Hockey is catching on in Los Angeles. The Kings are packing the Forum almost every night, adding thousands of new fans to the old hard-core followers.
And we Americans think we’re learning the game because we know the difference between a red line and a blue line, a forecheck and a backcheck, a high stick and a high five.
But that’s not good enough.
With playoffs just around the corner, there’s more to learn so that we don’t sound like a bunch of cementheads.
Sorry, that was a slip. Cementhead doesn’t necessarily mean stupid or uninformed. In hockey circles, a cementhead is a player whose specific role is to be an enforcer, to fight. If he scores goals, fine. But that’s not his job. If his I.Q. is in the genius range, that’s fine, too. But he’s still a cementhead.
And when cementheads drop their gloves (which means take off those big, bulky cushions they wear on their hands, so that they can really punch) and tie up their opponents’ arms by pulling their sweaters (jerseys that are not knitted of wool) halfway off, and smash faces and bloody the ice--that’s not brutal. Not in hockey terms. Not if it’s an even-up spilling of blood.
Brutal refers, loosely, to a mismatch. When a team loses, 11-3, that’s brutal. When a goalie gives up goals on the first three shots he faces, that’s brutal. A long trip can be brutal, too. But they never call a brawl brutal, no matter what the degree of brutality.
No, a game filled with hard-checking and elbowing and defensive bumping and lots of little scraps would not be called brutal, it would be called chippy. Now, chippy may sound like a yuppie nickname or some happy derivative of chipper but it’s not a friendly term in hockey.
And only in hockey is the word turtle used as a verb, as in, “What could I do? The guy turtled on me.” That means that he dropped to the ice, cowering in a defensive crouch and used those big old gloves to cover his head.
In a column in the Hockey News, in which he shared some helpful hints for Americans “in the spirit of free trade,” comic actor Bob McKenzie assumes that Americans know the basic hockey terms, like cementhead and five-hole.
(Don’t tell him if you don’t know that the five-hole is the space between the goalie’s legs.)
For example, he explains that what the Zamboni does to ice between periods is flood the ice. Not scrape ice. Not make ice. And a person who plays the right wing position is a right winger, not a right wing. And there is no such thing as a hockey locker room. It’s the dressing room. Or the room. And to play junior hockey is to play junior not juniors.
Somewhere in Canada there is a place called Medicine Hat that is always referred to as the Hat. But if you ask a guy if he played juniors in the Hat, you’ve blown it.
Those are the kinds of subtleties that give us away, that make those who speak hockey in the native language grimace. The way we’d feel if somebody called Joe Montana a quarterbacker.
Furthermore, in the language of hockey, Edmonton Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr was actually complimenting teammate Esa Tikkanen when he called him “a royal pain in the . . . .”
Tikkanen has perfected the art of shadowing and generally harassing players such as Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. As if the constant physical interference weren’t enough, he talks nonstop. Tikkanen calls it yapping.
The Edmonton Journal collected these opinions on Tikkanen’s style:
Dave Ellett of Winnipeg: “He gets under your skin. He’s there to cause trouble.”
Coach Pat Burns of Montreal: “I don’t know if despise is a strong enough word.”
Craig MacTavish of Edmonton: “He’s the best defensive forward in the game. There’s not a better checker in the NHL and he’s got all kinds of offensive tools.”
Paul Coffey of Pittsburgh, a former teammate: “He’s got a lot of talent, and not a whole lot of fear.”
Gretzky of the Kings, another former teammate: “I just felt like telling him to shut up. I said, ‘Tikk, I never understood you when I was playing with you, and I don’t understand you now.”
Jari Kurri of the Oilers: “He’s settled down. He’s still a crazy Finn, but he’s learned a lot. . . . He’s learned to play his own game now. Not sit in the penalty box.”
Tikkanen: “You need everyone good to win the Stanley Cup. Team needs a fighter. Somebody checker. Somebody scoring. Grant Fuhr. Somebody yapping.”
The Montreal Gazette polled 21 Canadiens, asking who they would rather have on their team right now, Gretzky or Lemieux. Twelve picked Gretzky, six picked Lemieux, two couldn’t decide and one chose neither.
Canadien Ryan Walter added: “The Gretzky-Lemieux business is a fun thing. It beats debating Wade Boggs and Steve Garvey.”
Edmonton Coach Glen Sather has never been shy about giving honest opinions on Gretzky, even when his comments weren’t too flattering and even when the Great One was an Oiler.
Sather said last week: “Over the years, (Gretzky) has developed an aura, a mystique. Much of it is crap, but his teammates believe he can do anything.”
Come to think of it, that’s what a mystique is all about.
While Canada is exporting its hockey players to the U.S., the U.S. is stocking Europe’s teams. According to the Amateur Hockey Assn. of the United States, there are 107 U.S.-born players on professional hockey teams in 12 European countries. That’s more than on NHL teams. . . . Just before New York Islander Bryan Trottier played his club-record 1,061st game, one more than Denis Potvin, General Manager Bill Torrey was saying, “I don’t think he’s finished as a hockey player. You’re dead wrong if you think that.” Trottier, 32, scored the game-winning goal Monday night in a 5-3 victory at Montreal.
The Washington Capitals had to cancel practice last Saturday when an employee of the Capital Centre found road flares in a box labeled “explosives” and thought they were dynamite. Fire officials evacuated the building. . . . Several teams, including the Kings, have had charter flights canceled because they were using Air Ontario. An Air Ontario jet crashed last Friday near Dryden, Canada, killing 24. There was little grumbling when the Kings were told they’d be busing between Montreal and Quebec.