“Hockey is like heroin. Only drug addicts do heroin. It’s not like a recreational drug. It’s never like, No, that’s O.K., I’m not going to have heroin. You guys go right ahead. Hockey is kind of the same way. Only hockey fans watch hockey.”
– Chris Rock
Hi, my name is J.P., and I’m a heroin addict.
They took my heroin away on a Saturday night …
I was sitting at the kitchen table at my girlfriend’s apartment in L.A. when my heart sank at the realization that I wasn’t going to a hockey game the next day. A part of me was gone, and that’s when it hit me: I really was addicted to this thing, covering the NHL, that I’d reduced to a four-letter word — “work”. I probably lost some color in my face, too. (Coincidentally, that’s what happens if the Kings go to a shootout at Staples Center and the press box is out of coffee.)
The scene was straight out of an undergrad film student’s attempt at urban drama, each line followed by a #firstworldproblems hashtag. I didn’t lose my job that night. The following Friday, a paycheck was direct-deposited into my bank account, just like clockwork. All I’d lost was my heroin, the NHL, by virtue of a decision handed down through the MediaNews Group Inc. food chain. They told me to sober up by covering other leagues and other sports.
Only the boss never actually sent me to rehab. I’m checking myself in. Right here, right now.
The depth of my problem was revealed over this exchange:
Me: “I can still go to the game and blog about it.”
Girlfriend: “But you wouldn’t actually be getting paid to work.”
So … I had a new route all planned out for this season: Walk down Hollywood Boulevard to the Western Avenue Metro Station, grab the Red Line to the 7th Street exit, then walk another half-mile to Staples. I wasn’t ready to let go of my new pre- and post-game routine, let alone the two and a half hours of hockey in between, plus the bonus rush of adrenaline only a deadline can provide.
So … A week earlier I was dishing about Malibu dining options with Willie Mitchell, about oxycondone with Todd Fedoruk, about summer rock concerts with Matt Greene, and summer metal concerts with Toni Lydman. This is the typical rhetoric of NHL training camp, the mostly light-hearted prelude in which everyone* is happy to see each other after a long off-season, knowing the action-filled main act is right around the corner.
So … it was in an NHL locker room that I first covered professional sports on a daily basis. As it turns out, once you get used to the smell, it’s a nice place to be. Somewhere over the next four years the room morphed from a resume line-item to a comfort zone to a drug. You could pay me to be there, but you didn’t always have to.
There’s a missing link here. Let’s get this out of the way.
Chris Rock was speaking about hockey fans, and I’m not a fan. I’m a journalist. Sure, as a 12-year-old I might have flung open the door to my parents’ house a few miles from downtown San Jose and unleashed a primal scream when the Sharks beat the Red Wings on Jamie Baker’s goal in Game 7 of the Western Conference quarterfinals. That might have happened, and I might have been the only person on our block to acknowledge the moment. Teal might have been my favorite color from age nine until teal became everyone else’s favorite color in the mid 1990s. The emotional component of being a hockey fan is unique to hockey. I get that.
The novelist William Faulkner once wrote of hockey: “To the innocent, who had never seen it before, it seemed discorded and inconsequent, bizarre, and paradoxical like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools. Then it would break, coalesce through a kind of kaleidoscopic whirl like a child’s toy, into a pattern, a design almost beautiful, as if an inspired choreographer had drilled a willing and patient and hard-working troupe of dancers — a pattern, design which was trying to tell him something, say something to him urgent and important and true in that second before, already bulging with the motion and the speed, it began to disintegrate and dissolve.”
I like to summarize Faulkner’s thought by saying that hockey, among all sports, is the perfect combination of chaos and fluidity. Because the next moment is often unpredictable you can’t look away, whether you’re pressed up against the glass, watching from the press box, or relaxing on your couch. In an increasingly ADD-riddled society, that bodes well for the long-term future of the sport.
But the appeal of hockey is greater than the sum of its parts — its pace, aesthetics, emotions, and the smell of its locker rooms. All of these things explain why I like hockey. None of these things explain how I became addicted.
At the end of his retirement press conference on Sept. 23, Mike Modano began to tear up when he mentioned his mom and dad. “Thanks for all you did,” he said while looking at his parents, who were sitting a few feet away in the audience.
Modano’s mom handed him a tissue. A few moments later, as a blubbery Modano stammered through some prepared remarks, Karen Modano walked on stage and gave her son a big hug. The look on his face was priceless. If a similarly tender moment involving a future Hall of Famer had ever unfolded on live television, I must have missed it.
Having said his piece, Modano took a few questions. The last question was awarded to Norm Green, the man who moved the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas in 1993. Without him Modano, the Stars, and possibly the NHL itself might never have set foot in Dallas. Green is also a 76-year-old man with lots and lots of money. So when Norm Green wants the last question at a Dallas Stars press conference, he gets it, and he gets to say whatever he wants.
Norm Green didn’t have a question. He wanted to share an insight — the very thought I’d been trying to capture since my first visit to an NHL locker room.
“Often, when we first arrived, people didn’t know much about hockey and they were wondering what hockey players were like,” Green said. “I had the perfect example. I said, ‘You’re going to find that hockey players are by far the best athletes of any sport you’ve ever seen.’ And the reason is all the other sports, it’s easy for a kid to start playing them. It doesn’t matter if it’s football, basketball, baseball, soccer, they can just go in the street and play, but hockey requires family involvement.
“Families have to dress them (in hockey gear) and take them to the rink and I used Mike Modano as the perfect example of why family involvement creates good quality people, and Mike has had Karen and Mike – right from the beginning and even after he was a great success, they were at almost every game. So if ever there’s an example of why hockey players are gentlemen, good players, and good citizens, Mike, of all of them, I would suggest is the best example, because he’s such a huge success and he’s the easiest guy in the world to talk to.”
Hockey is addicting as a journalist because the people you work with – people like Modano, and every NHL locker room has about 20 of them – make it impossible to feel like you’re ever at “work.” In fact, I hate using that word. It’s both the best and the worst word I could come up with whenever someone called me in the middle of a hockey game and asked what I was doing.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” should have been my response, “but I’m addicted to it.”
There it is. Step 1. I have a problem.
Maybe your boss doesn’t realize the depth of your addiction, either. Maybe he or she doesn’t know you stream the occasional game from the office computer, own one or more fantasy hockey teams, or called in sick on a Wednesday morning in April because your team’s still alive in the playoffs and, well, leave me alone, I didn’t schedule Game 7 for a Tuesday night!
Maybe you’re at work right now and shouldn’t be reading this. Maybe you shouldn’t come back. But I hope you will. As sports websites go, you’ll find kindred spirits elsewhere on the web, but none will be all puck.
At its core, this is rehab for puckheads. I’d be lying if I said I know what that looks like (after all, I’m only on Step 1). To quote Bill Simmons when he launched Grantland.com, a website I deeply respect for letting its writers write, “Eventually, we will evolve into what we are. Whatever the hell that is.”
*Except Drew Doughty. He was nowhere to be found this year.