Reading a Minor League Hockey Game

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This past weekend I attended a minor league hockey game between the Chicago Wolves and the Rockford IceHogs at the Allstate Arena, located just outside Chicago. I’m not a hockey fan, nor have I ever attended a minor league hockey game before. I have only a vague understanding of how hockey plays work and no understanding whatsoever of the Wolves lineup.

However, none of this mattered. The experience was not structured to demand immersion in the subtleties of hockey. To use Walter Benjamin’s term, the game was clearly meant to be viewed in a distracted manner. Here’s how:

  • Attending a professional hockey game is immersive in only one sense: The arena is a self-contained space with no external visual or sonic references. From the upper deck the first view of the rink is an atmosphere, an icy haze hanging over the rink. The rink itself has a glow like a television screen. In the Allstate Arena there are no clocks reading external time. The only time in the arena is game time.
  • There’s no such thing as an intrinsically boring sport. No one would play or watch one. Nevertheless, hockey and basketball, both arena sports, offer spectacles as distractions. These distractions come in the form of a repertoire of familiar diversions: tee shirt toss, an indoor blimp dropping free items over the crowd, contests involving animated snack food. Aiding in these spectacles are a small number—fewer than a dozen—young women. The women are attractive yet as impersonal as chorus girls. The distractions are like television commercials, and serve the same function as far as the team’s business office is concerned. In the arena, however, they are experienced differently. Unlike commercial, the arena distractions never vary in form or outcome. They are not rituals in that they don’t convey any meaning. Their predictability is precisely the point. The crowd knows when to cheer, and they do it every time. The distractions are palliative. Cheering for the game itself is always a matter of surprise, so it involves pain in one form or another.
  • Another borrowing from televised sports is the shot of individual spectators in the crowd. Local broadcasts are much more likely to single out ordinary spectators than national broadcasts. In the arena these shots appear on LCD monitors. The spectators are invariably taken by surprise, even when they’re doing something specifically designed to get them on the monitors. The camera is always invisible (but not voyeuristic). The individuals in the crowd shots are disorienting to the other spectators. The subjects seem to be sitting in some remote section of the arena. At the same time, the shots make the crowd seem concrete, a collection of individuals with shared interests rather than an anonymous mass. In very large arena the crowd can seem abstract and distant, even when one is seated within it. A spectator comes to recognize the faces of the people sitting within a few seats around him or her, and that’s it.
  • The problem of anonymity extends to the teams themselves. Minor leagues are transitional places. The players strive to move up, and dread moving back down or, more commonly, getting released. There are collegiate stars and major league stars, but never minor league stars. Without stars, the marketing departments of minor league hockey have to rely on borrowed signifiers, which they sometimes combine to make their own nonsensical ones. A few minor league baseball teams have established local identities cultivated since the age before nationally televised sports. The AHL was founded in 1938 with the merger of some older leagues, so no doubt some franchises have established deep roots. The Chicago Wolves were established in 2001 as part of an expansion into larger markets. The franchise’s tag line dissolves into semiotic mists: “More than a game.” The Rockford IceHogs (nee Cincinnati Mighty Ducks) date back to 1997. The Chicago franchise is named according to the traditional metonymic logic of professional sports teams, with wolf representing a given set of fearsome qualities. No matter that wolves haven’t roamed free in the Chicago area for more than 150 years. The team’s branding is really just kind of net that holds together a highly diverse collection of other corporate brands. The Rockford franchise extends the same logic beyond ordinary reference into a kind of dream logic with a software startup spelling style. Actual hogs, being hoofed animals, dislike ice. But in the logic of sports marketing, hog take to the ice to vanquish their enemies.

And vanquish them they did: The IceHogs won the game, 3-2.

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