Monday, June 25, 2012

The Great Historical Games Project List

Below is the master list of games I'll be watching for my annual off-season research project.  For now, it's more aspirational than actual, as there's no guarantee I'll be able to find all these matches or have the time to watch all of them.  Please, if you've stumbled by, do suggest additions, subtractions, or adjustments.  My only requirement for a game to be added to the list is that it mean something, either to hockey history as a whole or to a particular community of fans, so there are no wrong answers:  if it was memorable for you, it's probably worth mentioning.  As I watch and write the games, I'll add links into the list.  

February 26, 2006:  Sweden vs. Finland, Olympic Men's Gold Medal Game
November 22, 2003:  Canadiens vs. Oilers, Heritage Classic
February 21, 2002:  Canada vs. United States, Olympic Women's Gold Medal Game
May 10, 2001:  Penguins vs. Sabres, Eastern Conference Semifinal, Game 7
May 26, 2000:  Devils vs. Flyers, Eastern Conference Final, Game 7
May 8, 2000:  Leafs vs. Devils, Eastern Conference Semifinal, Game 6
May 4, 2000:  Flyers vs. Penguins, Eastern Conference Semifinal, Game 4
June 19, 1999:  Sabres vs. Stars, Stanley Cup Final, Game 6
February 20, 1998:  Czech Republic vs. Canada, Olympic Men's Semifinal Game
June 5, 1997:  Red Wings vs. Flyers, Stanley Cup Final, Game 3 (series?)
April 29, 1997: Oilers vs. Stars, Western Conference Quarterfinal, Game 7 (series?)
March 26, 1997:  Avalanche vs. Red Wings
May 16, 1996:  Blues vs. Wings, Eastern Conference Semifinal, Game 7
June 24, 1995:  Devils vs. Red Wings, Stanley Cup Final, Game 4
December 30, 1994:  Canada vs. Czech Republic, World Jr. Hockey Championships
June 14, 1994:  Canucks vs. Rangers, Stanley Cup Final, Game 7 (series?)
May 27, 1994:  Devils vs. Rangers, Eastern Conference Final, Game 7
May 25, 1994:  Rangers vs. Devils, Eastern Conference Final, Game 6
June 3, 1993:  Kings vs. Canadiens, Stanley Cup Final, Game 2
May 29, 1993:  Kings vs. Leafs, Campbell Conference Final, Game 7
May 27, 1993:  Kings vs. Leafs, Campbell Conference Final, Game 6
May 14, 1993:  Islanders vs. Penguins, Patrick Division Final, Game 7
April 16, 1991:  Oilers vs. Flames, Smythe Division Semifinal, Game 7
March 30, 1991:  Northern Michigan vs. Boston University, NCAA Div. 1 Final
January 4, 1991:  Canada vs. USSR, World Junior Hockey Championships
May 15, 1990:  Oilers vs. Bruins, Stanley Cup Final, Game 1
May 25, 1989:  Flames vs. Canadiens, Stanley Cup Final, Game 6
May 11, 1989:  Canadiens vs. Flyers, Prince of Wales Conference Final, Game 6
April 21, 1988:  Oilers vs. Flames, Smythe Division Final, Game 2
September 11-15, 1987:  USSR vs. Canada, Canada Cup, Final Round
May 31, 1987:  Flyers vs. Oilers, Stanley Cup Final, Game 7
May 28, 1987:  Oilers vs. Flyers, Stanley Cup Final, Game 6
May 14, 1987:  Flyers vs. Canadiens, Prince of Wales Conference Final, Game 6
April 18, 1987: Islanders vs. Capitals, Patrick Division Semifinal, Game 7
May 24, 1986:  Canadiens vs. Flames, Stanley Cup Final, Game 5
May 12, 1986:  Flames vs. Blues, Campbell Conference Final, Game 6
April 30, 1986:  Flames vs. Oilers, Smythe Division Final, Game 7
May 30, 1985:  Flyers vs. Oilers, Stanley Cup Final, Game 5
May 19, 1984:  Islanders vs. Oilers, Stanley Cup Final, Game 5
May 15, 1984:  Islanders vs. Oilers, Stanley Cup Final, Game 3
May 10, 1984:  Oilers vs. Islanders, Stanley Cup Final, Game 1
April 20, 1984:  Nordiques vs. Canadiens, Adams Division Final, Game 6
September 13, 1984:  Canada vs. USSR, Canada Cup Semifinal Game
May 17, 1983:  Oilers vs. Islanders, Stanley Cup Final, Game 4 (series?)
April 10, 1982:  Oilers vs. Kings, Smythe Division Semifinal, Game 3
XXXX XX, 1982:  Islanders vs. Penguins, First Round, Game ?
XXXX XX, 1981:  Canadiens vs. Oilers, First Round, Game 3 (whole series?)
December 30, 1981:  Flyers vs. Oilers
February 22, 1980:  USSR vs. United States, Olympic Men's Gold Medal Game
May 10, 1979:  Bruins vs. Canadiens, Wales Conference Semifinal, Game 7
May 14, 1977:  Canadiens vs. Bruins, Stanley Cup Final, Game 4
May 16, 1976:  Canadiens vs. Flyers, Stanley Cup Final, Game 4 (series?)
February 7, 1976:  Bruins vs. Leafs
January 11, 1976:  CSKA Moscow vs. Flyers, Super Series 1976
December 31, 1975:  CSKA Moscow vs. Canadiens, Super Series 1976
September 17- October 6, 1974:  WHA vs. USSR, Summit Series
May 19, 1974:  Flyers vs. Bruins, Stanley Cup Final, Game 6
May 11, 1972:  Rangers vs. Bruins, Stanley Cup Final, Game 6
September 2-28, 1972:  Canada vs. Soviet Union, Summit Series 
May 18, 1971:  Canadiens vs. Blackhawks, Stanley Cup Final, Game 7
May 10, 1970:  Blues vs. Bruins, Stanley Cup Final, Game 4
XXXX XX, 1969:  Canadiens vs. Blues, Game ?
May 9, 1968:  Canadiens vs. Blues, Stanley Cup Final, Game 3
April 25, 1967:  Canadiens vs. Leafs, Stanley Cup Final, Game 3
XXXX XX, 1966:  Some Bruins Game
XXXX XX, 1965:  Marek's Memorial Cup Game
April 23, 1964:  Leafs vs. Red Wings, Stanley Cup Final, Game 6
XXXX XX, 1964:  Canadiens vs. Leafs, Semifinal, Game 7
March 26, 1961:  Canadiens vs. Blackhawks, Semifinal, Game 3
April 14, 1960:  Canadiens vs. Leafs, Stanley Cup Final, Game 4
November 1, 1959:  Canadiens vs. Rangers
April 16, 1954:  Canadiens vs. Wings, Stanley Cup Final, Game 7
April 21, 1951:  Leafs vs. Canadiens, Stanley Cup Final, Game 5
April 23, 1950:  Rangers vs. Red Wings, Stanley Cup Final, Game 7
March 24, 1936:  Red Wings vs. Maroons, Stanley Cup Semifinal, Game 1

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Added Value

The fourth line is the most chronically unloved part of a hockey team. Its players generally play single-digit minutes, mostly against each other, a low-stakes, forty-second game of don’t-fuck-up-too-bad. They are little more than embodied breaktimes for their more talented teammates and count themselves lucky to be such, for the specter of being nothing at all is never far away. When the team is healthy and rolling smoothly, a fourth liner might easily find himself spending most of his game nights in the press box, or even in the AHL. And while great players can look forward to getting filthy rich come their UFA summer, fourth liners often simply find themselves unemployed.

