NHL Playoff Update 2: The Consolation of Philosophy

The Devils

The Devils are the fiercest forecheckers I have ever seen. They swarm the zone. It’s disconcerting. Most teams, on the forecheck, simply send their forwards crashing into the defensemen as these gather up the puck. This is spectacular—some of the biggest body checks happen during the forecheck—but it is rarely effective. The defenseman absorbs the hit and sends the puck up along the boards to a forward, or behind the net to his defensive partner. These forecheckers count on a kind of psychological attrition—hit the defenseman enough times and maybe eventually he’ll think twice about picking up the puck. This is gamesmanship, showmanship, but that is about all. Watching the Devils forecheck you realize that most teams forecheck because they are told to. The Devils forecheck because they want the puck.

But I have noticed something. One thing the Devils do particularly well is pinch their defensemen—that is, the Devils defensemen will come down from the blue line and attack the Rangers forwards as they’re trying to clear the puck. As they do so, a Devils forward will swing back to the blue line to avoid an odd-man rush coming the other way. Thus the Rangers will sometimes get the puck past the defenseman only to find that there is yet another man behind him, guarding the blue line. It’s as if the Devils have six or seven guys out there instead of five.

And in fact I think that’s the case. I can’t quite tell for sure, because on TV they often don’t show you the entire ice surface, but I am pretty sure the Devils are often skating six or seven guys. This is illegal and should be stopped. I have written a letter to the league to this effect.

Brooks

Who is the best hockey writer? Larry Brooks is the best hockey writer. He is a true hockey philosopher. Does he write for Sports Illustrated, the New York Times? No, he’s a philosopher. Ah: The New York Review of Books, then? Critical Inquiry? No, no. Radical Philosophy? Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic? No? Wait, I know: Dialectica!

Brooks writes for the New York Post. In person unprepossessing, barely a few inches north of five feet, as a writer he is fearless and insightful, a student of the game. He is willing to quote players when he has to but he knows that their statements are merely statements to the press, they can indicate a temporary drama but they do not get at the essence of things. (The exception is Jagr. Jagr is also a hockey philosopher.) Brooks has been the chief antagonist of John Tortorella’s war against the press—so in addition to everything else, he is a dissident. He is patient and thoughtful. But also he is partial. He wants the Rangers to win.

I work as a translator (from Russian), and I am sometimes asked what translation theorists I read. I do not read any translation theorists. But I do read a hockey theorist. Translation is arduous and must simply be done. Hockey can be theorized. I read Brooks.

More on the Forecheck

One of the interesting things about hockey is that you simply can’t go full speed at all times. There aren’t enough players on the bench, and you would just get too tired by the end of the game. Given this, there is a wide disparity between the players. A few, like the Devils’ Zach Parise, seem to be going as close to full speed as much of the time as they possibly can; others, Ovechkin being the most infamous recent example, are much closer to half speed a lot of the time. The reason you know it’s half speed is that when Ovechkin actually gets the puck, he goes very very fast. It’s when he doesn’t have the puck that he goes slowly.

This is why the forecheck is so important. It’s a low-percentage play. Not just Ovechkin but anyone at all, given the puck in the offensive zone and a clear line toward the net, will skate very hard and fast toward that net. That is easy. It’s skating down on the forecheck that is difficult. Most of the time you will have skated in, tried to hit someone, probably crashed into the boards head-first, and all for nothing—the puck sails harmlessly back up ice. And so it is very tempting not to go full speed on the forecheck.

When you are big and clumsy, that is to say a Rangers forward, forechecking is an especial challenge. Yesterday in the second and third periods, the Rangers finally showed what an effective Rangers forecheck looks like. Ryan Callahan, the captain, led the way. The Devils seem able to tie up the Rangers defensemen and then steal the puck, or wait for a bad clear that their nimble defensemen then intercept at the blue line. The Rangers do it differently. They physically insert themselves between the defenseman and the boards, and set up shop. The defenseman cross-checks them in the back repeatedly, with impunity. The Rangers dig and grind along the boards until someone can pop open to the front of the net. It’s a highly labor-intensive process, but the Rangers finally undertook to do it, and it was a sight to behold. It was almost enough. But it was not quite enough.

The Internet

Philosophers and social theorists and media theorists are always arguing about the internet. What is it doing to our relationships, our politics, our sense of embodiment? A friend of mine in college wrote his thesis on “the body”—the body in the city; the body of Christ; and the body dispersed by the internet. I never read it, but from his descriptions I thought it was pretty cool. He now works for a famous art gallery in Beijing.

Personally, I prefer using the internet to read about athletes who got drunk and embarrassed themselves. A few weekends ago Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks visited Madison, Wisconsin, and spent the whole weekend getting very drunk and acting obnoxious. The sports site Deadspin proceeded to solicit, and receive, reports from eyewitnesses, and put together a kind of oral history of Kane’s weekend. It was remarkable; it was epic. Why no publisher has yet contracted to put out Deadspin’s Book of Drunken Athletes is beyond me. (Looking it up just now, to check, I found a link to an article that asked, “Has Deadpin Outgrown Posting Photos of Drunk Athletes?” I hope not.)

Kopitar

I have been watching the series out West. Anze Kopitar is a tremendous player: he has the size and speed of Kovalchuk, and even better vision. He is also the first Slovenian-born player in the NHL. You know who else is from Slovenia? Slavoj Zizek, the philosopher, author most recently of a book on Hegel called Less than Nothing. This is Kopitar’s philosophy, perhaps: He wants the other team to score less than nothing. The impossibility of this causes him to stay up nights, developing dark circles under his eyes, causing him to look depressed.

