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The Sixth Sense?

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Weird science

I visited with some family friends yesterday and of course I brought up hockey.  One of them lives here in California, but two are from Detroit.  Hence, whether or not they are hockey fans (which they are not), the subject of hockey must necessarily be appropriate.

Playing fetch with my dog whose name has been respelled “Marleau,” the California resident said “but Marleau isn’t with the Sharks anymore, is he?”  I cleared that up for him.  How do you not know very much about hockey and yet still come up with that?

The Red Wings decision to sign Modano was seen by all as a mark of real class, deserving of nods and approving comments like “excellent organization.”  Ignoring a likely age bias on our part, we concluded that the Red Wings must be the pinnacle of management wisdom, good and right and all things sensible.  Yes, of course we were drinking.  The conversation drifted to some football family dynasty.  I dragged it back as well as I could.

The more interesting topic, I thought, was whether or not someone who has never played hockey can properly appreciate the game.  Well, that was my question.  The man I was having the conversation with seemed to think the question was “can someone who has not played hockey understand the  game?”  He explained that, as someone who had not played hockey, he could not really understand the game properly, and neither could I.



Strange assertion. On the one hand, he was saying that without personal, practical, visceral experience, one cannot understand.  On the other hand, he was saying that, though he had never used my brain, he could safely and perfectly know what I can or cannot understand.   Since he can only understand what he has personal experience with, the same must therefore hold true for everyone else.  I consider that argument to be flawed.

But back to my own question: can one appreciate hockey, or for that matter anything else, without having done the thing herself?  I believe that the answer, put in that broader context, must be simple: yes.

What does it mean, to appreciate something?  It is not the same as “admire.”  To admire is to simply look at something with uncritical approval.  Appreciation requires some understanding of what you are looking at.  Must that understanding incorporate all five senses, as from personal experience?  Or can an observer develop understanding purely through observation, a vicarious understanding informed only by sight and sound?



Anyone interested in ticket sales must hope for the latter, especially in California.  The NHL may claim that hockey is for everyone but I suspect Malibu will freeze over before every Californian has a go at playing hockey.

Can you know if someone is a good firefighter without having fought fires yourself?  It may well take longer to gain the knowledge needed to properly evaluate a firefighter’s skill, if you have not done it.  But surely it is possible to learn what makes a good firefighter versus a bad one, given time to observe your subjects.  The novice observer would probably think very highly of the person who stopped her house from burning down, and there is some merit to that opinion.   A very bad firefighter would probably not be able to stop the fire, let alone save the cat.

The question “have you ever played hockey?” very frequently comes up in message board squabbles, as if this information must necessarily shed light on the validity of someone’s opinion.  Sometimes it is more relevant than other times, as when a player is accused of incompetence.  Still, someone who has studied the game thoroughly might be able to gauge a player’s performance, regardless of whether or not they have played the game.  If nothing else, one can garner some clue by studying stats, or simply watching the game with close attention.


I do not play hockey.  I have never played anything remotely like it, except under duress in school.  The only competitions I have willingly participated in are horse shows: not  a team sport unless you count the horse, not a scoring game but a judged performance.  Nothing like hockey.

I do not want to play hockey.  It looks quite exhausting and often painful.  Falling off a horse is painful too, and as likely to result in grave injury as playing hockey.  Most of the time falling off is not on my mind.  Presumably hockey players do not dwell on being injured either.  Fear is detrimental to performance, in pretty much everything.  Though I do not want to play hockey, I do understand how others can play without a constant fear of falling, so to speak.

I understand that the “have you ever played hockey” question is usually just a conversation blocker, an attempt to claim superior knowledge and a better right to have an opinion, or at least more right to share that opinion.  But I think there is more to it than that.  There does seem to be a school of thought that only participants, however inept, can truly appreciate hockey, or any sport.



What is most baffling to me about this position is that it completely negates the value of any sort of public display of the game.  If only players can appreciate it, then they must be the only ones who would want to watch it.  Therefore why broadcast it or, for that matter, schedule organized games at all, in locations well-suited for public viewing?  If it is also, or primarily, a spectacle intended for observation by many many people, then vicarious appreciation must be possible.

The argument also breaks down if you reduce it to fundamentals: if you must play to understand, what happens when you stop playing?  Do you gradually lose understanding?  Are you capable of understanding or appreciating some new development?  A change in the rules?  New equipment?  If you must do to understand, then the answer must be “no: your understanding ends where your experience ends.”  Hm.  Absurd my conclusion may be, but if an argument is true it should survive some reduction.


taste... or not

There are so many things to prevent someone from doing what they like to watch, it is ridiculous to assume that they cannot understand by watching as well as by doing.  Appreciation is a vicarious activity, it is different from participation.  While participation is one way to learn to appreciate a thing, it is not the only way.  Even an enthusiastic player, in order to enjoy watching a game, must have some skills of observation and the ability to appreciate without participating.

Understanding may be easier if one uses all five senses, but many people make due with fewer.  Sight and sound inform most of our conscious understanding.  Imagination may be necessary to fill in the gaps, and more people have access to that than we realize.  This sixth sense does not have to be very developed to know that falling off a building would probably feel like wind rushing by, be very scary, and ultimately hurt a lot.   Most people can extrapolate from diverse experiences and “understand” or appreciate a hockey game.

I’ve had horses fall on me, and less polite ones just crush me against a wall.  I don’t think it is much of a stretch for me to say “I know what that feels like,” when someone gets hit hard in a hockey game.  Some would say “it’s entirely different- those players are moving a lot faster.”  True, but they do not weigh 900 lbs, so I would stand by my assertion- it must be a very similar sensation,  close enough for government work.

imaginationMost people not raised in a bubble can do this- extrapolate and apply by way of imagination or simple empathy.  So I don’t think you have to be a psychic or a hockey player to appreciate what is going on in a hockey game.  Luckily for ticket sales, the game can be seen and understood from many vantage points.

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