But as inglorious and nearly insignificant as the work of a fourth line is, it’s nevertheless a fascinating place. More than any other part of a team, the bottom trio reflects management ideology rather than player talent. Top-six forward roles, top-four defenseman roles- those are filled (ideally) based on skill set and availability and not much else. They go to the best player, period. Fourth lines and bottom pairings, though, are the liminal zone between NHL and not-NHL, and as such are far more flexible and undefined parts of the team. It’s a different world from the top end with much different career trajectories. Players who can fill those roles are plentiful rather than scarce, and so teams can afford to select their fourth liners according to different standards. For the most part, general managers seem to fill up these roles with players who have the kind of ‘intangibles’ that they feel are important to winning but cannot actually prove to be so, pests and goons, old-timers with lots of heart and leaden feet, eager boys with more tenacity than talent.

But there’s other sorts of value one can squeeze out of a fourth line, value far more demonstrable than goonery and far more practically useful than heart. Consider, for example, a recent trade between Montreal and Nashville. On February 17th, the Canadiens traded Hal Gill and a fifth round pick to the Predators in exchange for a second round pick, an AHLer by the name of Robert Slaney, and Blake Geoffrion. Now, considering that the Canadiens are pretty firmly beyond playoff contention at this point in the season, and moreover that Hal Gill is a 36-year-old pending-UFA penalty-kill specialist, there’s no way this trade is a loss for the Habs. Considered purely as a technical matter, it’s getting something marginally useful for nothing at all. A good, solid, workmanlike piece of general management. Considered as an exercise in getting added value out of the deep end of the depth chart, however, it’s far more interesting.

This Blake Geoffrion is probably a fourth liner. Maybe a third, if you squint at him from the right angle in an optimistic mood. He had a great NCAA career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, winning the Hobey Baker in his senior year, but let’s be honest: not many great NHL forwards play four years of NCAA hockey in this day and age. In the AHL, he’s had bursts of scoring but hasn't been consistently dominant, which given his age makes it unlikely that he’ll ever be an offensive force in the Show. Scouting reports describe him as physically assertive and defensively responsible, but lacking in any kind of creativity or flash- a veritable hat-trick of fourth-line clichés. In terms of on-ice value, he’s nothing remarkable.

But in terms of off-ice value, Geoffrion is absolute fucking gold in Montreal. He’s the great-grandson of Howie Morenz, the Stratford Streak, the Canadiens’ Golden Age superstar, famous as one of the few players to ever die of a hockey injury. He’s the grandson of Bernard Geoffrion, called Boom Boom, slapshot innovator and cornerstone of the 1950s Montreal dynasty. Blake Geoffrion is the first-ever fourth generation NHL player, and all of those previous generations played for Les Habitants. He’s literally the blood of the Forum ghosts. As fourth-line deals go, this is the Mona Lisa, the Taj Mahal, this is the absolute peak. If it is possible for a deal involving a fifth defenseman for a depth centerman to be a home run, than Pierre Gauthier hit one out of the park and half way across the city, and yeah, I used a baseball metaphor, that’s how crazy good this deal is.

Did Gauthier make his team better on the ice? Not noticeably, although we’ll see how the pick works out. But he made the franchise better. He took a relatively meaningless slot on the roster and used it to get a player who will mean something to the people in his city, a player who has historical and cultural resonances for the fans. It’s just plain cool to have this kid in the bleu-blanc-rouge, a skating reminder of our ancestry and our longevity- the things Canadiens fans most love to snuggle up to in a cold, bleak season.

This kind of move is not wholly unfamiliar for Habs management. For years, they’ve used the fourth line and the bottom pairing to shore up Francophone representation on the roster, with guys like Lapierre, Begin, Bouillon, Dandenault, Laraque, Bergeron, and now Darche. They seem to be perpetually on the lookout for overage Francophone Europeans who can fill a low-end role on an ELC. The Canadiens have always understood, to some degree, that the fourth line is the easiest place to fulfill their linguistic duties to the city, and they’ve done so. Acquiring Geoffrion represents, for them, not so much a new idea as the magnum opus of a long-practiced art form.

Geoffrion, of course, is an American and doesn’t speak French- a lot can change in two generations- so maybe this turns into a disaster. Maybe after half a season the charm wears off and things turn nasty. Maybe the media vilifies him for his lack of bilingualism. Maybe the fans crucify him for failing to live up to the achievements of his forbears. Maybe his name becomes a curse such that he spends every day of every call up weeping in the fetal position under his bed, afraid to so much as show his face along the Rue St. Catherine. When it comes to its hockey team, Montreal has been able to turn good things into shit before, and I would never dare to suggest that any player is immune from torment when the season goes badly.

But let’s have an optimistic moment here, because it’s been a tough few months and we could use some sunshine in our days. Maybe the city welcomes the kid. Maybe they support his efforts to learn French rather than eviscerating him for not knowing it already. Maybe there are whole bunch of fuzzy history-slash-interview fluff pieces in the papers, and he gets a few extra appreciative cheers when he skates out with his famous patronymic. Hell, maybe he even writes a blog the way he did in Nashville, something sort of bland and friendly, with the uncontroversial amiability common to the best sort of hockey guys. And maybe it means something to him, to play under his grandfathers’ banners, in the place they won their Cups, for they say he was close to Boom Boom right up to the end. Maybe Blake Geoffrion could be one of those oh-so-rare hockey players who likes playing in Montreal. It wouldn’t be a great triumph for the franchise, and it wouldn’t solve any of our myriad problems, but it’d be a nice thing, and why shouldn’t we have nice things? Especially nice things that can be had for so little?

Analysts are fond of saying that the GM should only care about tangible, concrete, on-ice value: Who is the best available player for the position? But on the fourth line, there will always be a lot of guys available with near-equivalent on-ice value. Between prospects on their way up, veterans on their way down, high-end AHLers and unsigned Europeans, there are probably twenty guys freely and cheaply available at any given time for any give fourth line role. Fourth line talent selection is not especially rational or optimized as it is, and there probably isn’t all that much in terms of wins to be gained from further optimizing it anyway. So all other things being equal, teams should pick the guy with the most off-ice value.

The fourth line is exactly the place for local boys and legacies, guys who are media-friendly, guys with senses of humor, guys who really really want to come to your town for whatever ridiculous reason. Guys who have good patter at autograph signings and hospital visits. Guys with cool backstories. Guys who do awesome charity work. It’s the part of the team where a GM can afford to think about not just what’s good for winning, but what’s good for the franchise, what’s good for the cultural institution that a team in a city ought to be. When compiling a first line, a GM has a duty to get the best talent he can find, the best he can afford, and if that talent happens to be sleazy or snooty or shy, whiny or petulant, haughty, lazy, or Aspergy, he has little choice but to hope the coach can deal with it. First liners get a free pass on public-relations awfulness. But a fourth line can, and dare I say should, be an awesome feat of pandering to the community, with players who not only have character but give the franchise some character. Montreal is fortunate that they have very obvious social and historical traditions to play off of, what with all the Frenchness, but there’s no reason other franchises can’t do the same thing, with their Westerness or their Southerness or their New Jerseyness. There’s no place in the world so dull and flavorless that the people can’t be charmed by some kind of appeal to local identity, or failing that, general human awesomeness. There are plenty of good reasons why a fourth line has to be kind of shitty on the ice, but there’s no good excuse for it being shitty off the ice as well.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Another Country

The following is highly autobiographical and rather self-indulgent. Those interested in the destination rather than the journey are advised to skip to the last two paragraphs.

