The Joy of Ice Hockey


If, as seems to be the case, we have only one life to live, it makes sense to play ice hockey. Hockey is a way to fit maximum fun into any finite space of time—typically an hour, but sometimes a luxurious hour and a half, if we’re playing the last game of the night and the Zamboni driver isn’t in a hurry to get home. A Christian minister I knew once argued that hockey is like a prayer. Hockey is NOT like a prayer, but I can guess what prompted her to say it. One is totally in-the-moment while chasing a puck. Time slows to a crawl. Every move, is a slow-motion reel: an exhilarating hyper-reality hitting all the senses at once.

Oddly pains seem to disappear for the length of the game. It is often only later that one discovers the bruise from blocking a shot. One can perform impossible feats and survive spectacular spills and crashes while wrapped in all that padding.

And then there is the camaraderie. Oh yes, there are the rare fights, and the meltdowns, and the people getting thrown out of rinks. But in the broad sweep of it, I mostly feel a closeness among friends and strangers all in on the secret of how much fun this is. Opposing teams all united in the thrill of the competition. Sometimes even a LOSING game will leave a team exhilarated such that we’re still replaying the heroic moments and congratulating each other the next day on Facebook.

I have met people in hockey I never would have otherwise: friends of every age, rich and poor, left- and right-wing, men and women, gay and straight. The only common denominator: these are the sort of people who at some point heard that hockey might be fun and were willing to give it a shot. In other words there is almost no common denominator. However, adult hockey does weed out the tentative and those who only do what everyone else is doing. There is NHL diversity ad: “If you can play, you can play.” For recreational hockey in Pittsburgh, we could add “And even if you can’t.” Pittsburgh recreational hockey welcomes beginners, and old people (like myself) who will never rise above E or D levels.

And what’s all this have to do with atheism? Nothing at all. What’s it have to do with Christianity? Nothing at all. And that’s the beauty of it.

There was a time in my life when every component of my life had to be justified as part of my overarching Christian worldview. Either something was a gift from God or it was a distracting temptation. I’m sure the “Hockey is a Prayer” thesis came from such a place. It is a place of anxiety. It is the “brain-in-a-jar” lost in abstractions several steps removed from reality.

But now I’ve escaped those confines. Now, when I sit on that bench, cheering and shouting to my teammates, waiting for the switch, to jump over the boards and onto the ice, if I have any other thought at all, it is that I am so lucky to be alive.

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