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Commentary: There Are No Corners in Hockey

By Keith Frome

Buffalo, NY – I spend a lot of time at the Pepsi Center and at HSBC Arena watching hockey games. I can't skate and I never followed hockey until I moved to Buffalo and my kids took up the sport. Beyond learning the difference between a blue and a red line, and icing and slashing, I've come to appreciate the unique spiritual aspects of the game. Yes, spiritual. If you look beyond the busted teeth and fist fights and body slams, you will find a sport balancing on the edge of eternity.

The patron saint of skaters, Lidwina of Schiedam, is not coincidentally also the patron saint of prolonged suffering and sickness. She is represented by a girl falling on ice as well as by an injured girl receiving a bunch of roses from an angel. Saint Lidwina was born in Schiedam, Holland on April 18, 1380. When she was 15, she spent an afternoon skating with her friends. One of them bumped into her (checked her, perhaps?) and she fell and broke a rib. She received poor medical care and gangrene set in which eventually, so the story goes, covered her entire body. Lidwina lay in such constant pain that some in Schiedam believed she had become possessed. For the rest of her life, she suffered without relief, but she was also comforted with continual visions of God. Soon, those who came to her bedside were rewarded with miracles and her fame spread. When she died, at the age of 53, people made pilgrimages to her grave, famous theologians eulogized her, and finally, in 1434, a chapel was built over it in her honor. In 1890, Pope Leo XIII beatified her.

From my perch in the 300 section of the arena, I see the eternal nature of hockey. At this distance, you do not hear the thud of checks or the grunts and swears of the players. Instead, you see an Etch-A-Sketch of gyrating lines. In a Charles Baxter novel, a physicist describes the play of snow as a "pattern of swirls, the visible vectors." That's exactly what you see up here. You realize that this is the only professional sport not played in a square or a rectangle. Hockey is a circular game. We may talk about digging the puck out of the corner, but there are no corners in a hockey rink. There are bends. A rink is an oval decorated with a series of circles. To clear the puck from deep within his zone, the defenseman must ricochet it around the bends in the boards as if he were a flipper in a massive pinball game. The puck itself is a sphere spinning and orbiting throughout the contest. The paths of the players circulate. Their blades cut eddies within whirls. Even the beloved Zamboni is blunted and rounded. A hockey game is a series of tops, twisting and spinning. Hockey, viewed from on high, displays a geometry that is more spiritual and dynamic than the simplistic, two-dimensional line segments of a football field or the perfect angles of a baseball diamond.

Saint Ludwina and the game of hockey connect in the circle, for the circle is a common figure of religious expression. Hockey and the Ludwina story both place tremendous physical duress within a context of eternity. Emerson says, in his essay "Circles," "The Eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere, and its circumference nowhere." The very playing surface of a hockey rink beckons infinity. Though "Circles" is ostensibly about writing and what it means to be a writer, Emerson could have been writing about hockey as when he says: ". . . every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens." If every slap of the puck is an action, it is an action waiting to be outdone by an opposing slap and so on. This progress of the puck being continually outdone describes the narrative thread of any hockey game.

Hockey players have spent their entire lives etching figure eights, swirl upon swirl, without end. If the first circle is the eye, then stare at a player's eyes and then pull back to a far shot of the rink, to the red dot at center ice, to the face-off circles, to the puck and its journey throughout the game, and then to the oval arena and then beyond and above it to the moon and the evening stars. I do believe, that at some unconscious level, a life spent in circles within circles must exert some mystical pull on the soul. I can't prove this, but this I do know: players over a lifetime at least get into the rhythm of hockey, and, even long after they stop playing for town travel leagues and they are cut from their college teams, still rise before dawn on a Sunday morning, lace up their kindergartners' skates and shovel a frozen pond so that another generation of circles can be cut.

Listener-Commentator Keith Frome is spending this year as executive director of "Achieve" -- the Elmwood Franklin Center for tutoring and enrichment.

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