“I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out.” -Rodney Dangerfield
I’ve never invested more hope in a stranger than I do in Robert Mueller.
That’s a scary thought. I don’t know the man. But in many ways it feels like history itself rests on the his shoulders, not to mention the future of western politics, the alignment of the post-Trump world order and the relative sanity of some 300-odd million of our fellow Americans and progressive international allies alike.
It’s a great deal for one man to bear. In my darkest moments, as criminals openly admit crimes with impunity and spineless congressional leaders do nothing, I worry if it’s all too much for one man.
But then I remind myself that he’s smart.
I remind myself that he’s probably surrounded himself with people like Sally Yates, a woman whom I knew nothing about a few short years ago, but whom I now deeply admire and respect.
I wonder sometimes if he can mount the right cases, in the right order, in the right courts, knowing that the criminal-in-charge has the power to exonerate anyone. I wonder if America will escape from this situation without more violence. Real violence. Open conflict kind of violence.
And then, Tuesday morning I read that Robert Mueller is a lifelong hockey player.
And I felt immeasurably better about everything.
My god that’s a bounty for all of us. As a lifelong hockey player myself, let me explain why.
It’s not that hockey players are better than other people. I’ve known plenty of dirtbags who play hockey. Frankly, most hockey players have a little edge to them. But hockey players have a bullshit detector like you wouldn’t believe. If you aren’t born with it, playing hockey will teach it to you real quick.
More importantly, Robert Mueller grew up playing hockey. That’s important. You don’t learn a damn thing in an adult men’s league. But growing up playing hockey means that you spent formative years in a hockey locker room, and trust me: in the arena of sports, there is no better place for a boy to learn about himself than in a hockey locker room. (I’m not sure how it plays out in women’s hockey, but someone who has experienced it can jump into the comments).
I played just about every sport growing up - team sports like soccer and football and lacrosse and baseball and basketball and volleyball. I played individual sports like squash and tennis and wrestling and golf and cycling. I was on ski teams and swim teams and played all sorts of random things like fives and ultimate frisbee and trap and skeet and badminton. I’ve been an equestrian, a sailor, a bowler, an archer, and a skydiver. And I say verily unto thee: a hockey locker room is different.
The thing that sets it apart is the honesty. Brutal fucking honesty. Humiliating, crushing honesty.
When you start to play on a team as a kid, the pre-game locker room is a Times Square of coaches and parents. Dads tying skates between pinched-together knees. Moms rifling through bags to find away jerseys. It’s a commotion. Once you get to be about 10 or 11, though, you tie your own skates. You get eyebrows raised if your daddy has to tie your skates for you. You are forced, like it or not, to handle your own business.
Let me say - very clearly - I too, have a hair trigger for toxic forms of masculinity. It’s a clear and present danger to this world and once we have some people with more than a third grade education in power we need to address it. This isn’t that. It’s not about masculinity at all, it’s about handling your own business. It’s about accountability.
So as you get older, the family waits in the bleachers as you get your own equipment on. The coaches don’t hang out with you because teenage boys are generally disgusting and they smell foul. The only place I’ve experienced that smells worse, in general, than your average pee-wee hockey locker room is a wastewater treatment plant.
And in those pungent moments, leaning over to pull your laces so tight that your fingers ache: that’s when the learning begins.
That’s when the honesty happens. Guys are called out, in hushed tones at first, for self-centered behavior. Maybe something is mumbled under someone’s breath about how maybe a certain player should think about passing the puck this game (for once). Maybe a guy is mocked for flirting with a girl who isn’t his girlfriend. Maybe a guy is picked on for his fancy-ass pads when everyone else has hand me down shit from their older brother. If you transgress, you’re fair game.
In a football locker room, for example, the skill players always have status. Nobody talks shit about the quarterback. The opposite is true in a hockey locker room. You could be the top goal scorer in the league and wittier, more clever guys will pull your shit apart publicly. I played high school hockey with a guy who was already drafted to the NHL and he got his shit pushed in on the reg by guys who barely got ice time. The people who have status in a hockey locker room are the ones who:
1) Tell it the way it is <—- the way it really is, with no bullshit
2) Are funny
3) Don’t say much
I survived because of #2. Thank god. I don’t know what kind of guy Bob Mueller was growing up, but he would know exactly what I’m talking about. Hockey locker rooms don’t care about wealth or ability. They care about keeping the bullshit to zero, doing the ‘right’ thing both on and off the ice, and being funny as hell. That’s it.
The fact that Robert Mueller has run this particular gauntlet, and learned about the subtleties of appropriate behavior will help him in his current position. He has earned the right to throw a ton of side eye when he sniffs bullshit.