This blog is the second most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done in my life. When I started it I was a 24-year-old graduate student in Islamic Studies and I knew nothing about hockey. I didn’t know checking from charging, a wrister from a slapshot, hell, I barely knew the difference between a forward and a defenseman. I had no idea of the trap or the code. All I knew was that this thing was called hockey and I loved it.

I would apologize for this, for starting a blog with no previous writing experience on a topic I knew nothing about, but such is the distinctive hubris of my generation, and anyway, back then it was not so very strange. The People’s Republic of Hockey Blogistan was still a frontier country back then, a strange place full of strange people chasing their own quixotic obsessions. In and among the hockey-humor blogs and hockey-stat blogs- two genres that still flourish today- there were hockey-art blogs, hockey-sex blogs, hockey-knitting blogs, hockey-religion blogs, hockey-pet blogs. The discourse, such as it was, took place almost entirely among people with blogspot accounts and ridiculous pseudonyms, far beneath the interests of the real journalists, even farther beneath the interest of the League. Everything was amateurish and chaotic, but brilliant too, and fun, and individual. The Theory, ridiculous though it was, fit in rather nicely.

Five years, though, is a long time on the Internet, and the new media landscape is quite different now. Corporate and quasi-corporate entities dominate, and have drawn unto themselves most of the talented, committed, and original writers, and now most of the conversation is concentrated in relatively few places- SBNation, The Nations Network, Yahoo, theScore (about which more later). In some ways, it’s been a good thing for hockey writing- the work produced on these sites is far more consistent, frequent, and polished than what came out of the indie blogs back in the day. But it’s a mixed blessing, because these blogs in their battle for pageviews have discovered what the newspapers found out long ago in the battle for circulation: it is best to cover the most general interest topics in the fastest way. The work is far less bizarre than it once was; a great success but also a tremendous loss.

All of which is to say that I feel a certain ambivalence about selling my pieces to theScore as I now am. I genuinely like Backhand Shelf and its writers; between the popularization of advanced stats, the comprehensible articles on tactics and strategy, and the only accurate hockey medical analysis I’ve ever found on the internet, they’re going in way more original directions than most multiplayer blogs. I can honestly say I believe in the site and I can honestly say that I feel fortunate to be writing there. But fact is that the Theory was one of the last old-school blogs standing, just a weird person writing their weird perspective, and on principle I wish that more blogs like this would hold out. The great unfulfilled promise of the blogosphere was that here fans might wrench the great mass of hockey writing and hockey thought out of the grip of the NHL and its acolytes, that it might be a place where the incredible mad diversity of hockey people- not pros, just people- could express their own vision and experience of the game. The fan/amateur population is by far the largest demographic slice of the hockey world, and it is not right that we should be passive consumers of one League’s representation of the game. The blogosphere could have set us free. It hasn’t, but it could have. On some level, I feel as though I’m selling out.

But I have always believed that, if one wants to really learn things, one has to move around, and I can learn more about the game by trying out a new position than I would by shrieking in my corner eternally. Writing for Backhand Shelf places different demands on the style and pace of my work; it puts me in contact with different readers and different interlocutors. For years people have been telling me that my writing is good but unmarketable, that it will never appeal to anything beyond a niche readership. Well, this is a chance for me to test that assumption, to find out if there is a way to have the best of both worlds. I need to find out if it is possible to write in my own voice for a wider audience. I don’t know if it’ll work out, but I absolutely have to try.

For now, most of my essays will be going up over there, on Mondays and Fridays. I’ll try to keep posting here as well, but it is likely that most of what goes up in this space will reflect my drier and duller proclivities- annotated bibliographies, historical detritus, my ongoing and largely unsuccessful attempts to integrate advanced stats into original analyses. Maybe the occasional reflection on girl-hockey. And, of course, the On [X] posts, which belong nowhere else. Hardcore hockey nerd stuff: the reason God made blogspot accounts.

Finally, thank you. You, personally, if you are reading this: thank you. The comments, the compliments, the criticisms, and the conversations that have arisen from this blog have made me smarter and humbler, and in some cases, have very literally changed my life. It’s been- and I know this word is overused but I mean it in the purest possible sense- amazing. If you are ever in Toronto, I owe you a beer*.


*Or non-alcoholic beverage of equivalent value and social significance.


For those of you who haven’t seen them, my first three posts at BHS.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Defending Byzantium

“Decline of the Habs Empire” isn’t a title so much as a genre designation. It would be like calling an article about the Leafs “Forty Years of Frustration”, or publishing a Canucks essay entitled “Successful but Still Not Likeable.” Excepting that of the Romans themselves, few tales of decline have been retold as often as that of the Habs. Mordechai Richler wrote on the theme; so did Ken Dryden. Half of Red Fisher’s columns for the past ten years have used it as either the introduction or the finale. It is Montreal’s greatest trope, it’s most enduring cliché. If the team had any sense of humor about its media coverage (it doesn’t, sadly) they could have put out an anthology of literary writing on the subject in honor of the Centennial.

So although Gare Joyce is not being original in the theme of his recent article for Sportsnet Magazine, he is at least in good company. And, of course, a narrative that appeals to so many obviously intelligent writers cannot be entirely devoid of truth. The Montreal Canadiens once had dynasties; now they don’t: this is a truth, and a sad one indeed, and one can hardly fault anyone for speaking it aloud. Moreover, many of the specific criticisms Joyce levels at the franchise are valid. The hyberbolically excessive hostility of the local media towards certain players and management even in good years is a problem. The inability to attract Francophone players of the quantity and quality the fanbase desires is a problem. This season’s poorly planned and even more poorly executed coach firings and hirings are a problem. Montreal is not a great team and has not been one for many years. Nothing wrong with pointing that out.

But Joyce’s piece is not content to point out the team’s mediocrity. Honestly, who has ever been content to point out the Habs’ mediocrity? Mediocrity makes for terrible copy- where’s the thrill in a decline from great to so-so? Who’s going to rend their clothes and weep over meh? So, rather than contending with the thornier challenges presented by bare adequacy, Joyce uses a bag rhetorical tricks make it seem as though the Canadiens recent history has been nothing but a long slide into misery, unbroken by any hints of success or reward. The first and most egregious of these is what appears to be the piece’s thesis statement: “It was March 11, 1996, the last game at the Forum, the last act of a masterpiece and the last time the Canadiens mattered.”

The Habs don’t matter. Joyce tells us this, in more or less those exact terms, no less than three times in the piece. Or, he switches to synonyms for ‘mattering’, like ‘relevant.’ “They'd rank last among Canadian teams in the league -- if not in the standings then in relevance.” To whom the Canadiens are not mattering, or on what scale they are least relevant- these things are never specified. Because you couldn’t specify them, could you? You couldn't come up with any way of measuring relevance that would put the Canadiens at the bottom of the NHL pile. The Habs still, even now, sell out every home game, they are still the third most lucrative franchise in the League, they still the leading topic of virtually all Quebecois sports media. Clearly, they still matter very much to a remarkable number of people. And, in fact, having lived in both Montreal and Toronto, I would make the case that the Canadiens ‘matter’ a great deal more to an average Montreal fan then the Leafs ‘matter’ to an average Toronto fan. That is, of course, a subjective argument, but that is more than Joyce makes in support of his contention that they don’t matter.

