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As fiction fodder, ice hockey's not a natural

Despite the 'Mighty Ducks' films, the sport's gotten a creative cold shoulder for years.

May 28, 2003|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

With the Stanley Cup hockey finals between the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the New Jersey Devils underway, you'd be forgiven a certain impulse to run out to the library for a good hockey novel.

If you do, get ready to be disappointed.

While America's pastime, baseball, has produced a library of books and movies about the sport, you could fit all the world's hockey literature and films into a miniature penalty box.

The reason: baseball's larger popularity and the contrasting natures of the two sports.

There's something about baseball that invites highbrow eloquence, if you ignore the malapropisms of Yogi "It ain't over till it's over" Berra and the players' inevitable spit-stream of tobacco juice.

Baseball, for instance, is the only professional sport that gets fairly regular play in the New Yorker, the arbiter of all things cultural. Major league baseball once tapped a Yale University president as its commissioner. And for some, baseball's near-mythic qualities make it an essay on life itself, each at-bat an ashes-to-ashes endeavor in which a player strives to end where he began -- at home.

If baseball is an essay, hockey is a stream-of-consciousness beat poem, a free-form fling of ideas and images. It skates along the brink of violence, often slipping over the edge, while drawing out dark passions and blood lust among fans.

Despite the passion -- or maybe because of it -- hockey hasn't given rise to the kind of literary or film canon that grew from baseball and, to a lesser extent, football. Bernard Malamud's classic novel "The Natural" uses baseball to explore greed and hubris, though the movie version starring Robert Redford was tweaked to give it a more uplifting ending. The movie "Field of Dreams," based on W.P. Kinsella's novel "Shoeless Joe," is an exercise in faith: "If you build it, he will come."

Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes" details the failed life of a man who finds personal revelation in an injury to New York Giants football player Frank Gifford.

But the Great American -- or even Canadian -- hockey novel has yet to be written. The culprit might be the nature of the sport itself. While there is beauty in hockey -- a high-speed rush on goal can seem balletic -- it's often overwhelmed by the sport's inherent ruggedness.

The old joke about "I went to a boxing match last night and a hockey game broke out" is funny because it lies close to the truth. And the speed of hockey punishes any fan who isn't paying close attention. At Dodger Stadium it's not unusual to see fans reading the sports section during a game. A hockey fan burying his nose in the paper is apt to miss the winning goal.

"Baseball is a slower game, more contemplative in nature," said David McGimpsey, an English professor at Montreal's Concordia University whose "Imagining Baseball: America's Pastime and Popular Culture" explored the creation of myth around the sport. "It's easier to recast baseball in a literary form."

More significant, though, might be the scope of the fan base for baseball. The more people who follow a sport, the bigger the market there is for books about it, McGimpsey said. And the markets -- the fans themselves -- are different, according to some experts. Sports fans generally tend to identify with the traits of the athletes they follow. And given the driven, violent nature of hockey, fans tend to be a little more aggressive. And obsessed.

"A lot of that is because the players themselves, that's their character trait," said Kirk Wakefield, marketing chair at Baylor University in Texas. "[Hockey players] are bold and more competitive and better able to handle stress than others."

Up to a point.

"They seem to be relatively calm," Wakefield said, "and then they knock the stew out of somebody."

Taking Wakefield's point about fans identifying with players' personalities, McGimpsey and others wonder whether the more effete personalities of literary figures and academics make them gravitate toward baseball and the romantic gentility of a day at the ballpark. In that realm, the Stanley Cup is what Kowalski drinks from in "A Streetcar Named Desire."

"Certainly among other university professors I meet there is an admiration for baseball, and in fact many would even participate in softball leagues of one kind or another," said Dave McNeil, an English professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. "They turn away from hockey, even to the point where their children would not be encouraged to play the sport because it is perceived as too violent."

The difference lies in the orderly nature of baseball, in which teams of nine men play nine innings on a diamond with 90-foot base paths. To strike out a side a pitcher needs to throw nine strikes.

"Even writers and academics can see a certain beauty and symmetry to baseball," McNeil said. "Whoever came up with 90 feet was poetic."

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