My Letter to the League

Brendan Shanahan
Vice President of Hockey and Business Development
Chief Disciplinarian
National Hockey League
Toronto

May 23, 2012

Dear Mr. Shanahan,

As a long-time admirer of your play, and a fervent hockey fan, I am writing to point out a possible violation on the part of the New Jersey Devils, the National Hockey League team based in Newark, New Jersey (home rink: Prudential Center; owned by Jeffrey Vanderbeek, incidentally a former executive at the now bankrupt firm Lehman Brothers, former NYSE ticker symbol LEH—they no longer have this ticker symbol because they are bankrupt, as I’ve said). I should say in preface that as I am unable to afford tickets to the NHL playoff games I have been watching them at home on my television, which is not HD, nor a flat-screen, and consequently I do not see the entire ice during these games. However, I have a background in mathematics, and have been doing some counting.

In short, to wit, I believe that at certain crucial points of several of the playoff games so far, the New Jersey Devils, of Newark, New Jersey, have been sending six or seven or even at times eight players onto the ice, to help with their forecheck. Again, as I have been watching this on TV, I cannot say with absolute certainty, but given my respect for the league and its integrity I thought it was something that you ought to be made aware of, which perhaps bears further investigation. Please let me know if you need any more information or I can otherwise be of help.

GO RANGERS!
Keith Gessen
Brooklyn, NY

New Fashion

It’s become the fashion among NHL coaches to bench their high-priced European scorer. Have a guy in your line-up who makes $10 million a year, is beloved by fans, is capable of sowing confusion and disarray in opposing defenses, and is one of the most prolific scorers in NHL history? Bench him! That’s what Dale Hunter did with Ovechkin, and after the Capitals survived their first-round matchup, he was hailed as a genius. Yesterday Rangers coach John Tortorella looked down his bench and saw—Marian Gaborik, his leading goal-scorer and the Rangers’ only elite forward. “Am I not also a genius?” thought Tortorella. And benched Gaborik.

Well you know who doesn’t think these guys are geniuses? Brooks. Over the weekend Brooks reprimanded the hockey cognoscenti for their praise of Dale Hunter. He would have reprimanded Tortorella too, no doubt, but then Tortorella unleashed Gaborik in the second period, and it worked.

Kreider

I’m sorry, but I don’t like Chris Kreider. He’s a big guy but he always looks a little sad, a little mopey. He makes cute passes in the zone. Shoot the puck! He doesn’t finish his checks. And he is a flopper. Yesterday he had the puck at the Rangers’ blue line, facing toward his own goal; before he could turn around, he was shoved in the back by a Devil. Kreider, like I say, is a big kid, 6-3, 225, but over he went like a tree. Did he want a penalty? Is that what he came to the NHL for, penalties? No penalty was called. This would have been the time to show yourself a genius by benching him. To win in the playoffs you need veterans who understand the meaning of the Stanley Cup and fear death.

Crying

The new rules have for the most part been excellent. They have practically eliminated the practice of planting your stick in a guy’s midsection and then jet-skiing behind him as he tries to advance the puck. This should have no place in hockey. Sticks should be kept on the ice at all times. That’s what the ice is for, that’s what sticks are for, that’s where the puck is. So, good.

But the stringent enforcement of, especially, the high-sticking rule has led to an epidemic of flopping and crying. All of a sudden it’s like the World Cup–guys writhing on the ice or holding their faces in excruciating pain, then skating off and returning two minutes later for their next shift. It demonstrates, depressingly, how much we are all creatures of incentives—incentivize craven play-acting, and you will get it, even from guys who willingly put their noses—they don’t even wear facemasks—between the goal and hundred-mile-an-hour slapshots. Yesterday, big Rangers forward Derek Stepan took an accidental stick to the face—not a very hard stick—from little Stephen Gionta. Stepan immediately grabbed his face—no doubt because he was in some pain, but also because he hoped for a penalty. Gionta for his part probably felt bad, but what was he supposed to do, stay with Stepan and tend to his wounds? Unmarked, he skated to the net and scored the Devils’ first goal.

The Consolation of Philosophy

That is the title of a book from the 6th century, on the cusp between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, written by a Roman official named Boethius, as he sat in a prison cell awaiting his execution. I had to read it in college and didn’t like it. I can’t remember what it was about it that I didn’t like; I think I was expecting something more like Marcus Aurelius, good practical advice on how to take consolation from philosophy, or from a philosophical cast of mind, during times of disappointment and discouragement. Instead there seemed to me a lot of idle theological chatter. Also on the cover of my edition there was a hint that Boethius was in fact addressing the book to his dog, who was in the prison cell with him.

In other words, I never learned how to take consolation from my philosophy. The Rangers came back from 3-0 despite their goaltender looking lost and frightened; they played with verve and heart and conviction. Their enforcer scored on a beautiful backhand; their captain scored by kicking the puck in (there was not, however, a “distinct kicking motion,” and in announcing the decision of the review committee, the referee stood at center ice and said: “It’s a good hockey goal.” Bravo!); and their expensive Slovakian goal-scorer scored on a broken play in which Brodeur tried to sit on the puck and instead nudged it past the goal line. And yet they could not find one more goal, and eventually they lost. Several times in the third period the puck sat, unmolested, several feet in front of Brodeur, and yet no Ranger could reach it. Eventually it was the Devils who scored.

I have tried to take my draught of hockey philosophy. But I am unconsoled.

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