His contention about relevance is no better supported. Of course, he throws out the standings immediately, because if you judged relevance by performance than the Canadiens are well ahead of most of their Canadian brethren. Since the lockout, they’ve made the playoffs five seasons out of six, more than any Canadian team save the Canucks. Their prospect pool, which Joyce characterizes as full of players with ‘low ceilings’, is ranked by Hockey’s Future as 24th in the League, but still ahead of Calgary (26th), Winnipeg (28th), and Vancouver (29th). ESPN thought more highly of the Habs and put their organizational depth at 11th, ahead of all the aforementioned teams and the Leafs as well. Their draft performance, far from being the failure Joyce describes, has been ranked by people who do such things as anywhere from 1st to 3rd in terms of the League over all. Far from being “bereft of young talent”, the team has several young players in the line-up- Subban and Price, most prominently, but also Eller and Weber, on whom we have hardly given up, and guys like Palushaj and Leblanc just starting to get their first cracks. Far from having “no young prospects in development,” the Habs had five prospects at this year’s WJHC, more than any other franchise. That they have nothing on the scale of an Ovechkin or a Nugent-Hopkins has nothing to do with organizational failings and everything to do with the fact that they make the playoffs a lot. Joyce, paradoxically, wants to characterize the Canadiens as abject failures, but also wants to condemn them for lacking exactly the sort of players that they would have if they had actually failed abjectly. Apparently it would be preferable were they Oilers-terrible. That would be ‘relevant’.

Not content with misinterpreting the current incarnation of the team, Joyce also throws in a bunch of historical errors and misreadings. He regurgitates the notion that the Canadiens owed their dynasties to territorial rights, a myth which has been debunked several times over and yet refuses to die. He insists that the Montreal captaincy “didn’t matter” after Turgeon, ignoring Saku Koivu’s long, emotional, and controversial tenure- say what you will about Koivu, his captaincy was anything but meaningless. He suggests that the only reason Bob Gainey “escaped roasting” was the death of his daughter Laura, although the Gainey teams from 2007-8 to 2009-10 were actually rather successful by GMing standards, finishing first in the East in 2007-8 and going deep in the playoffs in 2009-10.

And then, of course, there’s the portentous, pointless hand-wringing about how there are no legends the like of Richard or Beliveau on the roster (of course not, that’s why they’re legends), about how the Habs have no face-of-the-franchise player (what, every team needs to have one of those at all times?), and how five teams have won more of the past 31 Stanley Cups than Montreal (a better championship record than 23 other franchises is apparently still not enough to secure relevance, which is of course why the Habs to this day are less relevant than the Islanders). These are the kind of accusations that could easily be leveled at nearly two dozen teams in the current NHL; the fact that Joyce can sell a magazine article just to throw them at the Canadiens is a very good sign of how much the Habs still matter comparative to their brothers in mediocrity.

But honestly, the thing that is so intensely irritating about articles like this is that they reflect the exact opposite of their ostensible theme: rather than being about memory, they are symptomatic of hockey journalism’s chronic lack of memory. The Canadiens have been bad this season, or more accurately, this half-season. They’ve made some weird moves. Suddenly, we have writers and journalists who hardly say two words about the Canadiens in an average month coming out of the woodwork to tweet tweets and print columns and rant of TV about their incompetence and irrelevance. Two years ago, when the Habs were knocking off Penguins and Capitals to get to the Eastern Conference final and the media were falling over themselves to write stories about their discipline and work ethic and strategic brilliance, this piece would never have been published. Four years ago, when the Canadiens dominated the East for a season and the Gainey plan looked like a roaring success, this article would never have been published. Joyce wants to draw a straight downward slope starting in 1970 and culminating in this year’s miseries, but the truth is a more complex thing, full of ups and downs, maybes and maybe-nots, plenty of disappointments but also some hopes fulfilled, and some wholly surprising thrills.

I rather doubt anyone who has invested many thousands of words in the ‘decline of an empire’ narrative is even remotely interested in advanced stats, but just for the record, the Canadiens misfortunes this season are largely attributable to two things: terrible power play luck and injuries. Through December, the Canadiens had lost 196 man-games to injury, amounting to the highest cap hit for injured players in the NHL thus far. Despite this, their even-strength possession numbers were generally positive, and under Martin their Fenwick percentages were quite good. The collective PP save percentage of opposing goalies was about .937- unsustainably high. There were plenty of indications that the team could and would improve, and there still are, although the panicky general management decisions are probably hurting the chances of that.

The season’s results have been disappointing and management’s handling of them has been depressing and discouraging, and an article saying that much would get no argument from me or any other fan. But if one disastrous half-season is enough to prove that a team does not matter, if this is all it takes consign a franchise to irrelevance, then Joyce is gonna have to come for every team in their turn. No one is good forever. There will come a season when the Red Wings aren’t going to make the playoffs. Time will come that the Pens will be in the basement again, and Boston has not seen the last of the draft lottery. No team, no matter how great, no matter how glorious, wins all the time. Every single thing wrong with the contemporary Habs has been wrong with some other team at some point, and all of those things can be made right again in time. There is nothing in this year’s struggle that is any more exemplary of an existential failure than there was something representative of durable dominance in the 2010 playoff run. These are swings of the pendulum, not shit rolling downhill.

This is the real value of history, to contextualize the present and soften the swings. We know greatness is not guaranteed and glory doesn’t last, nobody in Montreal or anywhere else needs Gare Joyce to explain this. The point of having had a dynasty, having had legends, is not to always have them. It’s to have had them, to have- even for a little while, hell, even once- achieved a first or a last, or something unrepeatable and unsurpassable. The making of a legend is the transformation of the transient into the transcendent. Something that happened once only for a fleeting moment becomes, through memory and veneration, something durable, something you can hold onto in the hard times. You can lose players and you can lose championships, but you never lose the legends. Howie Morenz died in 1937, but the Howie Morenz of 1928, first player to score 50 points in a season, is still part of the Canadiens. Maurice Richard may have coached the Nordiques, but the Maurice Richard of 1955, so beloved the fans would riot in his name, is just as much a Hab today as he was then. The Roy who led the team to a Cup in his rookie season is still a Canadien, just like the Gretzky who got 50 goals in 39 games is still an Oiler and the Orr who scored that flying goal will always be a Bruin. These monuments don’t mock the present, they enrich it. The Canadiens empire may indeed be crumbling, but better a crumbling empire than none at all, for the age of empires in the NHL is over and done. Happy are those teams who got their glory while the getting was good, because mark my words, there will never be a Pax Vancouvica.

Georges Vezina: Joyce tells us you might hear him spinning in his grave, if only you make the pilgrimage to Chicoutimi, so great is his shame at the fate of the Habs. But I’m not so sure. When Vezina died in 1926, the Montreal Canadiens were a seventeen year-old team that had won two Cups. In his tenure with the team, he saw their home rink burned to the ground and the Spanish flu kill off one of his teammates and his general manager. He saw the League he started playing in, the NHA, collapse and get restructured into the NHL. Many of the teams he played against- the Renfrew Creamery Kings, the Montreal Wanderers, the Quebec Bulldogs, the Toronto Ontarios, the Quebec Athletics, the Hamilton Tigers- were born sickly and died within the span of his career. Several others- the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Montreal Maroons, the New York Americans- didn’t outlive him by much.

