Having written about gun control and the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I can now turn my attention to something really important: hockey.
As far as my being an Anaheim Ducks fan is concerned, I came over with the Kevin Bieksa trade. My primary allegiance is to the Vancouver Canucks (no snarky comments, please), but the defections of Bieksa and, the year before, Ryan Kesler, made it inevitable that I’d throw some support behind their new team. Especially as their new team is local and I can now see my favorite players play on a regular basis. If you leave early enough in the day, the Ducks’ home base at Honda Center is a scant hour’s drive from Word Handler’s home base in Pasadena. (Leaving early is hardly a sacrifice: the extra hours before game time can be most enjoyably whiled away at nearby Disneyland.)
My present topic doesn’t have to do with the Honda Center home experience, however. Quite the opposite, I am going to write about the experience of the Ducks in my home, generally courtesy Fox’s Prime Ticket and the dish-shaped device I’m told is on the roof. Even more particularly than that, I want to pay tribute to the unique play-by-play commentary of John Ahlers.
Canuck-centric as my televised hockey experience is, I am used to the amusing verbal give-and-go of the two Johns (Shorthouse and Garbutt) who provide the televised commentary for SportsNet West. They are hockey’s answer to the Muppets’ Statler and Waldorf: at times crotchety, and with a certain homey familiarity with each other which seems characteristic, to my American ears, of British Columbia at its most easygoing. I’m not sure American sportscasters would fill in lulls in the action by telling us which player most enjoys taco night on the team plane…or how his partner in the broadcast booth likes his steak.
Prime Ticket offers up a different dynamic between Ahlers and Brian Heyward, who provides affable but rarely humorous color commentary. The two are very good at sharing the microphone, and you get the feeling that the two men like each other, but you don’t get the feeling that the Honda Center broadcast booth was built around them (as you do with Statler and Waldorf…I mean Garbutt and Shorthouse.) Ahlers and Hayward talk hockey (and rarely talk directly to each other), although they do occasionally get caught up in statistical babble and background anecdotes and lose track of the game. (If I had to choose, I’d prefer hearing about taco night at 30,000 feet to being read a string of pseudo-statistics which use only prime numbers.)
A special feature of Ducks telecasts – one to which we’re obviously attuned at Word Handler – is Ahler’s handling of English. He’s been in the broadcasting racket for 26 years, 14 of them with the Ducks, and, while he doesn’t in any way mangle the language, he has a repertoire of unusual, mixed and sometimes just plain weirdass metaphors which always keep your ears on their toes when he’s calling a game.
In a game last week against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Ducks’ captain Ryan Getzlaf got suckered from behind by Dalton Prout, which resulted in a lot of messy bleeding and a broken nose. For Saturday night’s game against Chicago, Getzlaf was sporting one of those clear plastic full-face shields which turn up on players recovering from facial injuries. Discussing with Heyward how the face shield might affect Getzlaf’s ability to see the puck (it didn’t: Getzlaf had a two-point game and the OT winner), Ahlers said that Getzlaf was “playing with a fishbowl…to coin a phrase.”
Ahlers clearly liked the image, as he used it a few times during the telecast (but not in last night’s game, where Getzlaf continued to sport the fishbowl), but it’s also the only time I’ve heard him acknowledge the coining of what I’ve come to call an Ahlersism. When, a few weeks ago, he told us that the Blues’ David Backes was “the straw which stirs the power play drink,” he sounded as though he’d said it with the straightest of faces. One of the things which makes Ahlersisms so much fun is how they are uttered as though they were as typical of the hockey broadcaster’s lexicon as “he shoots…he scores!”.
During yesterday’s holiday afternoon game in Calgary, Ahlers (was it the early hour?) was in remarkably Ahlersian form. Even during the pre-game half-hour, Ahlers described the Ducks’ embarras de richesses in goal as a “two-headed monster.” The first period gave us the perennial favorite “off to the races” (i.e. escaping on a breakaway), and then a dazzler: a Calgary player who went offside “drew a leak.” I think that was my favorite of the afternoon, although in-the-crease traffic did get called a “mosh pit” in the second period. Rivaling “drawing a leak” was a further description of players in front of the net in the “wide-open, wild and wooly” third period: Corey Perry “standing like Medusa” in front of the Flames’ back-up netminder. I had to back the DVR up to make sure that Ahlers had indeed said what I’d heard. Admittedly the mythological reference was flawed: Perry wasn’t holding the goalie transfixed as though he’d turned Joni Ortio to stone – CP10 was merely standing stone-like in front of the net. Nevertheless, it was a mythological reference. In a hockey play-by-play. Comparing a star forward to female Gorgon. I wonder what Mr. Perry thought of it.
My suspicion is that some of yesterday’s exuberant coinages are one-offs (I don’t expect to hear the Medusa line again.) There is, however, a repertory of standard Ahlersisms I’ve come to expect from game to game. The first one I recall noticing was reacting to a puck going over the glass with “that’s a souvenir” – which is infinitely more clever than “that’s up, over the glass, and out of play.” (As far as I can tell, delay-of-game pucks-over-glass aren’t referred to as souvenirs.) Some of Ahlers’ other stand-bys are mixed sports metaphors, like the “home-run pass” (rather obviously a long pass into the opponents’ zone), and “throwing a strike” (not so obviously sending a perfect pass right onto a teammate’s stick.)
I had to think about “throwing a strike” for a few minutes before getting it. Some of the finest Ahlersisms can require thought into the next morning, such as when he said that “Freddie Andersen is down on his wallet.” From what was happening in the game, I could tell that the line had something to do with the Ducks’ goalie having his rear end on the ice, but…did Ahlers mean that Andersen’s butt was his moneymaker or something? There was a resounding “duh” when it finally did hit me: where do men carry their wallets? In their back pockets. So, to be “down on your wallet” means to be flat on your derrière.
(That may not be entirely an original Ahlersism. A contemporary of mine once told me that her father was fond of yelling “you’re skating on your wallet!” during hockey games. I assume wallet is a metaphor for a player’s posterior there as well, and that it’s not the part of the anatomy upon which one ought to be skating.)
At times Ahlers can go a bit too far. A couple weeks ago, when the goals for-challenged Ducks finally got a bunch of pucks into the back of the net, the team’s jubilant play-by-play man spoke of the “schmorgie of scoring” in the third period. I’ve been to plenty of Jewish weddings. I know from smörgåsbords, and, while I have heard them called “smorgs,” I have never heard them called “schmorgies.” Things may be different in Orange County – but they can’t be as different as all that.
If inscrutability is the determinant of the greatest Ahlersism, the prize (thus far this season) would have to go to a comment made during last week’s game against the Flyers. Corey Perry had been the recipient of one liberty too many from Brandon Manning, which led Perry to retaliate, which led Kevin Bieksa (the man in the NHL you’d most want to have your back in a bar fight) to jump into the fray. That got Perry, Bieksa and Manning sent to the box en masse, which prompted Ahlers to observe, “this all goes back to my theory of the back seat of the car during vacation.”
I’m still figuring that one out – just as I’m considering whether I should try and get Ahlers on staff during the off-season.