Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hockey's lexicon, Brian Engblom's hair, and the incredible Zamboni

The verbiage of hockey broadcasters has changed. I don't know why. I don't know who started it. But the men behind the mike are fiddling with the verbal traditions of the game, and I don't like it one bit.
....Watching the Versus telecasts, which feature studio analysts Keith Jones and Brian Engblom, you might be confused which sport they're covering. Two home wins in a playoff series is referred to by Jones, who speaks in a clipped, annoying Canadian accent, as "holding serve." Really? We're going to trivialize 120 minutes of bloody, desperate, playoff hockey (assuming no overtime, which is a dubious assumption) by comparing it to about 4 minutes of play on a tennis court? They kept home-ice advantage, is what they did, Keith. They didn't hold freaking serve.
...Engblom, a former NHL defenseman who is now best known for his outrageously bad hair, likes to say that someone in the crease is "in the paint." When Engblom played, in the late '70s and '80s, a player in the crease wasn't "in the paint". He was in the damnable crease and fair game to be mugged, hacked, and skewered until he decided to leave. Players "in the paint" are wearing baggy shorts and trying to dunk. After three seconds they either move on or are whistled for a three-second violation. Basketball players move in and out of the paint like pedestrians on a crosswalk. Why should Engblom take something so important and unique to hockey--the goalie's crease--and recast it into something found on a basketball court? The painted area, as Hubie Brown so tediously refers to it.
....Of course, Engblom can say most anything and get away with it, viewers are so morbidly fascinated by what's going on above his ears. If you Google "Brian Engblom's hair", this is the sort of thing that comes up: Brian Engblom's hair still the most ridiculous thing the world has ever seen.

Entire blogs are devoted to his hair's evolution, whether it's his own or the rare "mullet toupee"!

My favorite picture and photo caption of him is this one: Engblom Catches Self in Reflection!

....The funny thing is, he looks perfectly normal to a Canadian male, a group notorious for displaying bad hair. I roomed with a bunch of them in college, and I never saw one use a comb or brush. Tangled, matted, long, shockingly horrid locks were treasured as high-style by my Canadian friends, whose beautiful high school sweethearts somehow never noticed. Because everyone back home must have looked even worse. Look at Barry Melrose, for heaven's sake. The ESPN analyst and former coach, may have invented the mullet.

So why can't ESPN and Versus hire some nice American boys, who speak without saying "oot" for "out" and "agane" for again, and, most importantly, style their hair in a way that doesn't scream: "I don't own a mirror!" We play hockey in the States, too. Versus and ESPN are American stations, right?
....But nooo. They hire Canadians to analyze the game. But here's the thing about our brothers north of the border. They have chips on their shoulder when it comes to hockey, which is the only thing they really care about in life. They are desperate for hockey to be loved and understood in the American television market. So they try to "speak our language". Hence they use phrases and expressions from popular American sports like baseball and basketball, abandoning hockey's traditions. Assists are now trendily referred to as "helpers". What the hell is a "helper"? Sounds like one of Santa's elves. An assist is an assist. And the boards? They're boards, not walls. Not half-walls. A puck does not go "along the wall", as Canadian announcer Gary Thorne is fond of saying. A baseball goes along the wall. A puck goes along the boards, as it has since Lord Stanley donated his Cup.

....Mike "Doc" Emrick isn't Canadian. He's from upstate New York. But he's guilty of the same sort of loose verbiage that ignores hockey's unique lexicon. Emrick will see someone kick a puck, or pass it with his skate, and say "he made a soccer move". No he didn't. He kicked the puck. Players have been kicking pucks forever. Hockey didn't need soccer to invent that. When a penalty killer ices the puck, Emrick will sometimes say "he spikes it out of the zone" as if it were a football. The goalie's equipment is his "paraphernalia". As in, the puck goes into Osgood's paraphernalia. Huh? Can't we just say "pads"? The goalie's blocker is, ridiculously, a "waffleboard," which Emrick then turns into a verb when it's used to make a save: "He waffleboarded it into the corner." Here, for example, is a photo of former Red Wings goalie Roger Crozier "waffleboarding" a puck away.

....I played goalie. I covered the sport for thirty years. I have never, ever heard the blocker referred to as a "waffleboard" by anyone but Emrick. What IS a waffleboard? It's not in the dictionary. Is it a breakfast appliance? Something you ski on? I don't know. It's in Emrick's imagination. But now the sport of hockey is in danger of accepting the waffleboard into its vocabulary, because Emrick, who is generally quite a fine announcer, uses it on both NBC and Versus every time a goalie makes a blocker save. Kids will repeat it. Why wouldn't they? It's a funny word. Like gonad. Only a waffleboard doesn't happen to be real.

...Then again, I've never heard of anyone "shuffleboarding" the puck to a teammate, another Emrick original. Or "ladling" a pass in front. Or having a puck "go off a player's wallet." He has fun with the language, I'll grant him that.

....Speaking of funny hockey words that can be turned into verbs, I refer you to a fine piece written by John Branch on the Zamboni
machine that appeared in Friday's New York Times. You can click on the highlighted blue "Zamboni" above to read the entire article, but the best part of the piece is the final two paragraphs, which I've copied below. I like to tell young writers to "save a bullet" when they're putting together their stories. That is to say: Spend a lot of time and care on a good, enticing lead paragraph; but also save a great quote, fact, or image for the last paragraph. Don't just sort of run out of gas. Mr. Branch saves a wonderful bullet in this cheeky, amusing, and informative closer.

...."All the off-hand familiarity makes Zamboni a bit nervous. It has trademarked its name (and the block shape of its machines) but fears the name becoming a lowercase zamboni, suffering the same fate as Aspirin, Escalator, Zipper and other brand names that lost trademark protections.

The company also asks that Zamboni not be used as a noun (as it has been throughout this article) or a verb. The ice does not get Zambonied, then, and the vehicle is a Zamboni brand ice-resurfacing machine. Good luck with that."

That last line is a classic use of slang. In an otherwise straight piece of journalism Branch drops in an informal zinger that succinctly sums up the impossible request made by the company. You can almost see the author smile and wink. A perfect ending.


  1. Bad hair, indeed. I know something about that. Glad you saw and referenced the Zamboni article. It was great.

    Go Nuggets and Magic. Hope they are successful in the crease.

  2. lol this was a great article. So true and so funny. Ever notice some announcers fake an accent or try to pronounce a city or state as the natives of the state/city would, probly think i'm nuts. Well I never heard one either untill i listened to chris wheeler, current phillies announcer. He's from philly but he insists in pronouncing Florida as "Floor-id-a" and as native Philadelphians pronounce water as "wuter" wheeler will say WAAter lol idk i think some announcers try to look for attention these days. Theyre not as good as the legends from the past thats for sure lol Great job again on that article!