THE GREY AREA
Dustin once asked me to write about fighting in hockey and I’ve always been hesitant to do so. It’s because you sound like an uncivilized boor when you wax poetic about fighting of any kind. We’re in a more introspective world, and using physical violence to solve anything feels…outdated and foolish.
But I’m going to try to explain what I like about hockey fighting, and hopefully I won’t come off as too daft.
Fighting in hockey is the final bastion of true social control in western civilization. If you don’t know hockey, fighting can look like two troglodytes just blasting haymakers at each other for no reason.
Trust me: there’s a reason.
That’s what a lot of people don’t realize: there is always a reason. There’s always an iron-clad, 100% valid reason. Period. Full stop.
If you get punched in hockey, it’s because you had it coming. It’s because you knowingly did something that the referee didn’t see, and you got away with it. And in that grey area of life where people break the rules all the time out of the direct view of John Law, that’s where a hockey fight begins.
You’re driving for the puck and you’re not quite going to beat your opponent, so you hook him on the back side, just a little…juuuuust enough to slow him down. The ref doesn’t see, so you get away with it. It’s called playing a little ‘chippy’, meaning that certain players use their stick like a subtle weapon. They poke and hack and strafe with it where the officials either can’t see or they stop just short of the letter of the law.
But this can get you punched in the face. Because it’s solidly in the grey area.
Let me put it in human terms: You’re driving on the highway and there’s a long line of cars waiting to get off at the next exit. So you pull into that long line and you wait your turn. But then some absolute dickweasel in a BMW drives to the very front of the line and forces his way in. Is he technically breaking the law? No. It’s a grey area. But in hockey, that dude gets punched in the face. Period.
The players police themselves in that world. And the operating premise is that “you know what you did.”
You knew the rules, we’ve all tacitly accepted them, and then you decided to put yourself first. Bam! Down goes Frazier.
The goal of fighting isn’t to hurt anyone. Sometimes it’s a way to boost the morale of a lagging squad. But more often it’s a type of deterrent.
A) You know the rules.
B) You know you’re flaunting the rules that you know.
C) If you choose this path, there may be a fist tax to be paid
You’re either playing chippy because you’re a lazy shithead or a cheap fuck or you’re intentionally trying to take a better player than you off the other team. This is a real strategy. If you’re the best player on your team, you’re going to get someone from the other team ‘going stink’ on you. They may even skate up to you after a whistle and dare you to hit them. And if you don’t, they’ll hack you quickly in the back of the leg where you have no pads to give you a little extra incentive. That’s strategy. That’s the war of attrition that happens during any game where you would gladly trade your pawn for your opponent’s bishop.
And Robert Mueller knows this. He knows that the other team will feint and mock and raz him endlessly. He’s dealt with it his whole life on the ice. This is why you never hear boo from Robert Mueller. You just hear one side doing all the chirping and the other side silently racking up indictments. He knows that the team who can eliminate the other team’s players one by one, sending them into the penalty box, stands a real chance of scoring points.
So much of the current administration’s transgressions are in the grey area. The emoluments clause. Pardons. What a sitting president can and cannot do. Having an intimate understanding of this grey area will only allow Robert Mueller to take on the role of enforcer on behalf of the American people.
THE FAST AND THE SLOW
Unlike most other professional sports, hockey players move at full speed for most of the time they’re on the ice. It would be like being on a fast break the whole basketball game. And because of this, each ‘shift’ for a player is relatively short. Anywhere from thirty seconds to a couple of minutes. You just can’t go much longer than that at top speed.
That said, hockey is a game of changing tides and rapidly shifting momentum. Sometimes a team scores on you twice in a minute and you’re faced with the unappealing landscape of playing from behind. Your opponent can decide to bunker and present a completely defensive formation: they’re not even trying to score anymore, they’re just betting they can keep you from scoring.
This happens all the time.
And so, you have to probe. You move the puck into their zone and they blast it out. You carry it back in on the other side and they blast it out again. You dump it in deep and crash the boards, hoping to out-physical them, and they blast it out again. You keep probing for a weakness. You keep reconnoitering their defenses. It requires some patience, which can be difficult when there’s a ticking clock at all times.
The more you press, the more you learn, and eventually, if you’re good enough, you can fight your way into a scoring position, no matter how much of a defensive posture your opponent presents.
This is why the drum beat of the Special Prosecutor’s office is steady. This is why Robert Mueller doesn’t get caught up in the various swings of public opinion. A good hockey team is like an irresistible force moving in unison toward a shared goal. That certainly feels like the pace of the Special Prosecutor’s investigation.
HOCKEY FANS AND CROWD CONTROL
Hockey fans are nuts. Some of them clinically. Most of you have probably heard Sarah Palin’s stupid Hockey Mom joke about the difference between Hockey Moms and pitbulls being lipstick. Yuck yuck yuck. She’s a true dunce. But hockey dads are as bad if not worse. Hockey people are passionate and a little fucking nuts.
