Having just moved from Los Angeles to New York, I was more than lucky to have avoided my first truly harsh winter in 10 years. However, and I’m not sure of the internal machinations that fed this feeling, dodging the biting cold and fierce wind of winter left me a smidge unfulfilled. Empty. Hollow as a Jay Electronica release date. What is life without braving the elements? How can you claim a sincere feeling of accomplishment if you won’t plunge your hand deep into the murky dishwater and unplug the proverbial sink of life?
My most adventurous experience with snow involved sledding on borrowed garbage-can lids in a city park, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and embrace my inner Matthew Henson. I pulled out the North Face and ventured into the vast white tundra of professional hockey. Here in my log, I, Na-Negro of the North, observed the traditional customs and practices of these hearty snow people. Lewis and Clark ain’t s—t.
The Cataloging of People
The wind bit at my face as I stood outside the great rusted cavern known as Barclays Center.
I started tentatively inside and began to scan the herd of jersey-wearing Flyers and Islanders fans shuffling inside. Not a single brown face in sight. It’s widely known that hockey is a “white” sport, but this is often said in an anecdotal fashion; it couldn’t be that true. An event in the largest city in America has to have nonwhite attendees, right? It’s 2016. Alas, I couldn’t find a speck of cinnamon in the frothy chai latte and continued to my seat.
A bit nervous, I again scanned the crowd for a compatriot. Then I heard a tiny voice: “Hace frío, no?” I turned. A school had brought roughly 100 students of various ages to the game. After a bit of observation, I found that this school had also brought 100 students of various ages to New York from Mexico. After questioning the comprehensiveness of my American education, I felt reassured that these parka-clad youths were also conducting delicate sociological research.
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An Observation: Hockey vs. Basketball
In organized sports, basketball and hockey fill the same portion of the calendar year: winter. So as a spectator, you may only have enough energy to logically follow one of the two sports. I’m certain there are lonely, unoccupied people who actively follow both sports, but there’s clearly a tribal divide between Viking folk and warm-weather people (sans Upper Midwest outliers).
After spotting seven to 10 shaggy-haired young men with their hair jutting from the rear of their ball caps, I came to a realization: Hockey is the last sanctum for urban lower- to middle-class white people. Unlike NASCAR, hockey is more riffraff than racist. It’s the perfect game for college-basketball lovers and potential Trump voters who can’t vote for Clinton because thinly veiled sexism wasn’t enough.
The Aforementioned Contest
Like attending a major concert, it almost isn’t worth it if you’re not a few feet from the action.
A puck is small and really difficult to see. My inner Calvin Candie was sadly let down because no gladiatoresque physical action occurred. Still, the game obviously requires a great deal of skill, which left me rather impressed. I have trouble making sure my rice doesn’t burn while I chop salad vegetables, so ice-skating plus X earns worthy kudos.
The flow of hockey is eerily similar to soccer. The action is in the shots that don’t score. There is a jazzlike motion to the players as they weave in and out to gain position for a potential strike. All in all, it’s still boring, but the appeal is understood. However, this begs another question about xenophobia: How did a league with only a quarter of its players from the United States—the rest being Canadian, Russian and Swedish mercenaries—become such a hit with the core of “real Americans” instead of the similar and more globally popular soccer? I have my hypotheses.
Within the Confines of the Sanctuary
The extra competitive portion of a sporting contest factors greatly into the overall product.
A team that cares about its fans develops engaging crowd games, hires interesting performers and promotes cool giveaways. Nefarious robber barons let 90-pound dance girls throw T-shirts to investment bankers in the 12th row. My reports skew heavily positive. The NHL understands the collective identity of its fan base and caters to it in such a way that makes me envious as a basketball fan.
Just two years ago, Bruce Levenson, then-CEO of the Atlanta Hawks—the NBA’s most mediocre team in its blackest city—got exposed for sending emails that said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Don’t make the in-arena experience too black; less Negroes on kiss cam, kk?” Conversely, the Islanders have a hipster-friendly beard cam that allows even the hair-challenged among us to wear a lumberjack’s chin tresses for a moment. When the home team scores, a horn bellows and the home faithful chant in unison. Moreover, there are two intermissions of 18 minutes apiece. These extended breaks are longer than an NBA halftime, which allows a hockey fan ample time to get doubly drunk.
Though I entered the sanctuary with a curious gaze, I ultimately found an understanding of these people and their noble practice. Furthermore, I witnessed a miracle of nature before my very own eyes. I bore witness to Kyle Okposo and Wayne Simmonds, two of the 78 black professional hockey players in history, in their natural habitat.
Okposo, one of 14 African-American players ever to grace the ice, even scored a goal. Despite my reservations, I found myself satiated with my newfound understanding of the great ice sheet and its people. During a dance-cam session, a teenager had the audacity to dab post-Cam Newton’s defeat. When the camera returned to the teenager, he dabbed a second time. Encapsulating the essence of hockey attendance, a man shouted over the crowd, “Stop it! You’re white!”
Whether I return is uncertain, but these memories shan’t leave my thoughts.
*Jams walking stick in grimy curb slush and walks into the night*
Brandon Harrison lives in New York City and has Hollywood stories that rival those of Rick James. He prides himself on staying righteous and knowing more about basketball than you do. Follow him on Twitter.