Thursday, December 14, 2006

Enough Faith: Le Centre Bell, 12/12/06

Canadiens 4, Bruins 3

[Note to the reader: This post is incredibly long, even by the standards of this blog, and perhaps a bit melodramatic and self-serious, and possibly in poor taste. Discretion, or at least patience, is advised.]

Jesus saves… but Sammy scores on the rebound.

Last Saturday, Ryan Miller was quoted as saying that coming to the Bell Center was like going to church. If by ‘church’, he meant ‘gigantic Appalachian Pentecostal revival meeting’, I see what he means. Speaking in tongues? Check. Praying? Check. Ecstatic screaming, jumping, and writhing suggesting possession by supernatural forces? Check. Snake handling? I didn’t see any, but probably. Faith healing? Not really, but almost.

I went to this game in person. Here’s the part where I admit something embarrassing: This was my first hockey game. Ever. In my entire life. Yes, I started writing long, semi-coherent hockey commentary and posting it on the internet without ever having been to an actual game. I haven’t even been near an ice rink in over a decade.

The Bell Center doesn’t much look like a church. Inside it reminds me of nothing so much as an airport- blue and brushed steel, slightly antiseptic, everything number-coded, little stalls selling food and tchotchkes at every turn. I circumambulate a few times, around and around the various levels I have access to as I ascend vaguely towards my own designated space. I am, of course, up in the very cheap seats, at the top of the arena, my view a steep shot straight down to the goalie. (Toivonen twice, Aebischer once).

The pre-game practice down on the ice has all the clear, precise structure of a ritual regularly performed. The motions of the players are automatic, like ball bearings rolling over a set course, as if there was no choice or will involved but simply a series of movements which must be conducted by both sides before the game can commence.

But however standard the opening, this is, we all know, not a standard game. Both teams come to the ice tonight damaged, both physically and psychically. The seats around me buzz with anxiety. Souray and Begin are both out with injuries of unknown severity, absences that don’t bode well for the Canadiens’ already unreliable offense. Yet these injuries, which alone would be enough to worry the fans, are tonight a distant third on the list of topics of concern. Boston’s rookie Kessel has been diagnosed with testicular cancer, the news is fresh and passing through the crowd from person to person and group to group. In spite of the rivalry, the Habs fans around me murmur sympathies for the kid, the Bruins, their fans. I have not been around long enough to have personal memories of Koivu’s cancer, but it remains a sensitive point in Montreal’s collective memory. And even beyond this, there is the greater tragedy, the intractable loss, the elephant in the room. People mention the name Laura and then say nothing, look at their feet, shake their heads, sigh. This is not all that is going on, there are some rowdy groups drinking and heaping half-hearted invective on the practicing Bruins below, but there is a peculiar awkwardness, a kind of vague guilt, hovering over the stands. Maybe it’s just me.

It is a strange thing that this game should even be played, hemmed in as it is by sorrow and fear, but nevertheless, it is played. One feels as though life ought to stop for such real sadness, but it doesn’t, even the silly parts, even the bizarre game where adult men chase a little rubber disc around on ice for an hour. Hockey games don’t stop because of injuries, no matter how severe, and similarly the hockey season doesn’t stop for tragedies, no matter how vicious.


Before the anthems, they call for a moment of silence in memory of Laura Gainey.

Most people who have spoken or written about her death have reflected on their own children, how terrifying it would be to lose them. I have no children, as yet I am still young enough to be, although mostly an adult, one of the children in my family, and as such, I take this moment to think about my parents. Many of the news reports have mentioned Laura Gainey’s self-destructive phase, her drug addiction and struggle to come to terms with her mother’s death, and I think of how much of his life Bob Gainey must have spent worrying for her, caring for her, fighting for her. We are so cruel to our parents sometimes, when we are young and angry at the world, we cause them such fear and pain with the things we do to ourselves- the risks we take, the passions we chase. I regret, in that moment, the many sorrows I have caused my own parents in my struggle to become myself. I think of that brief silence on the other end of the telephone line when I speak of my latest gigantic plan which will take me further from them into the wide strange world, and I realize what they are afraid of: that I might go so far that I do not come back. I have often found their desire to protect me suffocating, but now I think I understand it more, for there are so many dangers out there that cannot be planned for or managed, that could catch up to anyone at any second. As a daughter, I know that probably she could not have been other than what she was nor done other than what she did, but it is unbearably cruel that she was caught by such a fleeting catastrophe. I do pray, though I know not to what, that whatever peace is to be had in this universe finds her, and her father, and her siblings, and her mother.