If Vezina understood anything about hockey, he understood that it was hard thing. It’s a hard game and a hard business and it’s left a lot of casualties behind it in the past hundred years- not just players but franchises and fortunes too. Could old Georges, in his wildest dreams, have imagined how long the Canadiens would survive and all the glory they would garner? I doubt it. It would have seemed as impossible and unlikely looking forward from 1926 as it does looking back from 2012. But I know this: if his spirit has been tagging along for the past 100 years, he is fucking thrilled. He is thrilled and amazed and dazzled, he is positively joyous, because it has been a helluva ride, and a far better ride than any other NHL team has ever given its tubercular ghosts.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Woman's Place is in the Corners

“Hockey isn’t about skating from here to there…,” she lifts her stick and waves it vaguely at the far end of the rink. “… it’s about skating from here to there.” She points to the near boards. “Three strides. There’s never more than three strides between you and any puck you need to get to.” She demonstrates. The instructor has a most enviable three strides: low, wide-legged, quick and vicious. Like me, she’s a tiny woman; unlike me, she manages to take up a lot of space. I’m still not quite sure how she does it, what mysterious combination of muscle, positioning, and reflexes makes her play so forceful and mine so ineffectual. I can imitate her motions, sort of, but whereas she can control the ice five feet in any direction from her, I can barely hold the territory beneath my own skates. I have no idea why this is, but it is.

My class is full of intangible women. We’re there, you can see us standing around dressed up like hockey players, but we’re so unphysical as to be nearly insubstantial. In shinny, we go past each other so easily we might as well be going through each other like ghosts through mist. We get in front of the puck carrier and then stand, dead still, as she breaks right around us. We race for the puck and then pull up at the last minute, hesitant. What contact does happen is accidental- a thoughtless stick left sprawling to the left, or chopped up to cage-height on an overenthusiastic backswing. Once, in a poke-checking drill, a girl gave me a thoughtless backwards shove as I was trying to steal the puck from her, and then immediately turned, eyes full of regret, puck forgotten: “Oh God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to…” Someone falls during shinny and the game stops in a flurry of sympathy and concern. “Are you alright?!?”

It’s not that we’re afraid of contact, exactly. It’s more like we’re embarrassed by it. It’s like an unnecessary rudeness or a breach of collegiality. This is a class, a practice, we’re all here to learn, etc etc, and anyway, women’s hockey never features hitting, so there’s something vaguely too aggressive, too competitive about a collision. And, of course, the more painfully gentle we are with each other, the more painfully gentle we feel obligated to be, because nobody wants to be the one lady cross-checking wingers when everyone else is all, “Oh, you first,” “No, no, you first.”

It’s a terrible self-parody of women’s hockey. Hell, it’s a terrible self-parody of womanhood, and I wonder how we got to be this way. I know there are in the world tough, athletic women from tough, athletic families who grow up muscular and aggressive and unafraid of violence or confrontation, but those women seem to be, still, even with all the progress of the past fifty years, a small minority among their sex. Physicality is still one of the areas of the sharpest divide in gender roles, one of the few places where girls and boys are still raised according to happily variant standards.

I don’t know how many men actually get into fights anymore, real fights in the real world without skates on their feet, but it is still a feature of masculinity the world over. As much as boys are increasingly told not to fight, they are also taught not to run from fights. They are expected to be comfortable with the notion of physical confrontation, or at the very least, to be able to fake comfort with it. And, of course, they are actively encouraged to participate in contact sports. Hitting and shoving are hardly curiosities in the world of men, and are in fact common enough to become friendly and even enjoyable. Guys play life with body contact.

Girls, though, we’re taught to run. Literally, run away screaming for help. I certainly was. I have distinct memories of this warning at different stages of life, of teachers and friends and relatives, with the same message, if someone tries to hit you, if someone tries to hold you, you RUN. Hell, in high school we had a whole class for it. “Girls Self-Defense”, mandatory for every female student, and aside from a few tips on testicle-mangling and the various Macgyverish ways ordinary purse objects might be used to blind an attacker, the entire message of the class was RUN. (Actually, there was also one session on the theme of DO NOT CARRY DRUGS FOR YOUR BOYFRIEND, which is great advice for all you young women out there, but I digress). There is a sense that, as a woman, if you ever get into any kind of aggressive conflict with anyone, it will be very serious and you will probably lose. We are never taught to stand and fight, or even to fake the willingness to stand and fight, because no one will ever fight us honorably. If someone is hitting us, they mean to do the kind of damage we might never survive. So we run. That’s how it has to be, I guess, but as a consequence female life never develops the casual, playful aggression so characteristic of the male version.

Moreover, women do not play contact sports, and in many cases are discouraged from even trying the non-contact lady version of any rough game. Asking women I’ve met who came to hockey late, both in and out of the class, the number one reason that they didn’t start as kids was because you’ll get hurt. A great many parents can handle the notion of their little boys coming home bruised and scraped, broken bones, split lips. It seems like a natural part of boyness. Many fewer are comfortable with a girl bringing home the same sort of injuries. And thirty, forty, fifty years ago, when the women in my class were little girls, it was still utterly unthinkable for many families. Many generations of sporty girls have gone into swimming and soccer and tennis, games that don’t bruise or break so much, especially not at the lower levels. Sports you can look cute playing.

Enough armchair sociology. The fact is that we have a classful of princesses who are obviously, profoundly, almost comically afraid of getting their noses dirty, and even for girl-hockey, this is not an acceptable state of affairs. The instructor, clearly a woman of some vision, is not going to put up with any more of this “I’m so sorry,” and “Oh, dear, are you okay?” anymore. How will she hold her head high in hockey instructor circles, should it become known that she turned out a class such as this? How will she show her face at the annual convention without suffering the jeers and snarls of contemptuous peers? This is not just a matter of hockey anymore, this is a matter of honor. Hers, maybe. Ours, definitely.

She tosses a puck into the corner. “Go.”

We stare at her blankly. I expect the effect was especially bovine, because for the first time in seven classes she seems genuinely irritated. “GO.”

Nobody is going.

She sighs, and then goes herself. One, two, three quick strides and she’s on the puck. “See? Three strides. Get there first, you win.” We nod, silently, seriously. “Okay, you and you now.” She points. “GO.” The two women, both mid-young, both shy, go, to the best of their stiff-kneed ability. Both pull back slightly before the boards. One recovers a second earlier, and taps the puck with her stick. Winner.

“What was that? You gave up on it. Don’t give up on it. Get there, get on the boards. Like this.” The instructor plants one skate along the dasher, kicking with the other. “Okay, try again. You and you. GO.” Two other girls make a race for it, a little faster this time. They make it, one on each side of the rubber, and kick ineffectually. The instructor laughs. “PUSH. You want that puck. Your team is counting on you to get that puck out to them. PUSH HER.” The two women look at her, look at each other, and then, you know, push. A bit.

“Okay okay okay. Good. Listen. This is hockey. It’s about getting the puck. You can’t score goals if you don’t get the puck. You can’t get the puck if you don’t get there fast. And you can’t get the puck if you don’t fight for it.”

“Pair off, every pair take one. Put it on the boards, go back three strides, count down and go for it. Whoever gets it out wins.” She smiles. “No sticks.”

I am paired with another small woman, maybe four or five years older, in perfectly homogenous black gear. She smiles nervously through the cage and points to the goal line. “Here, I guess?”

“Sure.” I toss the puck in. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

“Three… two… one… GO.”

The first time I beat her easily on speed, the second time she beats me, and the third we fuck up the timing and have to abort. It takes perhaps four more tries before we actually get there at the same moment, resulting in a period of ineffectual kicking before she finally pops it through my five-hole. Winner.

Behind us, the instructor is rotating among the pairings shouting encouragement. “Use your shoulder. HARDER. Look, do you want the puck or not? HARDER.” My partner glances back at her, and then looks at me, and the next time we go in, she uses her shoulder, and I end up on my ass and unjustifiably shocked.

That BITCH.

