steyn, “Marvelous” Melanie Phillips, Tom “the Terrible” Sowell, “Battling” Barb Kay and many others too numerous to mention here. They are all members of a magnificent team, capable of scoring, dishing out crushing body checks, caroming their missives off stupefied minds, digging in the corners and, no less importantly, banging away at it. As Blake Geoffrion, Boom Boom’s grandson who plays for the Nashville Predators says, in his impeccable Frenglish, “If you want da score da goal, you have to shoot da puck.”

The problem is that the game is often rigged, the referees corrupt (like their Swedish and Russian counterparts in the hockey world), and the mainstream commentators refusing to call the play as it actually develops but describing an alternate reality in shrill and distracting tones. It’s hard to win when the rules do not apply or are regularly bent and even persistently violated. It’s hard to win when the whistle stops the play once it begins to look dangerous for the opposition or you are sent to the penalty box for an infraction you have not committed. And it’s just as hard to win when the reports of the game are re-written and the standings manipulated to establish a fraudulent outcome, giving priority to debased and incompetent teams of political duffers and flashy nonentities, like those who play for the New York Times Rangers.

The great players, however, are undaunted. They continue “swarming the crease.” They know the score. They play in the hope that, however unlikely, another Danny Gallivan will arise to call the game properly, report honestly on the achievements of our marquee agonists, influence a new generation of commentators and bring back the fans. Sometimes it seems like a vain and desperate prospect. But they know that, in the big leagues of this rough and tumble political world, you can’t put the puck in the net if you don’t keep banging away at it.

Tags: Body, play, rocket