IN THE WINTER OF 1955, the editors of a newly launched magazine called Sports Illustrated sent William Faulkner to watch an ice hockey game between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens. The novelist was a puck novice — the article was entitled "An Innocent at Rinkside" — and he knew little about the sport's strategy or culture. But his brief essay captured hockey's relentless tempo, its improvisational surges, its attendant carnage:
[The game] seemed discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools. Then it would break, coalesce through a kind of kaleidoscopic whirl like a child's toy, into a pattern, a design almost beautiful, as if an inspired choreographer had drilled a willing and patient and hard-working troupe of dancers — a pattern, design which was trying to tell him something, say something to him urgent and important and true in that second before, already bulging with the motion and the speed, it began to disintegrate and dissolve.
Then he learned to find the puck and follow it. Then the individual players would emerge. They would not emerge like the sweating barehanded behemoths from the troglodyte mass of football, but instead as fluid and fast and effortless as rapier thrusts or lightning — [Maurice] Richard with something of the passionate glittering fatal alien quality of snakes, [Bernie] Geoffrion like an agile ruthless precocious boy who maybe couldn't do anything else but then he didn't need to; and others — the veteran [Edgar] Laprade, still with the know-how and the grace. But he had time too now, or rather time had him, and what remained was no longer expendable that recklessly, heedlessly, successfully; not enough of it left now to buy fresh passion and fresh triumph with.
Faulkner never again wrote about hockey. As far as we know, he never attended another NHL contest. Still, "Innocent at Rinkside" resonated because, for so long, the literature of hockey was "oddly limited," as George Plimpton put it, "odd because its world [...] is rife with storytellers and legend-keepers, and because hockey has a long and absorbing history."
This was true in Canada, where the rink is sacred ground, as well as America. Indeed, while the likes of Ring Lardner, Jack London, A.J. Liebling, P.G. Wodehouse, Norman Mailer, Fred Exley, Bernard Malamud, W.C. Heinz, John McPhee, Dan Jenkins, Donald Hall, Philip Roth, David Halberstam, Willie Morris, and Plimpton himself (among many others) were creating a small, vital, sports-lit cannon that revolved about baseball, boxing, football, basketball, horse racing, golf, and the Olympics, there was no must-read hockey novel, no classic memoir, no go-to oral history. Only in the works of Mordecai Richler could readers catch glimpses of the ice. (Hollywood made one contribution: Slap Shot (1977), with an uproarious screenplay written by Nancy Dowd based on her younger brother's minor-league hockey experiences. The next year, Dowd won the Academy Award for Coming Home.)
Perhaps this silence was caused by hockey's cult status. At the time of Faulkner's visit to Madison Square Garden, the National Hockey League had only six (count 'em — six!) franchises, all of them clustered in cold-weather climes: New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, and Toronto. The players were almost exclusively Canadians, the sons of miners from far-fl...read more