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Hockey Owl: Todd Bertuzzi and the Game Through Sport

This paper is adapted from a book that will be out in a couple of months entitled Cold-cocked: On Hockey. The book’s a work of creative non-fiction that began as a way of exploring my renewed interest in hockey following the Salt Lake Olympics, and also a meditation on the appeal of hockey, especially to women. The book became more complex over the couple of years I worked on it and visited the Vancouver Canucks locker room and thought about some of hockey’s prevailing metaphors. It became, for a long stretch, an exploration of the Canucks two superstars—Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund—as characters in a predictable and also surprising story. I wanted to see the game as a story and to appreciate it as I might a work of literature, and I was compelled by the relationship on and off-ice of these two very different players. Most of the book was formed before the March night in Vancouver when Bertuzzi, in an act of revenge over a hit on his friend and captain, Naslund, mercilessly hit Colorado’s Steve Moore and fell with him to the ice and broke his neck, among other things. This paper appears, in the chronology of the narrative of my book, before Bertuzzi’s fall from grace but in many ways prefigures it.

I’m not the first to notice that a hockey game—or a year in hockey—comes in three parts, as does the most simple story structure—beginning/pre-season (conflict is introduced), middle/regular season (conflict is developed), end/playoffs (conflict resolved). Other aspects of the narrative arts—reversal of fortune, rising action, catharsis, tragic flaw, anti-hero—also find tidy counterparts in a game of hockey. Sport in general has also been seen as “tragic drama” and “a dramatization of the struggle of human beings with nature or of the struggle of good people against antisocial people”: one performer, no matter how great, will lose. A tragic flaw may undo even the best player. A spectacular reversal of game momentum may snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In each event, a player faces the revelation of his ultimate strengths—limitations as an athlete—and as a person. A tragic loser turns the defeat into a spiritual victory by playing hard to the end. Through pity, fear and empathy, voilà, the spectator is cleansed. We watch sport for the same reasons we watch drama, and it’s not hard to see why both excite us in similar ways. We are hard-wired to enjoy those elements.

Much of this narrative structure is supplied—or stressed—by sports commentators. We’re told what to think and feel by a media contracted to construct the best story for the most spectators. So before (and throughout) a particular game, we’re told via statistics and history and player interview and play-by-play and puck-sniffing cameras, that our team, for example, must win this game to overtake the first-place Avalanche and therefore secure first spot in the division, something they/we totally want. Broadcasters feed us everything we should know and understand. There’s no need to be anything but passive. They know everything. They have stats. They have the inside scoop. They have cultivated sources. They actually talk to the players—come on—and they know what’s brewing behind the scenes.

Lots is missed if we read the game simply, or let strangers interpret the game for us or assume all fans read or experience the game identically. When media simplify a game’s narrative, they deny more creative relationships between game and fan, fan and player, the role of the fan in creating the game and influencing its meaning. When a fan like me takes to a team—or when I grain my sheep, or plant a double row of broad beans, or housebreak the dachshund, or imagine planting rhododendrons with Markus Naslund on our first date—I am on an artistic journey.

Marilyn Bowering is a renowned novelist, poet and playwright. I asked her about the appropriateness of the “hockey as drama” metaphor. For Bowering, “drama is meant, of course, to give the spectator the feeling of observing real life in real time (the unities of time, place, and action.) There’s no doubt we’re watching something ‘real’ as compared to imagined or faked when we watch hockey: the outcome feels unpredictable and demands that the players engage with (ideally) heroic levels of physical effort, intelligence and intuition. We watch players for hubris, and consult the stars on their behalf. Then there’s catharsis (I disagree that the spectator is passive): in fact to conceive of hockey as our national theatre seems right on track to me.

The importance of characters in hockey is inarguable: not just the heroes, but the prevalence of telling details by which we recognize them—from tantrums to hair styles—and not so much off-the-ice stuff as one might expect. We don’t seem to care what the players get up to in nightclubs—it’s the on-ice dramas, the themes carried from game to game, series to series, country to country.”

