Tuesdays With Gretzky
Previously in this space, I’ve discussed the Krispy Kreme Challenge, what a BuzzFeed quiz about Duke basketball would look like, amateur bass fishing and an NBA draft candidate so unqualified that even Michael Jordan won’t draft him. If only there was more time, I could achieve my dream of writing about fantasy golf or off-brand cockfighting (hen-hustling?).
Point is, I could discuss something heavier in my final column, but it’d feel…inappropriate. So, instead, I want to talk about Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey ’98, arguably the best sports video game of all-time.
As far as entries in the genre go, "The Game that Gretzky Built" is neither the most realistic nor the most inventive. Unlike the most recent iterations of Madden, it doesn’t require a nuanced understanding of the game—and certainly not any intricate strategy.
It’s more like NBA Jam on ice. Don’t worry about neutral zone traps, fatigue factors or proper spacing on power plays. Just put the skill level as easy as possible, make the rink tiny and play 3-on-3 for 3-minute periods. Learn four buttons—pass, shoot, check, turbo. If you can just learn one, then check. And check constantly. Create havoc on the ice. I like to call it “The Scorched-Earth Offense.”
Really, the only redeeming quality of this game is that it’s fun. It’s loopy, pathological fun—the kind of entertainment you think is brilliant when you haven’t slept for three days straight. It’s predictable fun that lets you absorb the patterns of the game. You know the commentator’s finite catchphrases by heart—“That goalie’s a wall!” “The puck’s on fire!” and the incredibly satisfying “Oh, he really clocked him!” to punctuate a big hit. You realize that if you wait to shoot until the last second of a given period, the probability that you’ll score skyrockets to approximately 97%. You can rest assured that if you’re losing, your best player will start a fight in the 3rd to bring you momentum. If you get into overtime, you know two quality shots will always—ALWAYS—win you the game.
It’s the dumbest sports game I’ve ever played—even in Backyard Baseball you had to decide how to best deploy Pablo Sanchez and Pete Wheeler. But when I was in D.C. last summer, my friend visiting on a day trip showed up with console and controllers in hand, just so we could get a quick skate in with Harry York, Anson Carter, and Adam Oates. (In case you were wondering, these players were all on separate teams in 1998. Yes, multiple games were played.)
Here’s the reason I care, though. Much like Gretzky’s 3D Hockey, my columns were, at a certain level, objectively stupid. But actually, I think it’s more befitting a sports column to be overtly ridiculous. Because that’s what sports are—they’re stupid, ridiculous enterprises. Like all forms of entertainment, sports are simply distractions: things we play or watch or study or gamble on—things we become absorbed in—just to break away from the monotony of our daily lives.
Take this past Saturday, for instance. I watched Game 1 of the Warriors-Clippers playoff series (I’m #TeamSteph). This took three hours. I could’ve been reading, working out, catching up with old friends or trying to make new ones. But that rainy afternoon, the question weighing most on my mind was whether Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green—three people that I have never spoken to and almost certainly never will—could throw a round ball into a 10-ft high circle more frequently than Blake Griffin and his Band of Floppers.
Think about that: it’s asinine, borderline-obsessive behavior. Sports have this effect on people because they’re so fun. That’s why we catch every game, why Cubs fans keep coming back to Wrigley Field year after losing year. That’s why we play Gretzky until 3 in the morning on a weeknight.
But I think that sometimes we can develop a blind spot that blocks our enjoyment of sports. We focus solely on the record of Duke’s basketball team, considering just the results, and not on the passes and shots and dunks that made the games so pleasing. We get wrapped up in the constant arms race, worrying about the next five-star recruit in the pipeline while forgetting about the here and now. We get pissed when Grantland doesn’t give our team proper respect, and we find ourselves in a tangle of sports’ unsavory aspects, only able to consider the circular logic of the NCAA, the corruption of FIFA, how terrible the refs are, ESPN’s obsession with Tim Tebow, etc.
In my columns, I wanted to highlight the inherent silliness of sports, to re-embrace the elements that we’ve become accustomed to, to remember why—with so many other options at our disposal—we even bother to care. I didn’t know about bass fishing or the Krispy Kreme Challenge before this year, and I still don’t know that much. But I had a blast writing about them.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I hear the Zamboni warming up.