Sunday, December 31, 2006

Musical Chairs and Maxim Lapierre

[This is a bit belated, since I began writing it while I was away, but I think it retains some relevance. Anyway, I've got a lot of essays/rants/hypotheses in the pipeline right now and might as well post some of them.]

After 4 points in 4 games, and earning the instant adulation of myself and countless other Canadiens fans, Maxim Lapierre was abruptly sent back down to Hamilton. I catch the news with 10 minutes of borrowed internet time while in Chicago, and find the decision mysterious and inexplicable- he was doing so well. It’s not fair! He didn’t deserve this, he played beautifully, he earned a real place on the team. Several of the commentators suggest that the decision involves the intricacies of hockey finance, an area I know very little about, but I take comfort in their assurances that he’ll probably be back.

But something about this situation keeps nagging at me, all day, as I finish up my Christmas shopping, as I wrap presents in front of a Wolves game on local cable. The real problem, I decide, isn’t money at all. It’s space and loyalty, the deep question of what players owe to a team and what a team owes to its players, and the peripheral question of what fans owe to both.

In brief, as players recover from injuries and return to play, there aren’t enough slots for everyone. As the situation sat at that point, the Canadiens were a team with enough forwards to make 5 offensive lines. The status quo had been something to the effect of Latendresse-Koivu-Ryder, Kovalev-Plekanec-Samsonov, Perezhogin-Bonk-Johnson, and Murray-Begin-Downey. But then Bouillon and Dandenault need to get worked back into the lineup after missing a ton of time to injuries, so Carbonneau drops Downey in order to give them some ice time in his slot. Once they go back to being full-time defensemen, the Canadiens have eight defensemen for six spaces, so Streit gets bumped up to a part-time 4th line forward so he gets something to do, and lo and behold, he’s pretty good at it, so now we’ve got him and Begin anchoring the 4th line and Murray and Downey switching for the last spot. Then Begin gets injured, so Lapierre is brought up from Hamilton to take his slot, whaddaya know, he’s really good too. Then Higgins comes back and reclaims the 1st line slot that Latendresse had been keeping warm for him, and Latendresse gets bumped back down to the 4th line, where he plays pretty nicely with both Streit and Lapierre, et voila, we’ve got an entirely new 4th line that looks terribly seductive. And 3 forwards with nothing to do, the 5th line that you’re not allowed to have.

It’s like a very horrible game of musical chairs. Somebody’s got to go. The only question remains who and why.

Now, every Habs fan had, and probably still has, very strong opinions about this. But I was a little shocked and troubled by my own initial position. After all my protestations of loyalty to the team-as-is, after all my disgust at the pervasive trade rumors and the mercenary nature of some fans, which I thought was so genuine, I was absolutely entranced with Lapierre and outraged that they didn’t keep him. I knew, for certain, that the consequences of keeping him would be Murray and/or Downey getting pushed out, and I didn’t care. At all. Send them off, to wherever mediocre hockey players go to fade away. I felt perhaps a twinge of regret that Begin might get somehow hurt in the process, but not enough to give up on the prospect of what was pretty obviously a much more productive 4th line. My desire to see Lapierre stay wasn’t even really a reasoned position, it was just an instinct, a need, a reflex action, like a crow collecting shiny trinkets in its nest. From a perfectly Darwinian perspective, it might still have been the logical thing to do. If the competition for slots on an NHL team is a war of all against all, than the players who turn in the best game deserve the spaces. Lapierre was accumulating points. Murray and Downey weren’t. Simple.

But it’s not that easy, it can’t be. The season is too long and the nature of individual games too variable. The same player can be the star of one game and a total embarrassment in the next. Even streaks, either the good or the bad variety, are only true until they aren’t- Latendresse went pointless for a good long while before he began to put up numbers, but has been improving and finding consistency since his first goal, becoming an important and reliable contributor. There are rewards to be had for putting faith in the right players, for patience and loyalty on the part of the team. There’s a necessary quid pro quo on every hockey team- players give their best efforts in exchange for a certain commitment from the management that they will be taken care of through their injuries and slumps. Such support never lasts forever, but it has to exist, otherwise the team loses stability and chemistry from too much turnover. Beyond this, there’s something to be said for an ethic of loyalty, a team’s willingness to place trust in its players as reward for hard work in the past. In this sense, Downey and Murray, although they are not great talents and never will be, have earned something from the Canadiens. Lapierre hasn’t. His time is, in theory, yet to come.

The personal problem for me is, as much as I love the Habs, I feel nothing for either Murray or Downey. If the relationship between a fan and a team is like an imagined family, these guys are like the cousins from Lubbock that I only see once a year. Sure, I love them, in that sense that you love all your relatives because they are, after all, family. But I don’t like them. They’ve got my respect, but it’s a formal respect, not affection. My recognition of their right to a space on the team is grudging at best.

I think I finally understand how all those trade-fantasy-prone Habs fans feel. I used to wonder how they could be so callous towards the players who, after all, make the team what it is. After the whole Lapierre situation, I wondered even more about my own ungenerous spirit. And I don’t think I really found the answer until earlier this week, when I came across Tapeleg’s brand new manifesto on the brand new incarnation of Jerseys and Hockey Love. Within this piece is embedded a critique of the common fan practice of referring to their beloved team in the first person plural- we, us- as though the fan him or herself was a member of the team. Tapeleg sagely reminds us that this is not in fact the case, that most of us have nothing whatsoever to do with the success or failure of the team we follow, but it’s a strange phenomenon in the first place. Somewhere between now and last October, I started doing it without even thinking, going up to my friends who follow other teams and saying “Wow, we really whomped you last night,” the Canadiens being ‘we’ and the Leafs/Bruins/Sabres/whoever being ‘you’.