Marilyn’s is a convincing version of why we feel so affected by a game, and she does allude to how the canvas of hockey includes more than the realistic depiction of tonight’s game. Still, I do care what the players get up to in the nightclubs, although not in order to judge; I want details, surprising ones that contradict the heroic, that set up the ultimate pleasure of incongruity: the shy, goal-scoring Scandinavian climbs the table and drops his pants with a stripper; the rookie small forward off to play a season in Czechoslovakia reads Hemingway; the surly power forward kisses his little boy with daunting affection. The form of drama is too limited for the version of art I have in mind.

Poet Carla Funk grew up in Vanderhoof in northern BC. She resembles a more religious and sarcastic Anna Kournikova. Her poetry is intense, dark, and also playful in its treatment of the tangled world of Mennonite towns and the toll they take on a creative spirit. In 2006, she was chosen Victoria’s first Poet Laureate. I would never have pegged her as a hockey chick. But she says she loves “the not-knowingness of the game...I love that it’s not a movie, that there’s no scripted ending waiting for me at the end...that it’s freeform, liquid, undetermined. I love the energy and the sweat, the intensity enacted on ice that translates to crowd roar. There’s a strange communion, too, watching hockey with a group of people. The audience becomes an extension of the on-ice team for which they’re rooting.”

A few years ago, I visited Funk in hospital where they’d removed an ovarian cyst the size of a grapefruit that had attached itself to her lower intestine; an ovary was removed and also a fallopian tube. She’s not yet thirty. “The best thing?” she says, day three after surgery, “On the morphine drip, I'm lying in my hospital bed and Todd Bertuzzi walks by in a short-sleeved red and blue plaid dress shirt, stops at the foot of my bed, gives me a nod. My primary thought is ‘wow, Todd Bertuzzi came to see me in the hospital; I always knew he was a kind man.’ I get a sense that even though he’s this huge burly hockey player, he’s still a man of compassion and thoughtfulness.”

Funk says, “‘Drama’ doesn’t ring as true for me as ‘art’—somehow it assumes the players have a script handed to them and they need to abide by the ‘dialogue’, set narrative action. I like the structural parallels, but the heart of it seems off-kilter. With hockey as art, though, I see more room for the various styles of play, each team’s aesthetics. I think about collaborative artistic movements or ‘groups’ from the past and the present—the Bloomsbury group, the Group of Seven, even the Tish poets. These artists came together within a more fluid realm of purpose. I also think about the act of creation and how that same fuse that gets lit in the creative imagination is like the fuse lit on ice once the game begins. It’s almost orchestral, symphonic: a group of musicians practise their parts, put them together and sparks fly. The game plays out more loosely than a symphony though, more jazz and blues, I’d say, with some rock and roll.

“Read hockey like a poem?” Funk says, and “It would be an Al Purdy poem—loose, swaggering, fists and beer. It would be devoid of pretension when the game is at its best. Hockey is like a poem for its attention to detail. A poem demands the eye focus in on the very syllables of words. The game, too, demands that attention to the second, to this tiny puck flying across ice. Also, a good poem surprises the reader, as does a good game of hockey. The power of the startle is common ground.”

Let’s agree that in the last thirty years, postmodernism allowed television commercials to act like art. When we view ads now, we don’t see only product information and persuasion to purchase, wasp-waisted ladies in fat-skirted dresses holding a bottle of bleach like their Stanley Cup. Now we see parody, intertext, irony, aural and visual texture and representation, a questioning and broadening of what is entertainment, culture and commerce. The industry standard for “ad as art” might be set by Nike. One ad in particular helps to explain how I read hockey and demonstrates the “power of the startle.”

