Hockey Night in Canton

Message from the President

William L. Fox '75
President Fox reads "Hockey Night in Canton"

If there were a North Country jazz tradition, equivalent to the music evoked by the Mississippi Valley, it would be expressed as ice hockey. The pleasure of syncopation and groove are inside that distinctive game, played at bebop speed. Even when the goalie slaps and slaps that oversized stick on the ice to signal the end of a penalty kill, a percussive beaver-tail sound beating upstream, you can hear the cadence of a kick drum in a jazz set.

Hockey, like the term jazz itself, is an odd word. There is no trace of linguistic origin, not in English, French, Dutch, or Algonquin. The game’s history, however, has a more confident beginning on the frozen St. Lawrence River around the time of Canada’s national self-determination as a dominion, rejecting its status as a colony in 1867.

It seems that a convergence of early athletic influences from Celtic, Northern European, and Native American cultures eventually produced a game played by skaters, carrying bent sticks, chasing a small petrified disk, while other emerging sports incorporated a lively, pliant ball with more predictable spin. There are still forerunner remnants of hockey called shinny and bandy preserved on frozen outdoor patches.

The majority of Laurentians have never played ice hockey, so for lots of people it is an untried, purely second-hand experience. Many have never seen hockey until their first semester of college life, sometimes beginning their spectator’s career with one of the most legendary college rivalries known in America, usually played right before fall finals and the first big snow—the Clarkson game. And yet, all who enter and leave
St. Lawrence, inevitably, learn a little something about hockey and acquire some agreeable feeling for a beloved college tradition, played by a varsity men’s team on campus since the 1920s and from the 1970s by women.

Why is St. Lawrence hockey noteworthy? What is there to think about when the community gathers in Appleton Arena, or is the point not to think too much? Is there anything to it other than an easy vicarious brush with intense physicality and the release of otherwise tethered emotions? At St. Lawrence, we live in a serious academic setting, immersed daily in concepts, motifs, analysis, discourse, and creative expression. How do you “read” this game if the story is new to you or how do you rediscover it if it’s a familiar old book?

To start, I like seeing fresh, untouched, and glimmering ice, immediately before the competing teams appear from their locker rooms. Maybe it’s like Emerson’s preference for the sanctuary quiet before the start of church. The St. Lawrence “barn,” as hockey insiders often call their home rink, preserves this quality of contemplative stillness when people arrive early, different from the feeling of wired expectancy now commonplace in the rock concert atmosphere of most sports arenas.

The father of a hockey student, who is himself a scholar of the game, once said to me that he loved “the metaphysic” of Appleton. It would be overreaching and, therefore, contradictory to the transcendent golden mean, for anyone to claim Aristotle’s presence in this corner of campus. And yet, before the action begins, there is something subliminal about the knotty-pine woodwork and the empty surface beneath, a flat, unscratched looking-glass, as if bringing an Adirondack pond indoors to admire on a cold night.

Once the puck drops, the game erupts into a state of chaos, which by all appearances will seem abstract, merely formless athletic power and speed. What to think or notice, whether it’s your first game or one among the hundreds before? An observer’s journal entry begins in staccato syntax, no full sentences, just words: hard, scrappy, profane, intense, and discordant. All seems frantic and quickly exhausting, and then the next wave jumps the boards to renew the desperate hopes for possessing an object worth no more than a piece of kettle coal. The stakes are high for something so small.

Trained to be theoretical (as are the best jazz players), can we find a pattern in this scene of blinding hyperactivity? After a while, strangely perhaps, a student’s intellectual capacity to analyze the action may seep into the experience—ah-ha, a paradox on the page. The perpetual motion of twelve players, colliding, spinning, falling, while the most heavily armored of them also darts sideways like a bumble bee in a jar, suddenly breaks into a design, not exactly Euclidean as in baseball or football, but coordinated nonetheless.

We would mislead ourselves if we merely thought a slap-shot is the prelude to some slap-stick entertainment, where the laugh is always on somebody else suddenly made to look foolish. There is, instead, a hive, an ordered purpose; there is a dance, and the swarm is trying to tell each other something. The journal page turns, and the writer scratches out the new words: elegant, flowing, humbling, precise, and adaptive.

As eye and mind adjust to the drama on ice, also to the full-blown sensory environment on the safer side of the glass, we begin to find and follow the puck more easily. It can rip the air with the cleanest aerodynamics or wobble dangerously like a slow-motion bad day. The cloud of unknowing descends upon player and observer for about as long as a human can take intense uncertainty.

Hockey requires, more than any other game, intervals of rest. And this necessary structure is one of the most important lessons drawn from the lecture hall of college hockey. The curious ratio of inverse effect, that oftentimes, the less you do, the more insight and productivity you gain, is a proof-point easy to miss during an hour of top speed and highly technical performance. Yes, Coltrane and Dizzy took breaks, even while in the music.

Hockey represents a quiet irony or, better, a wise counterpoint to the dizzying pace of riffs, licks, and improvisation today, when the prevailing adage everywhere, especially on a college campus, is “to power through,” no matter what. Hockey, as it turns out, resembles some of the best courses taught at St. Lawrence because it abides the wisdom of self-reflection, how getting off the ice, taking a breath, is an essential part of the game. Not at first, but I now believe it is among the many beautiful and hard things to do or see in life, because in Appleton Arena every Laurentian faces the inescapable challenge of thinking about something differently. —WLF

President William L. Fox '75