Serious fans, and even many unserious ones, somehow lose the ability to understand where they end and the team begins. This claiming of the team as part of ourselves, or ourselves as part of the team, isn’t just a slip or a verbal shortcut, it’s the way we really feel. And because we feel somehow so close, we feel the right to judge, to determine who is worthy of admittance to ‘our’ community, for players and other fans alike. Witness the easy willingness of fans to dismiss some in their midst as ‘bandwagoners’ or ‘puckbunnies’, two terms that exist solely to suggest that some forms of fanaticism are innately superior to others. Players, too, are judged, and I suspect that the more players one outlasts as a fan, the higher one’s standards become. The trade-happy fans aren’t cold-hearted, they just see Samsonov, or Kovalev, or Aebischer, or Johnson, or whoever, the same way I see Murray and Downey- they’ll cheer for them when they do well, but they don’t care about them, at all. They’ve decided that a certain player (or players) might be wearing the uniform, but isn’t part of the ‘real’ membership of the team- whatever his contract says, he’s not really one of ‘us’.

This may be an ugly habit, and a little bit delusional, but it is at bottom the product of an abiding and admirable devotion, it is the dark side of the same love that makes fans so important to the sport. The players, however, are even more important, and it is perhaps not too much to ask that we temper our haughtier judgments with compassion and an ethic of loyalty, even to those players we cannot bring ourselves to genuinely like. It is not as though such a moderate respect will ruin the team- remember, we have no power over them, and moreover hockey is a business that won’t keep an unproductive player around for too long when there are better options available.

So I am doing my very, very best to give Murray and Downey the basic respect they are due, even when they get it ridiculous fights, even when they slow things down. I try to give them credit for all the hard work they have put towards the team. They are, even at 5 minutes of ice time a game, a thousand times more important to the Montreal Canadiens than I will ever be.

But the worse parts of me are just killing time, waiting for Lapierre to come back.

If I wasn’t at least a little bit hypocritical, I wouldn’t be a hockey fan.


Lyle Richardson said...

It has nothing to do with loyalty to established players, although I do agree that it has little to do with money given the salaries of those you cited.

The bottom line here is that Lapierre could be demoted because he doesn't have to pass through waivers. Downey and Murray, on the other hand, would have to and there's the risk they could get plucked away either on the way down or if recalled.

I know that won't upset you, but it's poor roster management to lose any player via waivers for nothing when you have the opportunity to demote another risk-free.

Remember, part of the reason the Canadiens lack defensive depth in their system right now is they lost Ron Hainsey and Francois Beauchemin to waivers. Obviously that's being taken into consideration this time around.

Lapierre has shown he belongs, yes, but Carbonneau and Habs management want to stick with experienced grinders for their fourth line. It also provides insurance in case of injuries depleting the forward depth.

Lapierre has made his mark and will get another chance later this season. Injuries or trades could get him back and this time it could be to stay.

For now (despite the recent losing skid) the Habs are in good shape, so it's not an adverse impact on their roster to make such a move.

Reality Check said...

Great post again E!

The salary fact is the Habs have roughly $600,000.00 left of the 44 M to spend for the year. Lapierre's NHL salary is $562,000 of which a pro-rated $300,000 remains if he'd stayed. As the Canadiens carry 8 NHL roster D-men, along with those extra forwards, the biggest concern became a goalie injury and the lack of cap room to call one up without having to sacrifice a player somewhere.

For a look at the Canadiens contracts, check out the sidebar at HabsWorld I've referenced before.

Good news is, there's no cap in the playoffs and our fourth line is Begin-Lapierre-Latendresse. Love that thought!

And yes, I purposely said "Our". Referring to the team as we, in my eyes always meant that the(insert favorite team here)were a very big part of who a person is - not the other way around.

On another note, I'm not sure what qualifies as defensive depth in Lyle's mind. With 8 blueliners in Montreal and two more in Hamilton, one of whom has over 350 NHL games played, I'm led to wonder who he believes has more depth.

Ron Hainsey was lost in the most deliberate and suspicious waiver callup I'd ever seen. It was no secret that the Habs brass didn't like his "Hollywood Hainsey" act. His salary rendered trade options at the time, next to nil, as he hadn't played up to potential yet. It was almost like they let him go purposely. They did kinda blow it on Beauchemin though. I remember being impressed by him in his one game Habs stint back in '03. He's a late bloomer that slipped through the cracks.

Note for Lyle...did you forget to use the backlink to your name or did you choose not to? I hope you don't have an imposter on your hands! I had that happen once with a prior name before someone took it and ran, giving me some credibility issues in a handful of sites.

Then I got stuck with this damn moniker!

Tapeleg said...

Wow. Hell of a thing, isn't it? I'm stuck with some of the same feelings, with "my" Avs.

It's hard to feel like Theodore is an Av, when I look at Sakic. And then again, I didn't hire him. I have to listen to the broadcasters around here tell me what the bright side it, when I can;t see one. On the team I cheer for. I mean, how do I like a team, and not care for the GM? Should I ask Leaf fans that?

Thanks for the shout. I love that manifesto. I didn't think I would, but I really do. It was a lot of fun to write. And I didn't have to bring up "my" team once.

Jordi said...

I like to say I'm one of those people who loves watching the play over the numbers. But then again I root for one of the lowest scoring second liners in the league.

I hope the hype never overtakes Lapierre. Because Habs fans are brutal.