Of Ice and Men

Author Dave Pirner
Publication Details
Date July 1995

Most people don't understand hockey- it's not the great American pastime. You need a lot of gear to play: skates, skin pads, knee pads, elbow pads, shoulder pads, gloves, and a helmet. Plus there's special shorts that we used to call breezers, with pads in the back to protect your spinal column - those are held up by suspenders. And you wear a garter belt to hold up your socks. So you can be a kid in the second grade, but you're dressed like a gladiator-whore.

I learned to skate when I was four years old. My family lived two blocks away from a lake; my mom dressed me up, took me down to the frozen water, and put me on double-runner skates. The following year, I started playing hockey - I was on various teams from first grade through eleventh grade. In Minnesota, there isn't much else you can do during the winter.

Growing up, I was a Minnesota North Stars fan. They moved the team to Texas a few years ago, so I don't have anyone to root for in the NHL anymore. But they had a great team going for a while - they even made it to the Stanley Cup one year. My favorite player was their left wing, JP Parise. He was really aggressive, but he was gentlemanly in how he administered his abuse: When he slammed other players into the boards, he wasn't out to maim them.

Every time I watched the North Stars on TV, Parise's lips would be moving as he skated around, which always made me wonder what he was talking about. When I was in third grade, I went to North Star Hockey School because Parise was the coach. I saw him up close, and it turned out he was singing! He'd skate around the rink singing the Banana Splits theme song: 'One banana, two banana, three banana, four …

In high school, I played left wing and wore number 11 -just like JP Parise. The left wing is in charge of scoring goals, working as an offensive unit with the center and the right wing. Originally, I started out as a defenseman, but I wanted more glory. Looking back, I think that being a defensaman is underappreciated. There's a certain kind of chivalry in defending the goal instead of putting points on the board.

I went to West High School in Minneapolis. Our hockey team had some winning years, but the suburbs produced the better hockey teams; the further you get away from the city, the more time you have on your hands, the more you practice. That's why all the great hockey players come from Canada - there's really nothing to do up there.

I was the freak on a team full of jocks. I always wanted to establish some individuality, but the rest of the team just thought I was a total oddball. We all wore the same hockey jacket, so one day I decided to personalize mine a little. I wore a Ramones button, and I got beat up by my own teammates for defacing the team colors. In a funny way, that's what I learned from hockey: how to compromise with other people to reach a common goal. You could be in class all day long and just hate some guy, but once we hit the ice, we were a team.

If I hadn't played hockey in high school, I probably would have gotten into street fights. You need someplace to funnel all that aggression, and with hockey you can apply all your rage and animosity to a constrictive purpose. You go out on the ice for a two-minute shift, and you just see red. And you get to use all that hostility, because hockey's a physical game: You check some guy into the boards, he calls you an asshole, you hit him again and skate off. Over the course of a three-period game, these little exchanges between players build into a war. By the end of the game, you hate the other team.

Even when the discipline was just killing me, when we were practicing four hours a day and I couldn't handle it anymore, I still liked getting totally winded during a game: I would become pure aggression, balls to the wall. Eventually, though, I decided punk rock was an easier way to get that anger out - screaming at the top of my lungs and playing guitar so fast my hands bled.

So I quit the team at the beginning of my senior year, just after I made varsity. I wasn't taking it so seriously anymore, I even showed up for practice stoned once, right after I broke up with a girlfriend. I wanted something that I could be devoted to 100 percent, and that was my band.

In the early days of Soul Asylum, we ran the group a little like a hockey team. If you wanted to win games, you had to be in boot camp for four hours a day, working your ass off. As a band, we'd do the same thing: practice intensely six days a week. We sucked so bad, it was the only way we were going to sound like we were making music.

These days, some of my friends still play in beer-drinking leagues. Every now and then, one of them will challenge me to join a game -and I'll surprise them by showing up. When you don't play for three years at a time and you smoke cigarettes by the carton, you suck worse and worse. But the adrenaline hits you pretty fast and you remember how to play. All my old equipment still fits me; I never threw away my pads. When I pick up that hockey stick, it sends me back to that fantasy world of playing in the NHL - it's the same experience as picking up a guitar and feeling like you're in a rock band.