I’ve watched this ad fifty times, on television and on my computer. I could watch it fifty more. Each time, I’m dragged into an arena and onto the ice through the end boards by the throbbing bass line—ten bars of rising, single-note crescendo—of New York garage band, The Mooney Suzuki, playing “Don’t Fence Me In” while the Swede Markus Naslund and the Russian Ilya Kovalchuk play keepaway. It’s a mock-up, an imitation of a professional game—one team wears Canucks jerseys, the coach is clearly interested in the action—and yet the two players don’t seem able to dance with the whole team: they’re too good and too stoked by each other. Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above, don’t fence me in.

Then, in a surprising parody of a breakaway, the two players follow the puck out those kicked open end boards and onto the streets of New York, in and out of hotels, restaurants, cabs, alleyways and finally back onto the ice as their teams and fans await their return. No sooner have they joined the play than Kovalchuk bears down on an uncharacteristically defensive Naslund, his shot rings off the crossbar, and the two players watch it soar, once again out of the arena. “Let’s go,” they gesture, and we leave them dangling from the glass, trying to escape the confines of the rink, back at the beginning.

The version of the song is infectious: the singer is out of control with emotion—brash, crass, pumped and optimistic; he can barely catch his breath and his voice whines with passion and irony and sexual excitement. This is New York, after all, and the song is anti-urban irony versus the pastoral and laconic lyrics. In an interview in Splendid, an online music magazine that reviews mostly indies, The Mooney Suzuki’s Sammy James explains how the ad came about:

“Nike commissioned us to do our interpretation of an amazing Cole Porter song. And we were very excited to do that because I love the song and when we read the treatment of the commercial, it was this great celebration of New York City, and the spirit of New York, and we were really psyched and inspired to be involved in that... Like a Nike ad isn’t a commercial. It’s in the genre of pop art.”

I’m not sure who you have to be to see the ad as a celebration of New York; it’s clearly a 60-second ejaculation in response to hockey, and neither team wears the now-embarrassing Rangers logo, that symbol of excess and greed and arrogance and cellar-dwelling. And I don’t care who says it was the brainstorm of edgy hypertext wiseguy adboys: Al Purdy did it first, thirty years ago, in the poem “Hockey Players” which coins the famous definition of hockey: “this combination of ballet and murder.” Part of the ad’s power and pleasure, what helps it stroll into the arena of artistic appeal, is how it refers to Purdy’s poem visually and in terms of plot. Purdy, who died a few years ago, was also renowned for his original reading voice and style which I’ll nod to, but won’t attempt. The poem’s first stanza:

         We sit up there in the blues
bored and sleepy and suddenly three men
break down the ice in roaring feverish speed and
we stand up in our seats with such a rapid pouring
of delight exploding out of self to join them why
theirs and our orgasm is the rocket stipend
for skating thru the smoky end boards out
of sight and climbing up the Appalachian highlands
and racing breast to breast across laurentian barrens
over hudson’s diamond bay and down the treeless
                                            tundra where
auroras are tubercular and awesome and
stopping isn’t feasible or possible or lawful

And Purdy doesn’t let up on the real reasons the sport exists, now that it has been taken out of the natural landscape and placed in an arena where profit is the motive for most involved. Retroactively, he doesn’t allow that Nike ad to stand as a lovely representation of the freedom and open-endedness of the game and its players. Grow up people: it’s about profit and power. And yet the ad gets more beautiful when read in the context of Purdy’s foresight and wisdom. The last stanza:

Out on the ice can all these things be forgotten
in swift and skilled delight of speed?
—roaring out the endboards out the city
streets and high up where laconic winds
whisper litanies for a fevered hockey player—
Or racing breast to breast and never stopping
over rooftops of the world and all together
sing the song of winning all together
sing the song of money all together...

Part of why I keep looking at that ad is because it’s a poem and I get excited at the way it communicates with Purdy and vice versa. I get a charge out of the meeting of minds, the overlap, and of course from the surprise of those bodies leaving the rink because they have to. And then there’s the music.

