The detachment of watching hockey on television

I was at the Leafs-Bruins game last week at the Air Canada Centre. In the second period, when it was still close, a Leaf was tripped in the Bruin zone but it wasn't called, continuing what the crowd saw as a pattern. The Leafs sagged, as if in protest or pain, the Bruins jumped in, got an odd-man rush and scored.

Someone said, "That was passive-aggressive." It rang true. It's as if the Leafs, expressing the collective mood, were pouting to the officials, "If you don't do your job, we won't do ours." Passive aggression is often counterproductive but it's deeply rooted and hard to restrain. Yet I doubt it would've been noticed if we'd been watching at home, or in a bar. It made me think about the difference between hockey on TV, versus on the spot.

At the rink, your entire perceptual apparatus is absorbed: not just your visual focus but your peripheral vision, and other senses. The surround includes everyone there. You're all part of a sensory flow. On TV, the game onscreen is a very limited part of what you're aware of, even if you're emotionally riveted. There's also the living room furniture, or bar, including other games on other TVs. You can't be fully immersed, leading you to sense moments like passive aggression and perhaps subsequent self-recriminations. Instead, the experience tends to get chopped up, like your perceptual field.

This may be why some sports "televise better" than others. Football and baseball are already chopped up. A typical NFL game has under 11 minutes of actual action over three hours (when the ball is in play); baseball has been timed at under 10. Even basketball has pauses after each basket, plus foul shots and timeouts. TV close-ups and replays riff off this chopped-up, discontinuous quality. Emphasis falls on individual stars and plays. The postgame highlights are like instantly mythologized moments. Hockey has more flow and continuous action but it too succumbs to the media modalities we all know. Even when you're right there, a game can seem like a holographic version of a telecast. I once skated at Maple Leaf Gardens, with other writers who'd contributed to a book. I know what was in everyone's mind as we each hit centre ice. It was Foster Hewitt's voice saying: He crosses centre, picking up speed --

This is what mass media do: they mythify and magnify, not only in sports. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Hockey Night in Canada contributed to creating the myth of Canada and building the nation -- at least as much as the CPR or the battle of Vimy Ridge: consider the very notion that a unified country exists each Saturday night and turns together toward a single event. The mass media, starting with newspapers, played a major role in creating nation-states. In our case, a hockey broadcast was central to that creation. It's an amazing feat, if you consider how diverse and disunited every country's population basically is.

Is there a downside? Only this. When you're right there, watching your team can be agony but the uncertainty is somehow easier to bear than it is on TV. It's as if your presence might play a small role in the outcome -- or maybe it's just that you're sharing the tension with others, players and fans. When you watch on TV, you're cut off. You might yearn to turn away or skip to the ending, as if it's a film. In fact, watching a game on TV, even though you know it's happening right now, has a predetermined feel. You can't do anything to affect it, but it affects you. That sense of detachment is akin, I'd say, to decreasing voter turnouts and general citizen disengagement. As if we all watch a world unfold that matters deeply to us but which we can rarely impinge on. Hockeywise, what would be nice is -- ticket prices and scarcity aside -- to see hockey lovers experience a little more physical presence, and a little less disembodiment.

In a society with an active, engaged citizenry, where people didn't often walk around feeling like zombies, you wouldn't even mention it.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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