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Jacob Sweetman: The man don’t give a puck

Stefan Ustorf is big and he is brave. He also hurts more than any of you did after this New Year's Eve. But it won't stop the man they call “Hooligan” from fighting on.

Image for Jacob Sweetman: The man don't give a puck
Right: Stefan Ustorf. Photo by Cujo301 (Wikimedia Commons)

Stefan Ustorf has barely had a decent night’s sleep in two years and it is unlikely that he will again soon. The former Berlin Eisbären ice hockey star cannot take much noise any more. His head, he says, hurts too much.

Not that that stopped him from hoisting the trophy, wider than his polar bear shoulders, above his head in front of his roaring and adoring fans after the Eisbären’s title win last year. Not that it stops him from still wanting to play a decisive influence in the sport that has both given him his life’s elixir and cruelly taken it away.

He told the Berliner Zeitung a couple of weeks ago, “I have to reconcile myself to the fact that there are some things that will never disappear. And that is that.”

Stefan Ustorf, named “Hooligan” just like his father was, celebrated his birthday on January 3 at his home in the US while Berlin was still foggy-headed and misty-eyed. The streets were still awash with the soggy pink detritus of the madness of the night before and bloodshot eyes were as de rigueur as they ever were during Berlin’s junky heyday, but Ustorf probably hurt more than any of the twisted young minds of the city and was dealing with problems bigger than the swollen mucus glands of the over-indulged. 

Because of the horrific blow he took to the head in a game two years ago against Hanover, Stefan Ustorf still can’t sleep, his synapses are so shaken by the collision with Gerrit Fauser that his eyes need to be retrained simply to focussed together. In March he announced to the world that his injuries had forced him to give up the game he loved. He had fought a drawn out battle harder than he had ever faced on any rink in his years of wandering the hockey playing nations of Earth. His face was pale, he wore accountant’s glasses and his words were quiet and considered. He was cowed and it was heart-breaking.

The first game I ever witnessed at that plastic palace to the commercial interests of a mobile telephone company passed by me by. The speed was inconceivable, the aggression and explosive movements of puck and skate a whirling dervish summed up only by the hieroglyphics jotted down by the broadsheet journalists on both sides of me on their score sheets. I copied the figures down to give the impression that I was there for a reason – I am nothing if not professional in my quixotic life as the Sportsdesk – but the meanings meant nothing, just numbers in boxes. I gave up and focussed on the game.

And I understood implicitly the desire and the passion, the roaring brutality and the innate moments of breath-taking, balletic skill. Occasionally during that first game time would stop and the briefest of turns, the slightest of feints would render the coruscating waves of madness flashing around it meaningless. Here was a sport that was as much about grace as it was about balls and aggression and blood and thunder. But, to remove one would be to render the other meaningless.

The questions thrown up by Ustorf’s injury won’t go away, just as they won’t in any contact sport, and it doesn’t look good that we will always want to pay to see big guys tearing into each other at no risks to ourselves but at huge ones to the protagonists before we slink, jeering, back to our warm houses in our so called civilised society. Most sport would be pointless were this not to be the case.

But the flagrant, joyous delight we have taken in the most bruising of barges and the hugest of crashes may have to be re-assessed. Every serious sport in the world is talking about concussion right now. In that same piece Ustorf told the Berliner Zeitung that he has had “20 or 25 concussions in his career, only six of which were diagnosed”.

Ustorf, “Hooligan”, still wants to be a part of ice hockey as a coach. It is all he knows, it is his life, despite the horrors at night and the throbbing pain during the day, and it makes one almost humble. So if you haven’t already, you can stop complaining about your New Year’s headaches and your hangovers now. They don’t mean a damn thing.