Tood BertuzziI’m on a plane heading east to read at a toney writers’ festival. Todd Bertuzzi’s eyes glare out at me from the seatback pocket. “The Great Canadian Male” enRoute magazine calls him—a very close close-up in black and white that accentuates his scars, the grim violence of his eyes, the edge of malice around his mouth, and also the mocking of violence that is always around the corner of his eyes. He is an asymmetrical God. He is also a shy man who loves to laugh, but the photo attempts to conceal these qualities. Bert is the character in my story now—Nazzie’s sidekick, the burly brash Italian to Nazzie’s golden Nord, the red-haired naughty brother, as he once called himself, Steinbeck’s Lennie, where Nazzie is George—Guys like us...are the loneliest guys in the world. I covet Bert’s texture. The photo is gorgeous.

And it bears an uncanny resemblance to a painting by Jack Shadbolt, “Hockey Owl.” Though Shadbolt became associated with the Group of Seven and other eastern artists, his work is considered regional; his psychic and natural landscapes are found in British Columbia, where the west commences.

Hockey OwlArt critic Scott Watson interprets Shadbolt’s Hockey Owl series as part of the artist’s ongoing exploration of ritual and fetish forms which he did, this time, by transforming the owl into a hockey player with jersey numbers painted on like overlapping bird feathers. Shadbolt intended the series to be comic, but there’s also a dark side to these images where the figures “disintegrate into fields of destabilizing energy.”

enRoute Todd mirrors the Hockey Owl. In each, both dark and brooding eyes are slightly hooded, one eye more than the other. The sharpened beak takes the same angle to the left; no discernable neck. Part of Shadbolt’s ironic flair is achieved through endowing the owl—a bird associated with wisdom and intellect, the head—with the trappings, the jersey numbers, of an animal renowned for the body’s genius. At the same time, Shadbolt allows us to view Todd not as a thug or a neckless predator, but as a thinking man trapped in a bird suit.

In the enRoute story, Philip Preville fallaciously suggests there are only two types of hockey player—those who come with incredible talent and don’t need to work hard, and those like Bertuzzi, who must embrace hard work in order to survive. He borrows from Mary Shelley to elaborate—“If Don Cherry were Dr. Frankenstein, he’d have built Todd Bertuzzi to be his hockey monster”—and then describes the player: “looks like he was born on the wrong side of the bed. He is ruggedly handsome, which is another way of saying that brute strength and athletic prowess really can change public perceptions of beauty. He wears a natural scowl even when he is perfectly relaxed...He might as well have bolts sticking out of his neck. Other than that, he’s a regular guy.”

In a 2002 article, ESPN’s Eric Adelson captured Bertuzzi in a more complex way. Drafted in the first round in 1993 by the Islanders, Bertuzzi was disappointing. Not enough grit, according to coach Mike Milbury, and so the megagritted Clark Gillies was invited to have a word with Todd. “If you’re built like a freight train,” Gillies told him, “don’t drive around like a Volkswagen.” The analogy bombed and Bert’s game got worse. Four years later, in Vancouver, the complete game gelled.

Bertuzzi was born in Sudbury, site of the mysterious geologic feature known as the Sudbury Structure. Some believe the huge crater was caused from within, by a mass of magma that rose and solidified before violently breaking through Earth’s surface. Others believe it came from the sky, the result of the impact of a huge meteor. Bertuzzi’s father, Albert, is a working class tough guy, mythically strong and boastful about the family’s aggressiveness. “Todd got a snowmobile for his seventh birthday,” according to Adelson. “The next day, he plowed it into the side of the family garage. By age 15, he stood 6’2”, 195.”

Though Adelson depicts a player with a sense of humour, with a past, with a wife and kids who help put the game into context, he also refers to Todd’s difficulties over the years—and still in 2002—with his “smoldering anger.” Golf helps; also, a workout routine that includes running drills, football receiver out-patterns and badminton; longer minutes; Markus Naslund.

Put that Enroute photo alongside Hockey Owl, though, and Todd Bertuzzi is made complex once again, not the man of the easy analogy, the persistent cliché, the belittling analogy or the simple story. He’s the Sudbury Structure. He’s as textured as feathers, as interesting as night, as genius as a neck that turns all ways.

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