A cultural critic attends the NHL playoffs

A hundred and forty years ago, Matthew Arnold was worried. Worried that his culture was falling apart. Worried that the newly literate working class wouldn't find anything solid to occupy their minds because the poets--he names Wordsworth as an example--weren't working in a rich enough vein. Worried that people in the the newly prosperous business class weren't using their money to buy the time to improve themselves, but frittering away their excess of leisure in unhealthy pursuits.

His answer? That the critic must work to provide a more rich cultural field in which art could thrive. England could then be filled with what he called "sweetness and light," and the panic which was edging its way into his mind could be stilled.

Maybe he was looking in the wrong place. Maybe he should have looked to the NHL playoffs instead. OK, so organized hockey wasn't around until late in the 19th century, just in the aftermath of the time Arnold was writing. But had it been, he might have understood that its passion and its history fill a void left each spring with the happy moment of the lifting of the Stanley Cup.

You see, it's not that it's hockey, that violent product of the Canadian imagination. The point is not that we're talking about a sport at all. It's not the substance of the thing analyzed which matters, if one stretches Arnold to his logical conclusion. Rather, it's the way one looks at that thing. A cupcake is just a cupcake until the foodies get to it. Then it becomes a sophisticated interpretation of a familiar icon of school events (which may, even, suggesting the meaninglessness of life in a post-modern world, or something like that). And, of course, in LA, it suddenly costs six bucks.

So it is that in LA this week, fulfillment comes again for hockey fans and hangers-on who will fill Staples Center on Tuesday and Thursday evenings hoping that their Kings can upend the strong, faster, and deeper San Jose Sharks. It's been done before. Anaheim upset the Red Wings in 2003 from the eighth and last seeding spot in the West, and they eventually went to the Stanley Cup finals. Calgary was sixth seed and went to the Stanley Cup finals the next year.

The Kings entered this year's playoffs in seventh spot in the West, but they might have been as high as fourth, and it wasn't determined until the last couple of days of the season, and two losses against the Anaheim Ducks. In many ways, that doesn't matter now. Once the playoffs start, all bets are off, and it's just one team against another, with regular-season records left behind.

That's probably why there's so much excitement in the air in Hockeywood this week. Were you to drive by the arena and the public space across the street, you'd see that there's a festival going on. Maybe even a carnival, for those of you who know the Bakhtinian theory of such. People celebrate, they listen to music, they dance. Likely, some of them began imbibing way earlier in the day than they might have otherwise. It's all part of it.

Inside the arena, things are not business as usual. Rather, the place is blanketed in white as a towel sits on every seat. The purpose--so that fans may wave them in the frenzy which will take place when their team takes to the ice to play.

For some, it will be a repeat of last year, when the team played the Vancouver Canucks to six games, and lost. For others, the playoffs this year will remind them of years past, like 1993, the only time the team made it all the way to the last round. For the kids in the crowd, and maybe some adults too, the experience will be altogether new, and the purgation they feel as they wave those towels and scream their lungs out will be the release they need from the stress of spelling tests, or math quizzes, or a layoff.

But for the Arnoldians in the crowd, these games are much more. They are a tangible connection to all of the great hockey played in the past. Each time the puck drops, the team will get closer to or further away from the magic of Rocket Richard and John Beliveau lifting the Cup back in the original six era, pre-1967.

Sure, it's the West coast, and hockey's a bit of an afterthought here for most of the year. But for this week, these moments, it's all that matters to those who love it, and as they watch in person or follow on TV, their lives will take on a feeling of fulfillment that they don't normally have. Things will matter in a way that's tangible and hyper-real.

If the Kings manage to unseat the Sharks, that feeling will continue. If they don't--no, it's not cool to go there. Not now. Now in this moment of magic. Let the playoffs, at least, the part played here, begin.

Brian Kennedy wrote "Growing Up Hockey" (Folklore 2007) and "Living the Hockey Dream" (Folklore 2009), as well as a number of academic essays on topics from Henry James to Virginia Woolf. His last post for Native Intelligence was on managing fear in hockey.

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