I don’t know what everyone else was thinking about, but for the moment, we are all totally silent.

The first period remains very subdued. My eyes are so used to being directed by the camera that at first I am never looking in the right place- I get caught on a particular player and miss the play. The arena is eerily quiet at first, perhaps because our minds our all somewhere else, perhaps because it is the nature of first periods to be subdued, but I find it strange to watch without the constant chatter of the play by play. From my eyes-of-God vantage point, the game looks somehow smoother and simpler than it does on television, and for a while I think of nothing but the inherent beauty of the game, the perpetual motion, the easy sophistication. It is difficult for me to even watch, much less think, at the speed of hockey-play, yet the players make it seem completely natural, like the formations of a flock of birds or a school of fish, as if it was just the way human beings were meant to move.


As nice as it is to have some time to contemplate the aesthetics of the game, that is not why one goes to the Bell Center. After the first period, I’m starting to think that maybe this game will remain respectfully subtle for the duration, like the church I went to when I was a child. There was certainly yelling and applause for Markov’s goal, and enough dislike of Chara to cause a smatter of boos every time he had the puck, but the atmosphere had been generally calm, stirred more in my section by the guy coming through to give away free hats than by anything in the actual game. I go wandering during the intermission, a little disappointed, because I have heard so much of the madness that is supposed to form in this building, and I was hoping somehow to be moved or uplifted or dazzled here. Maybe, I think to myself, that was too much to expect for tonight. Maybe tonight it is enough that the game has happened at all.

So I go back to my seat for the beginning of the second, and I get what I wanted- something amazing happens, and everything changes.

Sergei Samsonov scores.

If you haven’t been following the Habs this year, this may not mean anything to you, but trust me, for the crowd at the Bell Center on Tuesday, it was very nearly the Second Coming. There’s a half a second where nobody actually believes it happened- the guys behind me have been running through an encyclopedia of 2nd line complaints since 3 minutes in- and then everyone is standing, screaming and hooting and clapping so hard our hands ache, and then we do it all again when they announce the goal, hell, we even keep howling for Niinimaa on the assist, why not?

And I don’t know if it seemed this way to the guys on the ice, or to the fans at home, but where I was sitting, after that, it was an entirely different game. The 2nd line- this line that everybody hated, the one we all blamed for every problem the team had, the line that no one expected anything from until maybe Higgins came back- are suddenly the night’s biggest attraction. They change onto the ice and everyone leans forward a little more, Samsonov gets anywhere near the puck and the noise starts building immediately. My companion, who does not follow the Canadiens, keeps telling me how this #15 is really great, and I’m not sure what to say to that, except to smile and say that yeah, apparently he is. When he scores again in the 3rd, the furor is even louder, a group behind me whistling so shrill and long that my ears ring for minutes. It’s not just happiness that we got a point and we’re winning, it’s more than that. I think we’re genuinely happy for him. There’s relief too, for ourselves, relief to be free of our own complaining and criticism, thrilled at the opportunity to be good fans, supportive, happy, energetic fans. By the time Latendresse gets his, my entire section is leaning so far forward that we’re not even sitting anymore, but kneeling on the back of the seat in front of us, and there are people around me who’ve been standing and yelling for the past 5 minutes straight and won’t stop until the final buzzer. When the game ends- this game- people leave singing, and I don’t know how it happened, because nothing real has changed since that moment of silence at the beginning- the injuries, the cancer, the death are no different now than they were two hours ago. But everyone somehow feels better.

The amazing thing is not that Samsonov finally scored, it is that he scored twice and scored dazzlingly in this game, surrounded by loss and injury and anxiety and chased by a 19 game slump and ravening media wolves desperate to drive him from Montreal by any means, anywhere. It is not a real miracle- that would be a ludicrous exaggeration. Nevertheless, it is a small but sparking flash of some kind of inspiration, a tiny shard of redemption. It is enough to bring 21,000 people to their feet, screaming, clapping, dancing, leaning forward like they could maybe touch the ice if it wasn’t 500 feet away. It is enough to stir the passion and maybe even the fickle love of a difficult crowd. Like the vibe of a revival meeting, maybe it isn’t actually the Holy Spirit, but it’s a shadow of a facsimile of the possibility of the existence of something saving, something soothing, something beautiful.

I doubt that Samsonov’s critics will fold up their auction tables yet- I fully expect to hear more than a few thank-God-he-scored-because-maybe-we-can-deal-him-now rants in the coming days. I don’t want him to go, at least not yet, although I suppose he couldn’t be blamed for finding the atmosphere in this city less than accommodating. He was the first star in my first hockey game, on a night when I really needed to see something fantastic, and that’s enough to earn my affection.