Something cracked then, between me and her, some reticence, some reserve, some code of chilly etiquette we’d been conforming to without thinking or choosing. It cracked and it broke and the next time we tried we laid into each other with our full weight. It must have looked hilarious, the two of us together weighing less than an average NHL defenseman, grunting weird little noises as we tried to knock each other down, but it was wonderful. I haven’t really tried to shove anyone with all my strength since junior high, and although that strength is hardly anything at all, it’s amazing to actually try to use it for something for once. To fight for something, even if that something is nothing more than a little bit of rubber.

When she’s content that we’ve all begun to actually push each other without apologizing after, the instructor directs us to the faceoff circles, where we are to practice the third kind of facing-off, where you don’t actually go for the puck and just try to tie up the opponent. The resulting exercise is, essentially, women’s ice sumo, stick shafts and shoulders and elbows into solar plexi, trying to keep each other off the puck. And for once, instead of the usual bland courtesies, we’re talking to each other. Trash-talking, actually, and laughing. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the inherent comedy of falling down a lot, but I prefer to think we’re discovering the fun of shoving people around.

Because it is fun. Whatever your mommy told you about how nobody likes to get pushed and nobody likes to get hit, it’s bullshit, because we do, actually. Sure, nobody likes an unfair attack and most people don’t like too much pain, but there’s a real pleasure in jostling for its own sake. Win or lose, there’s something thrilling about a battle of muscle on muscle and bone on bone. It’s the joy of being real and tangible, a physical thing in a physical world. It’s the joy of taking up space.

It’s a whole new way of using my body.

Now, when the shinny comes at then end, we can’t fucking wait to go into the boards. Hell, there’s some moms in the class hardly seem to care about getting the puck off the boards, so great is their enthusiasm for mucking and grinding. And, I have to say, I relish a good puck battle nearly as much as I relish scoring, which is saying rather a lot. Four years in high school gym classes I took women’s self-defense, which I suppose was ostensibly supposed to make me feel safe and empowered, and all it ever did was make me feel more fragile, more weak, more perpetually imperiled, and although I’ve done all sorts of physical things since then, I’ve never felt anything more than delicate. It took going into the corners after a puck to make me feel, for the first time in ten years, strong.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Hunger Games

They are a series of books for teenagers, and although they sound much like many other series of books for teenagers of the dystopian sci-fi variety, I am assured that they are exceptionally well-written and worthy of my time. Unfortunately, I will never read them, because they suffer from the one great failing of all YA lit, that is, the assumption that teenagers are as interesting to everyone else as they are to themselves. See, the plot of The Hunger Games trilogy involves some warped future society where, for what are probably wholly stupid reasons, assorted adolescents are forced to fight to the death annually for the entertainment of the populace. Now, when I was 16, the idea that the adult world might want to make a bloodsport out of my high school would have seemed, if not exactly probable, certainly naturalistic. But then I got older, and I learned that the general adult attitude towards teenagers with whom they share neither genes nor household is one of complete not-giving-a-fuck, which is the way it should be. The idea that grown-up people with jobs and hobbies and kids of their own are going to get all worked up into a lather about anything done by 17-year-olds is, frankly, silly.

But then again, there is junior hockey.

There are, I am told, certain pockets of the United States where high school football is a matter of intense local pride, endowed with the weight of life and death, but I’ve never been to those parts of the country and can’t speak to that fervor. I have, however, been to certain places in Canada where the attitude towards the junior hockey team seemed, to put it delicately, perverse. I have distinct memories of sitting next to a little old Bellevillian lady in a fluffy sweater with kittens on it screaming so loudly in support of a fight between two lanky, pimply kids that she was literally spraying spittle with her fricatives. A middle-aged man in the low seats in Ottawa who did nothing but shout profanity at a particular baby-faced defenseman every time he sat on the bench. A thin, sarcastic guy in Kingston who knew, or made up, far more about the less savory recreational habits of the squad than anyone should rightly speak of. Taxi drivers who remembered every beardless captain for the past 20 years and every playoff failure for the past 30.

I like junior hockey. It’s fun and fast and its strategic deficiencies make for a lot of drama, and there is a certain divinatory pleasure in searching its swoops and arcs for glimpses of future players both more sane and more sensational. But fact is there are a lot of folk in Canada way too invested in it. The examples above are, of course, egregious and extreme cases, but they’re not the only ones I’ve had occasion to observe first-hand. And frankly, the whole phenomenon of the World Junior Hockey Championships rather undermines any stretched claim Canadians might try to make that they have a sense of proportion about teenagers and their games.

Now, I’m not saying the hockey at the WJHC isn’t fun to watch. I’m not even saying it shouldn’t be a nationally televised event. But somewhere along the line it became the repository for far too much national ego and far too much adult emotional investment. The tournament that should be, at the very most, a sort of novelty and a marking point along a continuum of development has instead become an end in itself, endowed with a significance that far outstrips its substance. The WJHC-national-event has become a grotesque distortion of WJHC hockey, to the detriment of almost everyone involved.

Any tournament- any level of hockey for that matter- which is still defined primarily by an age bracket is by definition development level. The fact that the U-20s are the penultimate development level doesn’t change that. Yes, some very few of the teenagers participating in the WJHC are barely NHL players, and a great many more are nearly NHL players, but the italics on those words represent a critical emphasis. Just like there is a huge gulf between a nineteen-year-old guy who is technically an adult and an actual adult male, there is also a huge gulf between a teenager who has technically played a few games in the NHL and an actual NHL player. They’re not there yet. The teams at the WJHC could be decisively whomped by a team of good AHLers and utterly destroyed by even a mediocre NHL squad. At the stage we see them at every Christmas, they’re still- especially the goalies and defensemen- faint suggestions of the men they will become. They’re still, in most cases, 3-4 years from being ready for prime time. People are pleased to call this tournament ‘best on best’, but given that the players are themselves far from the best, this is some extremely selective reasoning.

The WJHC should represent one stage in the process of becoming. It should be about development, and if it were watched and loved primarily as an opportunity to learn about and showcase the development of particular players, it could be a great thing for hockey. But that would involve a very different kind of presentation and a very different kind of analysis from what is provided. If watching the World Juniors meant hearing about the process by which kids get drafted onto junior teams, the way those junior teams use the players, the kind of development trajectories we’ve seen from different sorts of players in the past, the way scouts watch kids and project their futures, and so forth, it’d be terrific. In fact, it’d probably be one of the high points of the year for actually informing and educating fans about the game. But that sort of analysis is never going to happen, because to do that one has to undermine the importance of the WJHC itself. An honest analysis of the tournament would have to incorporate the understanding that it represents a very small sample size of an incomplete group of largely immature players. That truth is not dramatic.

So instead we get a kind of inflated mini-Olympics, with the pressure and spectacle pumped up to 11 and the tournament treated as an entirely self-referential event. The comparisons made between players are not between their previous selves and their future selves but between one thing they did in a game and some other singular thing a different kid did in a game three years ago. It’s all THE GREATEST GOALS and THE BIGGEST COMEBACKS and THE SCRAPPIEST UNDERDOGS. Every storyline that attends the World Juniors treats the World Juniors as if it was its own little self-contained hockey event. Worse yet, what little context is selectively presented invariably serves to make performance at this tournament seem more defining and representative than it actually is. It’s an occasion for the distortion and misreading of player development, for overhyping and underappreciating. There is probably no single thing that does more to fuck up the average hockey fan’s understanding of junior hockey maturation and the evaluation of specific prospects than media coverage of the World Juniors.

