Note: Originally published on the now-defunct Slant News.
On March 2, 2015, Madison Square Garden rumbles with an unfamiliar chorus. Filling in for an injured Henrik Lundqvist, a young, untested backup goalie named Cam Talbot – later traded to the Edmonton Oilers – proves his mettle, blocking 25 of 26 shots on goal. The historic arena collectively leaps to its feet as their latest hero dives to stop the onslaught of opposing pucks, and on every level, from the Wall Street bankers to the weathered working-class, the fans erupt in cries of “Talbot! Talbot!”
From just behind the Rangers goal, in section 112, an old, six-foot Albanian Muslim sips a craft beer.
“You know,” he says, “If Talbot wasn’t doing well, they’d all be chanting ‘Talbot sucks!’ Talbot sucks!’”
In the world of sports, admiration stems from achievement. Players earn fans’ respect not for their conduct, but for their deeds, and the more victories they stack up, the more of a legacy they create. Indeed, the Rangers’ star goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, often earns derision from other teams despite his impeccable record – the Rangers’ inability to win a Stanley Cup has often elicited the snarky saying that Hank’s “no king without a ring.”
Strangely enough, this sort of behavior will strike any anthropologist quite familiar. In Chinua Achebe’s famous work, Things Fall Apart, the Nigerian author details tribal life before the onset of European colonialism. The protagonist, Okonkwo, begins the story as a hero for his victories in wartime, having slain four enemies in a form of battle that, like the world of hockey, kills relatively few people.
Sports often draw comparisons to combat, but none embody it in the same manner as hockey. American Football resembles trench warfare, in which two armies fight brutally yard-for-yard, drudging across a field with slow results. Soccer harkens to medieval combat, in which the emphasis is placed on maneuvering rather than raw force, and the fighters circumvent each other rather than confront. Other cultural mainstays, such as baseball and basketball, defy categorization in the same manner, perhaps earning them their appreciation. Hockey, though, is pure, unadulterated combat, two armed forces locked in a freeform struggle like two tribes charging each other on a pristine, neatly kept battlefield.
Indeed, hockey is tribal warfare. The sport evokes the fundamental elements of tribalism, the ancient system of civilization, divided into distinct, close-knit groups. An obvious example, of course, comes from the vitriolic divisions between fanbases, and immense fervor through which devotees support their teams, but the comparisons go even deeper.
Take, for example, the Stanley Cup. No trophy in sports is as coveted as the prized possession of only a single team at a time. Lord Stanley’s illustrious mug garners a fascination unique to its construction, attracting mystique from fans and players alike; it takes on a personality of its own, becoming the crown jewel over which the battles are conducted. So to, throughout history, have tribes fought for control over mystical objects. In ancient Canaan, the Israelites and Philistines bloodied each other en masse to get their hands on the Ark of Covenant. These ancient peoples attributed a great power to this piece of gold, anthropomorphizing it with legends of its intrinsic powers; so to do the players and fans of the NHL treat the Stanley Cup, claiming that the Cup itself had cursed the Rangers to a 54-year drought after they mishandled it (never mind, of course, that abusing the artifact is a long-held tradition amongst all teams).
And the fans, in order to support their teams quest for the cup, resort to ritualism. Tribalism revolves heavily around religion in order to cement the segmented identities of peoples. This concept seeps into NHL fandom at all times, with fans committing all manner of strange practices in the hopes of appeasing the mythological “hockey gods” – for example, the many fans who go to the same bars for every single playoff game, the ones who wear specific, unwashed jerseys for months on end, those who refuse to shave lest they curse their beloved players with mediocrity, or, perhaps most fittingly, the strange cult formed amongst Rangers’ fans around an oddly beloved toaster.
All sports attract these sorts of behaviors, but only hockey, in its primal nature evokes such raw displays of tribal rites. Hockey separates itself from other competitions with its unrestrained nature. Far from a slog, a maneuver or a grid on which to move, hockey proceeds at breakneck, freeform pace, creating a state of nature in which the grand illustrations of human endeavor flourish. Teams rush at each other across the ice in a primitive brawl using the brute force, intrinsic wit and sheer power of will to create legends, etched into the annals of the great artifact of the ancient Lord Stanley.
Hockey, then, speaks to the depths of the vigorous human soul. It is the primordial man, besting jungle and tundra alike, fighting off the elements, across mountains and plains. It is unbridled determination, struggling to survive against harsh climates and harsher foes, war paints of countless armies, merchants lusting for gold and grand kings sitting atop thrones of skulls. For the next few months, hockey fans will gird themselves in their colors, sounding the trumpets of war at every outing. They will beat their chests with every victory, and with every loss gnash their teeth like priest of Baal, rending their clothes like Jews in Shiva.
And you can bet, when the Rangers next meet the Oilers at Madison Square Garden, the ancient arena will echo with the cries of “Talbot sucks!”