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April is a Cruel Month for Hockey, Too

“Street Hockey” photo (partial) found at On Frozen, ‘A Haven for the Hockey Malnourished’

Though it's an admittedly strange, even awkward, companionship, American hockey fans know what it is to love poetry.

April is National Poetry Month in America. It's fitting that this, T.S. Eliot's "cruelest month", is devoted to poetry since, like any month dedicated to a particular cause, the occasion is meant to draw attention to what's otherwise relegated to obscurity for the other 11 months of the year. And so, readings, conferences, and other events will, for 30 days, celebrate poetry across the US in an attempt to raise the profile of the form -- after which, it must be said, poetry will by and large return to the margins of American culture.

Such status is the cause of no small amount of angst-riddled teeth gnashing amongst many poets, scholars, and readers who lament the country's general apathy, ignorance, or both. A great deal of energy is devoted to discerning the reasons why poetry does not play a more prominent role in the US. Is it the difficulties of the works by modern poets? Or the educational system's failure to instill enough enthusiasm in the country's youth? Is it simply that Americans’ attention spans have shrunk and left no room for prolonged contemplation? Whatever the reason, fans of poetry may find comfort in an unlikely source: sports.

Though it's an admittedly strange, even awkward, companionship, American hockey fans know what it is to love poetry. That is, both hockey and poetry enthusiasts are gripped by a passionate intensity that is far from reciprocated by the country at large. In the past, the National Hockey League has tried its own, singular version of National Poetry Month, attempting several rule changes in order to attract more followers to the sport.

Ties were replaced by game-deciding shootouts. Two-line passing was made legal, making it harder for defenses to trap attacking offensive players. Even the goalies' pads were made smaller. All of this has been designed to speed the game up, increase scoring, and maximize excitement in order to attract a greater fan following.

In addition to these rule changes, marketing was stepped up, as well. The ill-fated glowing puck was introduced by Fox in an effort to make the game easier to follow for casual fans. Expansion teams were established in previously unthinkable, southern markets like Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. Outdoor games have been held in open-air stadiums for enthusiastic, shivering fans. All of these developments have been aimed at raising hockey's profile in a country where the big five (pro football, basketball, baseball -- as well as the collegiate versions of the first two) dominate the American sports landscape.

Perhaps most frustrating for US hockey fans is the way in which the sport enjoys prominence in other countries. Long the national sport of Canada, hockey also commands a rabid following in Scandinavia and other parts of eastern Europe -- places where viewers don't have to wait until the fourth or fifth segment of their cable sports news show to see the latest highlights. If it works so well in other countries, one might ask, why not in America? This, of course, is the exact same question soccer fans in this country have been asking for decades.

That the rest of the world calls the sport by a different name -- football -- speaks volumes about the distance between the American version of soccer and the rest of the world’s. While rabid fans across Europe, South America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia number in the millions, soccer is far more sparsely attended in the US. Though a great many American kids have grown up playing in youth leagues, enjoying sliced oranges at halftime, that experience has failed to translate into a dominant presence for Major League Soccer.

Even hosting the FIFA World Cup in 1994 -- an event that was thought by some to be the shot in the arm needed to propel soccer into contention as a major American sport -- did not create much sustained enthusiasm after the tournament's end. (Nevertheless, American organizers -- Henry Kissinger, inexplicably, among them -- are trying for a second host bid in 2018 or 2022.)

Like the NHL, the MLS has tried its own hand at growing the sport's following of American fans. The most overt effort was the signing of international superstar David Beckham to the Los Angeles Galaxy. Beckham was hailed as a savior who would galvanize national attention around soccer and signal a rebirth for the sport in the US. Injuries, however, restricted his playing time and the initial media frenzy surrounding his arrival soon fizzled. Much like with the aftermath of the World Cup, it seems unlikely that Beckham's brief and unremarkable stint in the MLS will put soccer on the same popularity level in America that it enjoys in the rest of the world.

Here again, American poets can find a particular kinship with fans of pro soccer. In other parts of the world (many of the same parts, in fact, where "football" is the dominant sport), poets are hailed as celebrities, heroes -- even presidents -- while stateside, poets and pro soccer players toil in nearly uniform obscurity. The fundamental experience of both groups is the disconnect between their own love and enthusiasm and the cool indifference toward the same on a national scale. US hockey fans, too, must share in this same bewilderment and isolation, looking beyond national borders to where their sport commands the attention it deserves.

Consequently, the struggle for American attention can be an ongoing source of continued frustration. Of course, that's only if fans let themselves focus on the relative obscurity of their passions. Instead, as poets can find empathy with hockey and soccer fans, so too can these sports fans find comfort in poetry -- if not by reading it, then in the refined connotations of the term itself.

From Coke Machine Glow by Gord Downie (also lead singer for the Canadian band The Tragically Hip):

The Goalie Who Lives Across the Street

Jean Beliveau's welcome any time

at the outdoor rink

in the park

just across from my house

for morning hockey under blue skies this winter.

Birds wheeling overhead

Russian temperatures

lousy to no gear.

I'm the Goalie Who Lives Across the Street.

Kids play with smokes hanging out

of their mouths;

beautiful puck hogs

with incredible tricks.

They are so easily fatigued,

they take a break after every rush.

Old-timers heckle:

"Hey, Jim Carroll. Pass the puck."

They don't get it.

No literary pretensions allowed.

Two minutes for

"I saw his blood,

a billowing crimson cloud

against the milk white ice."

That's an infraction here.

If poetry is the elevation of language to new heights, hockey fans and soccer buffs in the US can enjoy their own rarified space, one that might be better understood as exclusive, not irrelevant. The anxious drive to recruit more followers may grow the sport, but bigger does not necessarily mean a more meaningful experience for the average fan. Though more money and visibility can be helpful, membership in these obscure communities has its own rewards, providing fans with a stronger, more intimate bond -- with each other and with their passion. After all, the margin is a far less crowded place to play.

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