Ice (hockey) – who needs it?

Sidney Crosby playing ball hockey

Sidney Crosby playing ball hockey

Ice hockey – who needs it? I certainly don’t.

Now I have to admit to those who don’t know me that I am first of all a soccer guy. My handle is Beautifulgamer for a reason (though I don’t play much footie any more).

I should also admit that, late in life, I’ve become a ball hockey player. And I love ball hockey.

So there, I grew up playing soccer and ice hockey – but now I’m a ball hockey player. It may seem strange (perhaps not as strange as David Foster Wallace’s Orin Incandenza turning his years at the Enfield Tennis Academy into an NFL kicking career – in the novel Infinite Jest) but it’s not that strange at all given that where I grew up in Canada guess what game I played more than any other?

Ball hockey. Yep. Street hockey. Every day. Whenever I could. With my friends and even by myself. If I’d played as much soccer as I did ball hockey when I was a kid, I probably would be a retired ex-professional footballer living in Europe somewhere. That’s how much ball hockey I played. It was what we did naturally in my community.

So, why am I riffing on ball hockey today? Well, that’s because I just read in my hometown Toronto Star about how the National (ice) Hockey League (NHL) has just released a study on how climate change could effect the future of its frozen game.

Here’s the piece > NHL warns hockey’s future threatened by climate change.

Now I have to admit that the NHL’s Sustainability Report is kind of cool. I like that they are behaving like good corporate citizens and I think it’s great that they can acknowledge that their game is vulnerable. I also have to admit that I’ve been an avid follower of NHL hockey. I grew up with it on the television and in my daily newspapers and can’t really stop following it. In that sense it is more a subject that I’m addicted to than a sport I’m actually involved in.

However, when I ocassionally pause to reflect on the sports I’ve played, I realize that from a participation standpoint ice hockey ranks behind soccer (which I played professionally) and even ball hockey (which I played in the streets). I quit playing ice hockey when I was sixteen and all I can remember about it (apart from my daily fantasies of playing in the NHL and being interviewed on Hockey Night in Canada) is crappy once a week house league games and a whole lot of nothingness. There were the odd all-star tryouts where I thought “Hey, these guys are not that good but my skating sucks.” But those glimmers only reinforced the emptiness and didn’t put me in the same frame as the NHL I was glued to on the television. And by the way I could count on two hands how many times I actually had the opportunity to play the outdoor ice hockey that the NHL’s Sustainability Report waxes on about.

But ball hockey? I cannot count the number of times I played. And it was the opposite of emptiness. Because I could just walk out my door, pick up my stick and either shoot for hours on an untended net on my driveway or jump into any number of pick-up games going on on the surrounding streets. Ball hockey made me dive into the elements of nature that I found outside my door. Mostly they were cool, grey, breezy evenings, sometimes punctuated by beautiful floating snowflakes, but which were mostly uplifted into an ecstatic glow by the joy I found in chasing down, controlling, passing and shooting that bouncing, elusive ball.

Yes, ball.

Not puck.

Bouncing, not sliding.

And in pursuit of that object, I ran. I ran and ran and ran. And breathed hard from the stopping and starting. I did not skate. l did not glide. I did not dig skates into a turn or send ice shards or a spray of snow on stopping. My feet were on ground, firm ground, sneakers laced to happy feet.

That’s what I remember. And that’s what I feel nowadays when I grind it out once a week at the rink – under open evening skies – with the old hockey boys in my neighbourhood. It seems like sacrilege but this soccer player who grew up in apparent ice hockey country thinks that ball hockey is better than both the ice version and the “world’s game”. To me ball hockey is actually the perfect combination of ice hockey and soccer. Come to think of it, given my handle, it makes me wonder why soccer should have a monopoly on the term beautiful game.

Ball hockey is a truly great – and beautiful – game that I think could be Canada’s game, if it’s not in it’s own subtle way already.

And you don’t need ice.

Think about it. If the NHL is so worried about the environment and being sustainable maybe they should just ditch the ice. In a world where you have to put up buildings and install refrigeration in order to produce hockey players, that would be the natural thing to do.

Showtime: Kobe Bryant contemplates retirement and life after basketball

Kobe Bryant to lean on Phil Jackson for retirement advice

Kobe Bryant to lean on Phil Jackson for retirement advice

Every player has to face the end eventually. No matter the level of talent. No matter the sport. No matter the length of career. The end always comes. And either you face it or it faces you.

All those practices, all those games. All those wins and losses and ties. All the travel and the injuries and the self-depravation. All of the goals and points and assists. All of the mistakes and criticisms and self-doubt. All of the cheering and celebrating. All of the yelling and fighting and arguing. All of that passion and energy and adrenalin. So immersive and expansive and addictive is the life of a player – and then it ends.

That intense experience – with its highs and even its lows – is gone. How to replace that intense experience? Can you replace it? Should you bother? If you do and you can’t recapture that intensity, how do you react? Do you accept it, move on and live whatever new life sits in front of you? Or do you rage against your loss and spiral out of control and go downhill?

Those are the questions that basketball legend Kobe Bryant is starting to face now as the end approaches. In fact he started to face it last season when he played only 6 games in an injury-plagued season. With all of the time he had on his hands Kobe was able to make himself available to film director Goutham Chopra and the people at Showtime and the result was the documentary “Kobe Bryant’s Muse”, which will air in November.

