NHL, NFL, NBA…Sports Nation

The first NHL season began on this day in 1917. Professional hockey was a little different ninety-five years ago: the players worried about getting frostbite as well as scoring goals, and the media was represented by a few reporters and telegram runners rather than a ratings-driven corporate scrum. Still, perhaps then was similar to now: one recent history of the NHL’s earlier power struggles, during which the league tried to body-check its rivals into oblivion, is titled Deceptions and Doublecross: How the NHL Conquered Hockey.

According to Richard O. Davies in Sports in American Life, the NHL evolved more or less as did the NFL, the NBA, MLB, and the rest, evolving over the twentieth century from “unorganized and quaint origins” to a “significant, if often overlooked, social force” and mirror:

American sports, at their best, have provided us with inspiring stories of courage, grace, drama, excitement, and accomplishment. Conversely, they have also brought out, for all to see, depressing examples of brutality, cruelty, racism, sexism, stupidity, intolerance, homophobia, xenophobia, nationalism, greed, and hypocrisy.

According to Joe Queenan in True Believers, any fan worth the label takes his chances on the hero/bum coin toss and keeps the blind faith regardless: “It would seem almost impossible to do something your entire life without knowing why, yet this is what most sports fans do as a matter of course.” Although written by one of the devout, and mostly in a self-help vein, Queenan’s book also takes a shot at cultural analysis:

This book seeks to address several serious issues. One, why do people persist in a massively time-consuming activity that inexorably leads to inordinate misery? Two, how does the experience of the big-city fan differ from that of the fan in Cleveland, Charlotte, Sacramento? Three, given that a huge number of men basically squander their lives watching sports, what is the corresponding activity that women resort to in an effort to squander their lives? (Actually, we’ll get that one right out of the way: shopping for footwear.) Finally, is it possible to scale back one’s passions and become a casual fan? Is it possible to give up sports forever? Has anyone ever succeeded in doing this? Is his number listed?

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.