What The Fuck Does This Thomas Friedman Hockey Metaphor Mean?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Thought leader Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has written a column about the Ukraine crisis, in which he argues, well, who knows. A good quarter of it is just an extended excerpt from a 16-year-old interview with George Kennan, who didn't think that committing to wage nuclear war on behalf of Eastern European countries on whose behalf we would never actually wage nuclear war was a good idea. The rest of it is mainly Friedman going on about how we should do something, because you need to do something to show you're serious, and being serious is good, but also how there aren't many things to do, so.

The part worth drawing your attention to is the series of sports metaphors with which he opens and closes the column. Here's the lede:

Shortly before the Sochi Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin played in an exhibition hockey game there. In retrospect, he was clearly warming up for his takeover of Crimea. Putin doesn't strike me as a chess player, in geopolitical terms. He prefers hockey, without a referee, so elbowing, tripping and cross-checking are all permitted. Never go to a hockey game with Putin and expect to play by the rules of touch football. The struggle over Ukraine is a hockey game, with no referee. If we're going to play—we, the Europeans and the pro-Western Ukrainians need to be serious.


Friedman is saying that Vladimir Putin is, metaphorically, less a chess than a hockey player, one who prefers to play not just a game so dirty that there are no rules, but one to which you shouldn't show up expecting to play touch football, and one in which there is no referee. In other words, the accomplished judoka isn't a chess player and doesn't play touch football, but is instead a fierce competitor who plays a lawless kind of hockey, which explains why the United States and the European Union need to think seriously about energy policy.

The kicker of the piece returns to this theme with another hockey reference:

If Putin's playing hockey and we're not, Ukrainians need to know that now.

Initially, Friedman seemed to be imagining a sort of underground hockey, perhaps played to the death and characterized mainly by vigorous elbowing, tripping, and cross-checking—techniques seen in refereed NHL and international matches, but which one supposes a ruthless figure like Putin could employ so viciously that no one could survive them, thus leading to him wanting to use them only in lawless, unsanctioned hockey. Here, though, he seems to be conjuring an image out of a Marx Brothers movie, with Ukranians as an audience looking on at a comical misunderstanding involving Americans and Europeans turning up in t-shirts and shorts to face a stick-wielding Putin. In this reading, the crisis would seem to have less to do with Putin's mastery of Bloodsport-style hockey than with the naiveté of Western leaders.


No one on the staff has been able to reconcile all of this, even after consulting Matt Taibbi's classic guide to Friedmanism, which doesn't imagine the possibility of international brinksmanship being described in terms of a Russian leader who doesn't play chess turning up at a hockey rink with Ukranians in attendance to face off against American and European leaders who may or may not think they're there to play touch football. Perhaps there's something obvious we're overlooking.

Image via Getty