The most entertaining hockey in the world right now is not being played in the NHL. It is not being played by men at the college level or at any level. It is being played by women, especially those on the American and Canadian Olympic rosters.
I’ve been a hockey fiend my entire life: I played it well enough that I was recruited for college. Although I quit to focus on writing, hockey never ceased to inform how I thought and viewed the world, from how I approach the composition of a new book, to putting a tragedy in the proverbial rearview and always moving forward in life.
The women’s game is about pushing forward one’s individuality in the cause of a larger good.
Up until about three years ago, I only watched men’s hockey. Then, one afternoon, I wandered into a college hockey rink and saw that a women’s game was under way. There was hardly anyone in the stands: parents, a few loyal roommates, and me.
What I saw instantly engrossed me. There was so much flow to this game, in marked contrast to men’s matches, which are bogged down with an overreliance on system. The men’s game can be depressing, like hockey has morphed into a totalitarian state. The will of the player — his tendency to improvise, to attempt plays that have a measure of risk — is subservient to conservative attacking styles, with an emphasis on defense above all else.
But the women’s game? You know that feeling when you’re sick and you can’t get out of bed, and then that first day comes when you’re back outside and you tell yourself not to overdo it, but before you know it, you’re racing around and you never want to go back in again? That’s the women’s game.
In the Olympics, we see the apex of the sport, and you must watch, you must see how these athletes approach the business of manipulating a disc atop frozen water.
It’s almost a given that the United States or Canada will win gold, a reality that can make some of the other games less competitive than you might want, but the women have what the English call “bottle” — meaning, some legit heft in the guts department.
A lot of these women started their careers playing against boys when they were young, and might have been the only girl on the team. If you’re going to be the only anything in anything, you probably don’t scare easily. You know that if you don’t belong, you can still compete with the very best of them. You have pluck, and with pluck comes a zest for creativity.
That’s what you’ll see with the women’s game. Thinking hockey. Brave hockey.
The men’s game is predicated on not making mistakes. If you turn the puck over, your hindquarters will be staple-gunned to the bench. Although the women’s game doesn’t court errors, either, it does reward progressive thinking — like that player who enters the attacking zone, curls back toward neutral ice, comes to a full stop, and feathers a cross-ice pass over one defender’s stick and under another’s, to a teammate busting toward the net. The men don’t attempt plays like this. They dump the puck in, and they chase it. Instead of proceeding with flow, they pound.
There is no body-checking in women’s hockey, which is bound to open up the play. The velocity of the shots is necessarily lower, which means that goalies tend to make saves with acrobatic flair, rather than just flopping to the ice and letting the puck hit them.
The women’s game is about pushing forward one’s individuality in the cause of a larger good. Each individual, with her particular style, has greater freedom than in the machine-like men’s game. There is a great satisfaction in watching a woman’s skater attempt an exquisite toe-drag dangle as she enters the offensive zone; to win great results one must court some risk. The women’s U.S. and Canadian squads remind me of the great Soviet teams of the 1970s, virtuosos of on-ice joy and dazzlement.
Watching the women’s game, you may start to think that you know these people, because each individual seems to express her personality in competition. It is a beautiful gift to be able to play that way, just as it’s a beautiful gift to be able to watch someone play that way.
Colin Fleming is the author of the forthcoming book “Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls.”