My uncle was team dentist for the San Diego Gulls a decade ago. He had season tickets and would invite friends and family to games. Not having a rich hockey tradition in San Diego, their answer was often ha, thanks, no. But I viewed it like going to watch "Disney on Ice" with the promise that Donald would eventually punch Mickey. Plus, beer.
Between each period (hockey has three), Uncle Ron would go down into the Gulls’ locker room to sew up busted lips or collect stray teeth. He took me with him exactly once, and it taught me everything I need to know about hockey.
The locker room looked like a Red Cross tent during a war. Sweaty players groaned, iced contusions, and bled out. As I stood trying not to punch one of them (a dark impulse, like the urge to jump from a tall building or stand up and loudly curse during a wedding), a particularly massive man blasted through the door in a huff. His head was the size of a prize-winning watermelon. Having been broken several times, the bridge of his nose twisted back and forth like San Francisco’s Lombard Street. He was, Uncle Ron informed me, "the enforcer," which is basically a bodyguard for the better, smaller players on the team. If an opposing player messed with one of the Gulls’ stars, Angry Enforcer Man made blood appear.
"AHHHHHH!!!!!!" growled Massive Enforcer Man. "If we score ONE MORE GOAL I’m going to beat the CRAP out of number four!"
He threw his equipment against a wall, made more loud noises. I tried not to throw a punch at him. My uncle sewed up a face and collected a tooth. We returned to our seats.
About a minute into the next period, the Gulls forward slapped the puck into the net, giving them a comfortable lead. I immediately scanned the ice for No. 4, who looked depressed and pouty. I figured Massive Enforcer Man might give him a pass. Or maybe he’d wait until action resumed, then smash No. 4 into the glass and try to make it look like he was going for the puck.
That’s not what happened. As soon as the puck entered the goal, Massive Enforcer Man gracefully skated across the ice, threw down his stick, and punched No. 4 in the face.
At that moment, I understood hockey.
Its violence is not the antithesis of sportsmanship. Hockey simply incorporates violence into the sporting guidelines. It allows lightly choreographed thuggery, and sprinkles it liberally throughout a highly technical, fast-moving sport. Everyone signing up knows that they will, eventually, get pummeled by Massive Enforcer Man. Blood is gentlemanly agreed upon.
I’m no psychologist, but I think witnessing this sort of controlled violence might serve as a sort of anger release for fans. Maybe it will prevent the enforcers of life from making me bleed. Or it inspires them to No. 4 me. I'm not quite sure.
Regardless, now the Gulls are back. I hope Uncle Ron renews his credentials.
The Gulls’ home opener is Oct. 10 at Valley View Casino Center. For tickets, visit, sandiegogulls.com