Winnipeg Jets: An ode to hockey

Language games is a philosophical idea. And its application has nothing to do with sports, except it actually does. It actually does because they have something to do with the Jets, and they have everything to do with appreciating the game of hockey and its players as philosophical, poetic, perhaps ineffable.

Andrew Ladd, not so much captain as bard.

The press box is an interesting place to observe a hockey game; quiet, impartial, distant from the cheers of the audience, yet with good sightlines to the action. The Jets won, 3-1 against the New Jersey Devils last Thursday, and I had a birds-eye view of the action.

It was beautiful and here’s why:


The lights dim, the crowd starts to thunder building to what I can only imagine will be the crescendo of the first Jet skating onto the ice. A fighter jet montage plays on the scoreboard and the team’s “Fuelled by Passion” slogan flashes on the ticker.

Go Jets Go!

Photo credit: Christopher Friesen

It’s high energy. It’s believable that passion could, indeed, be their primary fuel. And the team’s connection to fighter jets seems appropriate amid the still growing thunder of the crowd.


But none of this is the case. The Winnipeg Jets are not fuelled by passion. Something much more complex is going on.

A language game is a concept coined by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations, a tome that was not part of the press kit for last Thursday’s game. The idea is simple: The rules of grammar are the rules of the game, and the game is language.

In this game, we, as language users can make an infinite amount of moves. We navigate an infinite number of language possibilities (responses, etc.) to come up with one we deem correct. We are playing a language game, navigating, moving, subconsciously through a complicated mess of possibilities. And some of us are better at it than others.

If I say, “Hi, how are you?” and you say, “Sorry, sir, I don’t have any spare change,” one of us does not understand the game. Consider all the words in your lexicon as potential moves, and the fact that you know what to say in most scenarios as your understanding of the game; basic functionality, really, neither brilliant nor stupid, except when executed brilliantly or flubbed.

Photo credit: Christopher Friesen

Enters Andrew Ladd, the bard.

Eight seconds into the game, Ladd broke from the pack and did something beautiful. He scored. The recap is quick: He got the puck, navigated through a few Devils and found a hole in the netminder’s defence.

This sparse description is misleading. Ladd understood the rules of the game and of that specific scenario enough to, in those few seconds, realize that passing to either one of his linemates was not the best option; that waiting for his linemates to catch up for a good passing play was not the best option; that dumping along the boards was not the best option.

He knew, facing a near infinite amount of possibilities, a breakaway capped with a powerful shot at a goalie whose reaction Ladd predicted and acted accordingly.

Photo credit: Christopher Friesen

Hockey is full of these beautiful manoeuvres, a well-executed passing play in a jumbled zone or a solid defense whose skills at predicting game behavior can border on brilliant. Players are speaking a language, whether they know it or not, and the good ones know all or most of the rules like the back of their hands.

The Winnipeg Jets are fuelled by their ability to navigate and maneuver, albeit poetically, within the rules of the game. And, like any rules, including grammar, the best players can bend and torque these rules without breaking them. The Winnipeg Jets have had their share of penalties.

The crowd, however, is fuelled by passion, a passion surrounding a long-dormant civic pride that finally has something tangible to attach itself to. And, also, a passion for the game of hockey and its beautiful plays.

Photo credit: Christopher Friesen
Photo credit: Christopher Friesen
Photo credit: Christopher Friesen

Any writer has good days and bad days, times when accessing all the available moves, words, sentences is difficult. Practice. Practice.

The Winnipeg Jets are at a hit and miss stage in their NHL saga, but, with time, the flashes of beauty will become more frequent.

Toban Dyck is a writer/editor/farmer. Follow him @tobandyck.

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