ESPN talked to Kobe at the recent summer TV critics meeting about the documentary and he admitted that he was afraid of retirement but that he knows where and how to get the support he will need:

“You really have to lean on muses and mentors going forward, just as I did as a kid. It’s about having that next wave of things, which is scary as hell, but it’s fun at the same time.” (ESPN)

Apparently, Phil Jackson and Magic Johnson have a signficant presence in the documentary. When you’re looking for muses or mentors a player could do worse than having those two to lean on.

Jackson not only coached Kobe to 5 NBA championships but has led an inspiring life along the way, informed by his long-time commitment to Buddhist practice. Jackson’s approach to zen has been nicely captured in his autobiography, “Sacred Hoops“. And while Jackson has always been comfortable outside of the game, he was recently persuaded to return to the NBA as the president of the New York Knicks, the team with which he broke into the league as a player.

Meanwhile, Magic Johnson has come out on top after one of the most difficult departures from a sport. He has managed to survive becoming HIV positive and having to stop doing what he did best – basketball – and become a hugely successful businessman. Though Magic actually retired from playing three times, he seems to have come out of his traumatic period as strong and positive and happy and important as ever.

Here > according to Wikipedia is what Magic has been doing since his retirement:

“Johnson has been an advocate for HIV/AIDS prevention and safe sex, as well as an entrepreneur, philanthropist, broadcaster and motivational speaker. Named by Ebony Magazine as one of America’s most influential black businessmen in 2009, Johnson has numerous business interests, and was a part-owner of the Lakers for several years. Johnson also is part of a group of investors that purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012 and the Los Angeles Sparks in 2014.”

Magic’s post-career resume looks almost as impressive as what he did on the court in becoming perhaps the best point guard in the history of the game. His is a blueprint Kobe should definitely take a close look at so that he can at the very least avoid the uglier stories that have come up over the years.

A prime example of what can go wrong would be former Philadelphia Seventy-Sixer Allen Iverson, who ended up losing all of his money and playing in Europe in the end. He was a shadow of his former self. While he was his own worst enemy and often not a very good person, it was a sad way for a once great player to end up.

And there are many more dark stories out there in pretty much every sport played. Players have struggled with life after the NFL, life after soccer, life after baseball, life after hockey, etc., etc.

So are we worried about Kobe?

No. While Kobe has not been immune to personal problems, I don’t think there is any way Kobe will do an Iverson.

The question I have is can he do a Magic? Or a Bird? Or a Jordan?

Larry Bird became a successful coach and manager with the Indiana Pacers showing that he could not only have a life after playing but could also translate his on court abilities to the locker room and executive levels. And the great Michael Jordan has done not too badly himself, continuing to oversee the ever popular Jordan brand and becoming the first player to own an NBA team, the Charlotte Hornets.

I truly think that Kobe can and will function at the Magic-Bird-Jordan retirement level. But it won’t be easy. The toughest part will be letting go. I’ll bet if you asked the above successfully retired basketball legends if they could give up what they have achieved in their golden years to play again – they’d do it in an instant. There is simply nothing greater than playing the game. It is beautiful, powerful, intoxicating. Playing a sport at it’s highest level, or even at your own highest level, is to flirt with being a god. Playing is that powerful, I think. And it is hard to call it a day, especially when you have been a real life basketball god like Kobe has.

Perhaps that’s why Kobe has at the present time found himself in a bit of controversy as he contemplates retirement. In not being able to let go, he has also not been able to let go of his salary expectations even though his powers have diminished. Kobe has faced criticism for on the one hand demanding that the Lakers pursue the quality players required to pursue the championships he and the Lakers and their fans became accustomed to but on the other hand has insisted on being paid like the same-old god-like Kobe. As a result of Kobe’s contradictory position, the Lakers have their hands tied, cannot provide the aging Kobe with a top-notch supporting cast and are facing criticism from the higher levels of basketball and from fans commenting around the world.

Take this commenter on that ESPN article: “Kobe states publicly: I care about winning championships. Lakers: But Kobe if we pay you $80M over the next three years we can’t afford to surround you with talent to win a ring. Kobe: Just gimme the cash bro.” – James Slattery

It’s fascinating. As if playing – and the question of retirement weren’t hard enough – the haters are coming out and the great Kobe Bryant is facing a PR nightmare. Could Lakers fans themselves start to hate a player that gave them five NBA championships? Hey – we all know that “anything is possible in the world of sports”. Kobe could become a hate figure if he doesn’t handle this properly.

The coming season could be interesting. What will Kobe’s body be like? If he doesn’t play enough how will the Lakers even make the playoffs? If the Lakers struggle how long will it take for the critics to start howling? And – could the anger be in full swing even before Showtime airs the doc in November? There will Kobe be with Phil and Magic and others on the television being all cozy and contemplative about his future and his own fans could already be done with him.

Hopefully it won’t get ugly. Kobe deserves a good ending to his superstar career. But he has to be wise. I think that the way he handles the decision to retire will show us how well he will handle the retirement itself. This may be where Kobe should lean on Phil and Magic first. Maybe the first big question is not “how” to retire but simply “when”?

Should Kobe retire?

Should Kobe retire?