Moreover, it’s not necessarily good for the players. Between the kids who feel humiliated by the selection process, the ones who make age-appropriate blunders at critical moments, and the ones whose over-exuberant celebrations make them the subject of snarky approbation by middle-aged columnists, there are a large number who end up seeing their status as prospects fall due to their participation in the WJHC. But even for those who get to be heroes, who make the dramatic OT goal or throw the highlight-reel hit, the valorization is problematic. It is a terrible thing to peak at seventeen, no matter how high the peak, and every year the WJHC gets bigger it further ensures that a few boys involved in it will come to have the best moment they will ever have right then and there. How does it feel, to come to twenty-four and look back and know that you will never achieve anything greater and more glorious than a prize you won five years before? Sure, there are a few guys who participate who will get the opportunity to surpass their achievements at the World Juniors in the Stanley Cup final or the Olympics, but at this point, for Canadians anyway, those are the only two events that outstrip the WJHC in terms of scale and importance. Not only does overhyping this tournament distort the players’ ability to reasonably gauge their development, but it might end up distorting the arc of their whole lives. I’m not sure that’s worth it, no matter how nice the temporary high.

I know there’s a lot of frustrated nationalistic hockey sentiment in Canada. It is the country’s most significant field of world dominance and yet the opportunities to exert that dominance directly are few and far between. For the most part, Canadians have to content themselves with proxy representations of their superiority- their numerical prevalence in the NHL, their massive abundance of rinks and amateur players- but these are poor substitutes for the visceral experience of ass-kicking under the flag. There is a ravening hunger for proofs of hockey-superiority that cannot be satisfied only once in four years, that refuses to accept the compromise some-of-the-best-on-best offered by the Men’s World Championships. It’s a legitimate need and I feel for people who suffer from it. But just because the World Juniors can be used as an outlet for it doesn’t mean they should be. The depth of the need does not automatically make the vessel worthy. Some desires are destined for frustration. The grown-up thing is to live with that fact, not plop your desperation onto the as-yet-unmuscular shoulders of a bunch of teens.

One of the things that the old owe the young is a sense of perspective and proportion, a reasonable reckoning of achievements and failures, and on that count the old people (and by ‘old’ I mean ‘old enough to drink in the US’) who hype and consume the World Juniors are doing a disservice to the adolescents who play in it. It’s crazy-hockey-daddery on a national scale with television sponsorship, and that’s not the kind of hockey-crazy the country should be encouraging. The journey is not the destination, the means are not the ends, the rehearsal is not the show, practice is not perfection. Pick your metaphor, there’s a billion of ‘em, but the point is always the same: there must be a distinction made between the training and the achievement, or both lose their value.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Lovelovelove

It’s good to be right, but it’s better to be in love.

November 2006

I do not remember so much about my first hockey game. It was the season of ice storms, cold and snowless. I remember the bright red whirl of the crowd against the grey streets. I remember the darkness in the upper tiers, and the people in front of me who told us to sit down during the American anthem, and the dead silence of the first period. I remember that they won, and that Sergei Samsonov scored two goals.

Mostly, though, I remember the screaming. I remember leaning over the rail, body bent halfway between sitting and standing as though I might be planning a suicide dive into the netting, and screaming and not even hearing my own screams because everyone was screaming, and whether it was happiness or rage you couldn’t quite say, but either way it was love.

I am not a screamer by nature. I am the Princess of Anthropological Distance. I am big eyes and dead silence and scribblings in notebooks. But that year, that first season, was different. I was different. It passed in a riot of heat and noise and love such as I have never experienced before or since. How could it be otherwise? I defy anyone, no matter how sane rational smart or pragmatic, to discover hockey, Montreal, and the Canadiens all in one winter and not go a bit mad in the process.

Fans don’t like to use the word love, maybe because most sports fans are men and men are culturally discouraged from the use of excessively emotional terminology. Or maybe because we just don’t have the language for it. There is no word in English for the love of a team. Not even a technical term, and we have technical terms for everything, from achluophilia (the love of darkness) to xyrophilia (love of razors). We have terms for love of monkeys (pithikosophilia), and love of beer bottles (laleorphilia), and love of snowdrops (galanthophilia). Just as there is a word for every fear, there is apparently a word for almost every love. But there is no word for the love of a sports team, although there are probably far more of us who experience that then there are xyrophiles and galanthophiles in this wide world. So instead of calling it love, we call it fanaticism, because inexplicably we’d rather associate ourselves with religious folk of the bomby variety than something as gooey as affection.

But make no mistake: all fanaticism begins with love. The best, worst kind of love, love without sense or comprehension, love without reason. Posters on the wall love. Screaming in the dark love. Love that occasionally veers into fits of rage and melodrama, but for the most part passes from hope to hope and thrill to thrill with little thought and less understanding. That is how it begins for all of us; the only difference is for me it happened at 24 rather than 8. For some fans, it is always like that.

For some of us, though, it changes.

***

September, 2008

It’s the same candle he uses to wax his sticks, one of those thick heavy decorative ones inherited from a previous expatriate girl with more interior decorating sense than me. In the heat of the tropical nights, it’s sweating a little around the edges, so when it bounces off the wall with a dull thunk, it leaves a streak of red behind like clotted blood. I don’t look back as I stomp theatrically out the door, but I swear I can hear him rolling his eyes in exasperation.

In my defense, I didn’t throw it at him.

Some people tell me, oh, it must be so nice to have a girlfriend/boyfriend as into hockey as you are. Those are people who don’t understand hockey very well. They assume that being obsessive about hockey is like being obsessive about crocheting- everyone basically does it the same way, and you all just happily enjoy it together. But if you’re hardcore about hockey, you know it ain’t like that. Aside from the whole question of team allegiances, there are different ways of thinking about the game. Some of them are not very friendly with each other.

Imagine the most vicious, nasty, knock-down, drag-out argument you’ve ever heard on talk radio, ever followed on a message board, ever gotten into on a comment thread. Now imagine having that argument at 2 AM, in your underwear, with your significant other. I won’t go into the more horrible details, but in the beginning the hockey part of the relationship was the ugliest part of the thing, the worst fights we’ve ever had. I have slept on the couch over hockey arguments. More than once, in fact.

I have no doubt that Julian had his period of screaming love for hockey, but it was long over by the time I came around. By then, he had mostly given up the hopes and daydreams and passions of traditional fanaticism in favor of something else. He called it objective, I called it inhuman. He called it rational, I called it deterministic. He called it pragmatic, I called it cold. He came at me with links and charts and equations, probability analysis and talent-quantifying algorithms, facts and figures, data. I came at him with mysteries, clichés, observations and speculations, and finally the full force of the hope and rage I had learned in Montreal. It got to the point where we couldn’t even talk about it anymore. For the sake of peace in the household, for the sake of love, we set it aside, and for a long time we didn’t speak of hockey at all. It was better that way.

***

The terrible thing was that he was right. You can quibble about methods and terminology, but there was no denying the rightness. Julian made predictions and they came to pass. He made bets and he won. I was neither the first person nor the last in the fairly traditional culture of the Chinese Taipei Ice Hockey League’s Canadian contingent to come at him with the customary clichés and, although he won few converts, he never lost an argument he chose to join. I could talk the boy closer to a standstill than anybody else ever got, but that was only by pulling the fight so far into the realm of deconstructive cultural analysis that he lost his footing in the jargon. Ultimately, though, he was still right.

The wonderful and terrible thing about learning is that it is irreversible. You can hate a lesson, you can regret it, but once the realization has come it never goes away. I did my homework, I fought it every step of the way but I did it. The things Julian threw at me, even after he gave up trying to make the case for them, stuck. I followed the debates and the blogs. I puzzled over the charts and the equations. I read the comments thread battles in stone silence. I let my own writing die off unlamented, because if this was the world of rightness, than there was no place for me in it, and nothing left for me to say. Maybe it was not perfect hockey truth, but here was more hockey truth than I had ever yet found anywhere else, and rather than being thrilled with it, I mourned.