The media spin is that they ‘won one for the Gainey family’, but the fact is, winning a hockey game is meaningless on the scale of that horror. Sports are stupid. Being a sports fan is inherently ridiculous, a foolish thing to waste one’s passion on, what with all the real, serious problems in the world, what with all the real pain and real disasters and whatnot. I don’t know if anybody went to this game, if anybody in Montreal will watch hockey for some time without feeling a bit guilty about it, without feeling like doing so is trivializing tragedy. But here’s the strange thing: sports have power over human beings. Not all human beings, not always, but a lot of us, a lot of the time, and somehow that power grows the worse reality becomes. For all the people who talk about the power of art to comfort, to redeem, to ennoble, most aesthetes I know are people with good, comfortable, happy lives and precious little need of redemption, whereas sports seem to thrive in the most crushing, punishing circumstances. In the U.S. there are dilapidated, depopulated small towns full of obsessive football fans, and urban housing projects full of dedicated basketball players. Around the world there are refugee camps and ghettos where no minute of daylight passes without soccer. Sports touch us in a unique way, and they seem to touch us more when life is cruel than when it is kind.

I think it is because, within the miniature world of the game, anything really can happen. Real miracles, in real life, just don’t occur, most of the time there is no happy ending, no last-second plot twist that gives meaning to everything that came before. Real life is often an exercise in learning how to accept chaos and pain, and a lot of the time, you have to be content just to survive as long as you can. But in a game, we get to see all kinds of little miracles. In hockey, a player can go scoreless for 19 games and then dazzle everyone in the 20th. In hockey, a team can be down 4-0 after 30 minutes and still win in the end. Real life gives you those kinds of moments- where the underdog really triumphs, where the little guy beats the odds, where victory is pulled out of immanent defeat at the last second- twice in a decade. Sports give you them twice a week. Sports, ultimately, cultivate the capacity for hope, more than that, they train you for it; all their tiny, insignificant, irrelevant miracles that surprise you and shock you and teach you not to take anything for granted and not to think you know what’s going to happen in the future. And because even when the miracles go against you, there’s still the next game, the next season, and you know that still, whatever the odds against, anything can happen.

In real life, anything can’t happen. Very few things can happen, and even fewer actually do. But it is easier to live when we can believe in endless, infinite possibilities, as wide and bright as the eastern horizon.

So in that way, maybe, it is like going to church. The reality before the beginning of the game is no different than the reality at the end of the game, but the crowd that left the Bell Center was not only happier, but perhaps just a bit more irrationally hopeful than when they entered. It’s not real salvation, it’s not real redemption, it’s not really anything. But it’s enough.


Julian said...

Holy crap "E", you write the blog I wish I could write. I mean, the blog I would write if I had your writing chops. I mean, I started a blog a long while back, but forgot about it, and then forgot my username and password, so forever stunted it shall remain. Probably for the best.

This belongs in the last comment thread we had going, but you need to read "Home Game : Hockey and Life in Canada" by Ken Dryden and Roy MacGregor. At least, the chapter on an Oilers-Habs game.
The part where you talked about feeling for Samsonov, knowing he was struggling and wanting to see him succeed so you could feel good for him.... Dryden talks about that, about how when you know the players, you want them to succeed even more, when they do well, a part of you feels it too. It's about the importance of that feeling, of tying a fan to their team, and identifying with players from the moment you hear of them or watch them in the juniors to the day their drafted, the make the team, become a veteren and finally retire. He calls hockey "Canada's drama on a national stage".

Something about your writing style reminds me of his. For some people, that might be a bad thing, but I'd call it a good thing, personally speaking.

I live in Taiwan right now, just moved here, and I didn't bring my hockey books along, partially because of a lack of room, and partially because I thought they'd make me miss hockey too much. I rather regret that now, cause otherwise I could post the sections I'm talking about.

I read some of your other posts, and apparently you're an American, and rather new to the game. It's quite impressive that you've taken to it so quickly. You might feel a little left behind or left out when you read references to things you've never heard of, but remember, being passionate today can make up for alot of things, and someday you'll be the one spouting off references to old third liners who spent two seasons with the club fourteen years ago.

DarkoV said...

Last time I went to see the Canadiens play live was when the Forum was still packed to the gills and standing room "seats" were readily available. I've never been to the Bell Centre, but after reading your post, I may want to consider at least one game.
Want to agree with Julian. Great writing. Hope you keep it up.