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Structures of selflessness: reflecting on 20 years of ice hockey

April 24, 2020

Among the many life-altering disruptions caused by COVID-19 was the cancelation of spring semester sports. As someone who bawled his eyes out onto the shoulders of 30 scantily-clad men at the end of my final Bowdoin hockey season—an end that I was completely prepared for—I cannot imagine how difficult it has been for spring athletes who have had their opportunity to write their final sports chapter unexpectedly and abruptly taken from them. This loss has made me reflect on my own sports journey: the fun, the struggles and the lessons the game taught me. I hope that by sharing some of these reflections, I can encourage those who lost their seasons to reflect as well and realize that all was not lost when the games ended. We have all been shaped in profound ways by the games we love to play. I’m going to tell you a story about hockey, why I love it and the lessons it taught me.

It begins, funnily enough, with basketball. As an athlete, hockey is my sport. As a fan, however, my game of choice is basketball. NBA, WNBA, BWVBB—give me all of it. The thing I love about basketball is that it has real-life superheroes, people who are larger than life, who defy the limitations of anatomy, physics and gravity. If sports are a modern facsimile for war, basketball is like “The Iliad,” with mythical heroes slaying entire armies by themselves, coming together in the heat of battle for epic one-on-one struggles to the death. Basketball is individualistic. The structure of the game allows individuals to have a profound impact on the outcome. Stoppages in play and freedom of movement are such that, in the moments that matter the most, the best players are going to get the ball and have an opportunity to make a play. While everything leading to these key moments still matters, the most iconic and impactful plays are often decided in large part by individual excellence.

Hockey is the opposite. For starters, the best players can be on the ice for at most half of the game, and often it’s closer to about a third. When they do get on the ice, there is no convenient way for them to get the puck. The stoppages in play don’t help, as even the best centremen win just over half of their faceoffs. The game itself is frenetic, chaotic and wonderfully unpredictable. People are constantly running into each other, intentionally and otherwise. The referees always seem to be in the way. The puck bounces, rolls and sticks to the ice for no apparent reason. The best skaters in the world trip and fall and bring others down with them. Sticks snap in half at inopportune moments. All of this is to say that it is incredibly difficult for a single player to affect the outcome of a hockey game.

If basketball is “The Iliad,” hockey is like “Band of Brothers.” Great hockey players aren’t athletic phenoms with 45-inch verticals and Go Go Gadget arms. They look a lot like the guys who sit in the corner of the Moulton dark room: broad shoulders, big butts, loud laughs and wide smiles. The reduction in the power of the individual elevates the impact of not only all the other players, but also the importance of seemingly trivial moments. Accomplishing anything in hockey requires stringing together dozens of small accomplishments and efforts, without any one of which the collective endeavor fails.

Let me give an example. Over the course of my four-year Bowdoin hockey career, I scored one goal, one measly muffin of a goal that I shot off the wrong foot on the ice between the legs of the University of Southern Maine goalie in a game that ended in a tie. That is to say, I basically scored zero goals. I was, however, rather good at killing penalties. I love killing penalties. All the pressure is on the other team. You don’t have to worry about doing anything skillful with the puck (you are in fact encouraged to shoot it as hard and as far from you as you can the moment you get it). Instead, you just get to skate around and hit people, two of my favorite things to do.

Killing penalties also allows me to utilize my greatest hockey skill, which is getting the puck away from people. This ability probably sounds like nothing to you. If you watched a game, I doubt it looks like much either. Everyone loses and wins the puck all the time. How could it possibly matter that I am five percent more likely to come out of a scuffle in the corner with the puck than the next guy?

Well, let’s imagine one such play, one where I’m hacking and clawing and falling down in the corner and just managing to kick the puck behind the net to my buddy. That might just be the play where he makes a great pass, that sets up a great shot, that causes a rebound, that leads to a goal. And the amazing, wonderful, beautiful thing about hockey is that the guy who scored that goal is going to turn around and point to the guy who took the shot, who is going to hug the guy who made the pass and they are all going to look around for me, on my butt 200 feet away when the puck went in. And when I finally skate down there to embrace them all, they are going to look me in the eye, and with complete honesty say, “F#*&$^ rights, man. That was all you.”

I think this has to be the most magical feeling in sports: the feeling that you, with all your flaws, are part of something bigger than yourself, something you alone could never achieve. These moments have for me been empowering, humbling and liberating all at once. They taught me to take pride in what I am good at, even if it’s not the most glamorous thing in the world, because in the right context those skills add incredible value. They made me aware of my own limitations and allowed me to revel in the fact that I can surround myself with amazing people whose strengths and talents can more than make up for them. Most of all, they showed me what it feels like to be free of the need to be anything more or less than myself. Those are lessons I will carry with me for the rest of my life, and that I was never going to learn anywhere but on the ice. Hockey taught me that, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Caleb Perez is a member of the Class of 2020.


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One comment:

  1. Shaun Hogan says:

    Excellent piece Caleb. It was a pleasure watching you and your classmates play these last 4 years. Thank you and best wishes in the years to come.

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