When somebody comes for your team to puncture your hopes with facts and mock your love for the delusional narratives it latches onto, they will tell you it’s no big deal, that passion is not incompatible with truth. They’ll tell you that you’re overreacting. They will tell you it doesn’t have to hurt.

They’re lying. It hurts like hell.

2010, May

It is the playoffs. Cinderella run. How often does this happen? How often does this come along, that your boys will sneak in as an 8th seed and knock off the two most famous teams in the League in consecutive rounds to get to the Conference final? Once. That’s how often. It is a singular life moment; one will never be able to speak of it in plurals. I will never get something like this again.

Back in Montreal, people are going apeshit with joy. In the newspapers, journalists are spinning all sorts of elaborate explanations about Jacques Martin and his miraculous system, about the Habs astounding ability to keep the powerhouse offensive players to the outside, to force weak, low-percentage shots. It is a very plausible sounding explanation.

But it was wrong. I didn’t want it to be wrong. I spent hours with shot charts and game logs trying to demonstrate that it was more than just a fluke, something other than just the single freak outlier that probability must occasionally throw out in order to prove itself true. But I couldn’t find anything, nothing I could prove, no evidence anywhere to suggest that there was any more substance to this success than one of Halak’s rare spasms of brilliance at the perfect coincidental moment.

I downloaded the games and watched them with a sense of dull obligation. Julian seemed to pity me. You can still enjoy it, he said. You can still get excited.

Excited for what? For a spate of meaningless luck? For the inevitable crushing regression? For a party on the other side of the world? I had my moment and I also had it debunked and deflated every step of the way. Maybe there are times in this world when you can have irrational hope and reasonable expectations at the same time, but this wasn’t one of them. I had given up love to be right, and I was right, and they lost, and rather than heartbreak I felt blankness, the interior equivalent of a noncommittal shrug. Heartbreak would have been far less painful.

***

I do not envy Julian his relationship with his team. It is not a happy one. Granted, no fan of an unsuccessful franchise has an easy time of it, but hope softens all hardships, and Julian’s hockey-worldview does not allow him very much hope. He gets a certain pleasure from being right, and from sharing that rightness with a community of other right people, but it puts him at irreconcilable odds with a franchise that is so often wrong. His team passes from one mistake into another, from bad trades to bad UFA signings to bad coaching decisions and somewhere out there are people who can live under the illusion that these things might possibly turn out well, but he knows better.

The emotional spectrum of his fanaticism ranges, essentially, from despair to snarky bemusement, peaking in the middle at the exact point where sarcasm meets cynicism. Every now and then there’ll be a cute goal he can purely enjoy, or a real gameful of pleasure, but for the most part, he gets nothing positive out of his relationship with his NHL team other than being right about them being wrong. Over time, it breeds a certain detachment. I don’t know if he’ll ever care enough to scream again.

I suppose this is where general NHL fans come from. You know the kind, the ‘students of the game’ who ‘don’t have a horse in this race’. It’s an attractive proposition: no more emotional investment in the winning or losing of particular games, no more commitment to the often inexplicable decisions of any particular GM. A general NHL fan never loses a favorite player or gets eliminated from the playoffs in January. They skip merrily from high to high, studying the most interesting problems, admiring the most impressive achievements, mocking the most ridiculous mistakes. They are often right, and they never suffer.

I wonder if he and I will both end up among them in a few years.

***

December, 2011

Chicago hockey has changed so much in the past five years I hardly recognize it. The first time I went to a game at the United Center, it was a cavernous place with a funereal atmosphere, right down to the organ music and the heavy smack of individual footsteps on the great wide stairs. Now it is sold out and bustling and booming, everyone fat and merry and drunk and wearing red. It’s like the after-party at a Santa convention.

The Santa-fans are patently in love, the screaming kind of love, the singing kind of love. They are laughing and joking and rocking out to their obnoxious goal music and trashing-talking me with the casual amiability of those who think such things are all in good fun. The score cranks steadily up from 1-0 to 1-1, then proceeds almost instantly to 1-2, and then 1-3, then 1-4 with the empty netter, and then 1-5 after that, and at that moment I can’t think of anything in regular season hockey more provocative of disgust than your goalie getting scored on after the empty netter. Around me is a riotous elation, and I am sitting silent, feeling that all-too-familiar sensation of disappointment slowly starting to turn into indifference.

It is all very wrong. The ridiculous power play unluck was wrong, and the injuries are wrong, and taking Kaberle was wrong, and firing Martin was wrong, and hiring Cunneyworth was really, really wrong, and now he’s giving the wrong minutes to some guys and the wrong punishments to others and just generally being egregiously, terribly, miserably wrong about everything. This whole season is turning into one huge object lesson in all the different ways, human and inhuman, that hockey can go wrong. I am getting sick of the wrongness.

Eventually there comes a moment when you have to ask yourself: what is hockey for? Actually, there come a lot of moments when you should be asking yourself that, but in some way they’re all the same moment happening at different times. You know the one, the one where every muscle fiber and every neuron is whispering fuck this shit, this is not worth it and you start to wonder vaguely if crocheting might not be more fun than it looks. I don’t care how lightly you claim to take this game, if you are reading this sentence, you have experienced this moment.

And you probably have your own answers, but here’s my working theory: hockey is for learning things. It is, like all games, a kind of targeted trial run for life. Sports are simplified, bounded areas in the liminal space between reality and fiction, and in these spaces we put various of our capacities, needs, and perceptions to the test. Different games push different buttons, different sets of physical, intellectional, and social abilities, but all involve the developing and honing of the skills we need in order to live. Hockey is the proving ground for many things, not just speed and strength and agility, but also creativity and vision, courage and endurance, competition and cooperation. There is a lot to be learned from playing.

There’s a lot to be learned from watching too, but the lessons are different. Some of them are intellectual- the being right part- but the more important ones are emotional. Spend enough time as a fan and you will get more than your due of lessons in exhilaration and frustration, affection and alienation, hope and despair. If nothing else, it will put you through a tremendously dramatic range of the common emotional experiences.

The conflict between being right and being in love, though, is a tricky one. On the one hand it is natural, and in some cases even obligatory, to hate that which is wrong. Certainly it is natural to love being right. But when being right puts you at odds with your team and sometimes even your sport, then you’re approaching a torturous self-contradiction, because without love, there’s no point. Hockey without love is nothing but sweat and ice and numbers, nothing but a game and maybe not even that. It’s not enough to understand it, you have to feel it too, or none of the lessons will ever really stick, and worse yet, you’ll have lost one of the few occasions in life when you might, possibly, if you’re really lucky, scream your bloody heart out and mean it.

There’s this thing, the Buddhists call it karuna and Paul called it agape, but I generally think of it as unconditional love. This is not the love you feel for things that make you happy or fill your needs, this is not pleasure. It’s the other kind, the one that flows without illusion or delusion, without reciprocity or compensation, without expectation, without even hope; the kind that’s unfazed by disappointment and never feels shame. I am told that this kind of love is an extraordinarily difficult feeling to feel, which is probably why it’s so popular with religious ascetics, but I think, if you’re going to really understand the workings of any game and still preserve your capacity for screaming passion, eventually, you need to start cultivating a little bit of that unconditional love. At the very least, it’s a more useful life skill than impotent rage.

So that’s something I learned from hockey. Or, more accurately, something I’m trying very hard to learn from hockey.

Because fuck, that was a terrible goal.