That’s because hockey, thankfully, is a blue collar sport. I know it takes white collar money to play it, but when the snow starts a-falling, the peerage steps into their skis and the proletariat straps on their blades.
And they kick ass.
Which tends to draw passionate crowds. Like in Vancouver, where the green men used to taunt opponents in the penalty box.
The takeaway from this is that despite all the antics, these players never blinked. Not a one. They weren’t rattled at all. You get develop mental discipline over the years where you learn very early to drown out the noise. Fans get crazy. Fans throw their hats on the ice when a player scores three goals or what’s called a ‘hat trick.’ In college and Junior A, many rivalries involve throwing rats or dead octopi on the ice. Sometimes goalies get pelted by oranges. It can be mayhem.
But passionate crowds aren’t limited to professional games. You can attend squirt-level hockey games where parents are screaming their heads off. It’s fearsome and sometimes fun and sometimes appalling. Each crowd is different. And if you’re good enough as a player, people will taunt you from the stands. Like, directly. I still remember the first time a parent chirped at me from the stands. I was eleven. I had just scored my second goal of the game and we were up 2-1. I was skating back to center ice for the face off when this mustachioed dude in a full-on denim tuxedo started yelling at me.
“Hey 13! Hey Number 13! What are you a fuckin’ garbageman? Huh? Fuckin garbageman! Because your wrist shot probbly sucks!”
I was 11 years old.
Why was this suburban Oscar Wilde lavishing me with such attention, you ask? His shit-talk was directed at me because I had scored both goals on rebounds right by the goalie’s ‘crease’, which is basically just jamming away at the puck by the opponent’s goal if their goalie doesn’t make the save and cover the puck. A ‘garbage’ goal in hockey parlance. His kid was the goalie on the other team. Denim Tuxedo was the first in a long and prestigious line of strangers who have sworn at me.
I was in shock. I looked up at my dad who was smiling and blinking like Homer Simpson, completely oblivious to the maniac that was razzing his kid. It threw me off. I won’t lie. It got me off my game. When the third period started I was sitting on the bench waiting for my shift when I leaned over to my buddy, a big, rangy defenseman and I asked him “Hey, does my wrist shot suck?” And he laughed and said “What? No! Don’t listen to that jerk. He’s trying to get in your head. Look at him. He’s wearing a White Lion concert T. Guy probably lives in a van.”
So I went out and made a meal of it. When I got my chance I pulled the puck back and bent the everliving shit out of my old school Sherwood and fired off a fucking hot pill on a frozen rope that screamed past his kid glove-side and into the top shelf to light the lamp. Which is to say I specifically scored on the goalie using a wrist shot. And I had the instinct to gloat or maybe skate by the guy and give him the finger but I didn’t. I just went back to center ice and took the next face off.
In the car on the way home, I was just kind of staring out the window and my dad said “that was good.”
I looked at him and said “what was good?”
“You ignored that guy. The drunk that was hollering at you.”
“You heard that?”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I didn’t need to. He said you had no shot and you scored that beautiful goal five minutes later. Guy cried in his beer the rest of the game. You did it right. Don’t say a single word to a man like that. Let your stick do the talking.”
Let your stick do the talking.
That’s Bob Mueller to a T. Bob Mueller isn’t going to swayed by the crowd. He’s saying fuck all to the Giulianis and the Trumps and all the loudmouths and shittalkers trying to get in his kitchen. He’s just racking up goals. Win after win. Silently. His stick doing all the talking.
You hear people compare sports all the time. Who’s a better athlete a basketball player or a golfer? A soccer player or a hockey player?
But what many people fail to remember is that almost every other sport uses feet on the actual ground. In hockey, you have to first learn how to balance on razors of steel that are 2.9mm thick. On a sheet of slippery ice. And then you can learn to play the sport.
That’s a huge challenge, and a barrier to entry for most people. That artificial surface, and adjusting to a new reality, is part and parcel of being a hockey player.
That’s a good thing for Bob Mueller.
America is at a place it’s never been. The rules have been fundamentally changed and everything feels completely different than it did a few short years ago. But that won’t faze Robert Mueller. He’s used to adaptation. He’s used to the feeling of going nearly thirty miles per hour and then turning on a dime. Being a stranger in a strange land is something all hockey players experience when they first strap on the skates.
THE FINAL HORN
In the landscape of sports, only rugby comes close to hockey in the culture of the team and the the way it dictates behavior. We don’t know how long this investigation will last, but we can take comfort in knowing that years of hockey have helped to shape Robert Mueller’s bullshit detector, his focus, his outlook and his resolve. I’m hopeful that when they send out the zamboni to wipe clean the rotting carcass of the American political landscape, that hockey helped shape a much better tomorrow.
Header Image Source: Getty Images