Everything about hockey had always seemed impenetrably white to me. The players: pulled as they were from Canada, Scandinavia and states like Minnesota and Massachusetts. The fans: to watch an NBA game on television is to watch a glut of ads for sneakers, soda and chicken—watch hockey, and the commercials center ginger ale, premium credit cards and factory-direct jewelry. And the ice: a blinding sheet of reflected light that enveloped the little black puck, making games hard to watch for most of my childhood, haunted as I was by migraine headaches. At least with figure skating, I didn’t have to squint to see the spectacle.

Imagine my surprise when the ice finally broke. In the aftermath of the Kentucky Derby on May 5, NBC sports announcer Mike Tirico proclaimed that the horserace would be followed immediately by Game Five of the NHL Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals. Something clicked. Maybe I was bored with basketball, and wanted an excuse to pass on watching yet another irritating, inevitable Golden State Warriors postseason win on ABC. Maybe the mid-day wine had me stuck, and I couldn’t be bothered to get up and change the channel. Whatever the reason, my fate had been sealed: I would allow NBC to take me seamlessly from men whipping horses in mud to men brutalizing one another on ice. Welcome to the Dark Ages. I’m doing this. I’m going to watch ice hockey.

Watching a new sport is a lot like travelling: you rely on concepts pulled from experience to navigate unfamiliar terrain. If your assumptions betray you, you can live with that, because, when it comes down to it, life is a series of guesses anyway. An immutable law of competition is that overinvestment on offense leaves your defense vulnerable to an opponent. Throw a haymaker in boxing and you better get your guard up for the counterpunch; launch an ill-advised three in basketball and watch the long rebound produce a fast-break for the opposing team. Knowing none of the players and few of the rules, I watched the Penguins/Caps game to see how the teams deployed calculated risk to create offensive opportunities while not leaving their defenses exposed.

That was hard to do. Hockey is fast. Really fast. I get that they’re on skates—but are the players comparatively younger? Quite the contrary: a quick Google search between the first and second periods (after closing my eyes for a moment to give them a break) revealed that the average NHL player’s age is 28. In the NBA it’s 26.5, and in the NFL it’s 26.8. Hockey players also average longer careers: 5.5 years, as compared to 3.5 for the NFL, 4.8 for the NBA, and 5.6 for major league baseball, which isn’t really a sport.

I was surprised to hear that Jaromír Jágr, an appealingly alliterative name I remember from my youth in the ’90s, was still in the league at 45 years of age. Sports aren’t supposed to work this way.

The consummate thought experiment in sports is the “What If?” game—the ability to compare greats from one era with those of another. Football players in the ‘80s and ‘90s strike me as tougher but less athletic than those of the 2010s, and I think basketball players have generally gotten better over time. George Mikan stands absolutely zero chance of defending Shaquille O’Neal. But if hockey players tend to have longer, consistently-productive careers, suddenly the “what if” becomes more tangible and less academic. How would a hockey player from 40 years ago fare in today’s NHL? From 50? One hundred?

My couch in Seattle was a great place to ponder this question. Exactly a century ago in 1917, the Seattle Metropolitans were the first American hockey franchise to win the Stanley Cup when they defeated the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association finals. Those World War I-era Mets were a gifted offensive team, outscoring the Canadiens by a cruel 19-3 margin in the final three games of the series. Led by Bernie Morris, the Mets were renowned for their superior speed, but we can’t be sure if Morris would have won in today’s NHL. Colorized photos of the team in their resplendent red and green uniforms abound, but no motion-picture footage of the team has survived.

It’s hard to compare eras of hockey with one another when you can’t subject them to the eye test. And it’s even harder when you just started watching hockey five days ago. Players play in different periods that we can’t quite parallel. But what we can compare are communities across time.

As the final gong sounded at the old Seattle Ice Arena and the Mets secured the Stanley Cup, a newspaper account relayed that Seattle fans sounded like “a wild, howling mass of humanity [that] cheered until the iron girders of the arena roof rattled.” The Metropolitans folded in 1924, but since 1977 Seattle has boasted an accomplished major-junior ice hockey team, known since 1984 as the Seattle Thunderbirds. With the T-Birds in the 2017 Western Hockey League finals against the Regina Pats, my girlfriend and I attended game three of the series at the Showare Center in Kent.

Inside the 7,000-seat Showare Center, I orient myself by surveying the jumbotron. A rink-side commentator appeared on the screen between plays, encouraging T-Bird fans to take part in “White Night”—presumably a call to wear all white to the next game, although, assessing the racial composition of the crowd, I couldn’t be too sure.

Watching a clumsy unicycle race on the ice, I realized that this is how sports are supposed to be—random, captivating, pointless fun. I enjoyed watching unknown Thunderbirds play junior-professional hockey for the same reason I enjoy watching the Seahawks’ second and third stringers during preseason football—the low stakes (and relatively low-quality) of the games helps accentuate the meaninglessness of sports in general. Of course, fan reaction videos to excruciating losses and exhilarating wins are one of the Internet’s great subgenres. But there’s no reason why a Seahawks Super Bowl loss or bad Mariners trade should plunge anybody, let alone an entire city’s self-esteem, into anything resembling depression. That they can and often do speaks to our misplaced municipal priorities and decaying social fabric.

While they come with many amenities, cities like Seattle are not immune to an unsettling trend that has befallen public life in the last 35 years: Namely, the atrophy of public life itself. In major metropolitan areas across the country, downtowns offer few amusements to people who are not shoppers and public parks are pit stops for transient populations that deserve better options for security and shelter. Adversarial political cliques cluster together online. The physical destruction of the commons is matched in its fiscal demise, with government funding for anything other than war and law enforcement stigmatized as “wasteful.” The condition begets itself: Fewer gathering spaces means fewer opportunities to gather, as too much congregation takes place under the auspices of consumption, rather than creation or civic engagement.

In a 1995 essay titled “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Robert Putnam wrote, “by almost every measure, American’s engagement in politics and government has fallen steadily and sharply over the last generation. Every year over the last decade or two, millions more have withdrawn from the affairs of their communities.”

As the power of conservatives is consolidated in churches, town halls, frat houses and think tanks, those who would combat the tide of austerity can only tread water without similar meeting spaces of their own. If you believe that well-funded public transit, public schools and public ownership of utilities are vital to civic life, where do you go to meet like-minded individuals who share these values? 

Seen this way, professional sports—even those with the small-town charms of a junior hockey league—can be as much a part of the problem as they are a solution. Even a modest sports spectacle can encourage an ethic of passive spectatorship rather than active participation. We watch the tug-of-war between the GOP and the Democrats like a football game, assuming a false inevitability that will restore one party to power, regardless of whether we personally do anything to make that happen or not.

On the one hand, sports are pure escapism. On the other, in an age of declining union membership, they provide perhaps the most visible examples of a unionized workforce’s strength currently available in popular culture. NHL hockey has been subject to chronic lockouts since the strike of 1992, forcing the uncomfortable conversation about the intersection between business and sport in ways that football and baseball have avoided. But we’re not getting anywhere watching these struggles play out on the ice. While newcomers complain of a purported “Seattle freeze” that keeps exclusive cohorts and cliques clinging to one another, we should be working towards a big thaw of the city’s political scene—one where the work of preserving the best parts of the liberal tradition morphs into actively expanding it for everybody.

With conservatives revealing themselves to be more and more unpatriotic every day, blandly centrist gatherings where “both sides” are heard can’t cut it. Civic life isn’t a game. But it is a competition. And if we lose, we’ll know the reason why.