Sunday, January 21, 2007

Clarity: Le Centre Bell, 1/20/07


**Prologue**

The thing that frustrates me most about the Habs slumping is that it has made it impossible for me to see clearly.

One hears so many general statements, over the course of the season, about hockey teams. Not just ‘my’ Canadiens, but all of them. You hear who are the ‘good’ teams- Buffalo, Anaheim, San Jose, Ottawa- and the ‘bad’ teams- Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Phoenix, the teams on an upward trajectory (Pittsburgh) and a downward trajectory (Edmonton). Often there is a general consensus around these categories, and I often accept that consensus, because I just can’t watch every team in the league and I have very little investment in the accuracy of these statements. I do not need to know whether or not the Flyers are really, deeply terrible, I only need to know that is what most people believe and the available data supports it. If they turned around tomorrow and won every single game for the rest of their season, I would surprised, but it wouldn’t really matter to me that a ‘bad’ team had suddenly become ‘good’. I’d shrug and say huh, who knew? Good for them.

Obviously, though, I have somewhat more investment in trying to figure out what sort of team the Canadiens really are. It has to do with expectations, I think, and interpretations. Knowing what the team is tells one what to expect in a given game, and provides a framework for explaining what has happened after the fact. If there was a consensus position about the Habs, I would probably embrace it wholeheartedly, gratefully. But in the past months I have heard the Habs described in every possible language usable for describing a hockey team. They are a terrible team that’s gotten occasionally lucky. They’re a fabulous team having a rough patch. They’re the best they’re going to be for a long time and need to make a Cup run this year. They’re in a rebuilding phase and won’t be a serious Cup contender for several years in the future. They’re one of the elite teams in the League. They’re bottom-feeders.

Everyone who gives any of the above analyses seems to be very certain of their rightness. They look at the team and see it clearly, they know what it is, not just on a given night but as an entity in and of itself. They can muster up a whole list of statistics and comparisons to support their position, to say this proves what the Canadiens are this year, but the opinion does not come from the statistics- the opinion comes somehow from what they see. They look at the team, and they just know what kind of creature it is. There are days when I think that hockey is perfectly transparent for everyone but me.

I do not know what the Habs are. I can see some truth in almost every description, and often my instinct is to believe that they are all somehow true, even though they are mutually contradictory. A team is not simultaneously elite and bottom-feeding. But I cannot tell what they really are, I cannot choose a side. I have seen them play beautiful hockey and atrocious hockey, I have seen them work hard and I have seen them give up. I do not know which version is the real team and which is the aberration, and I convince myself that the problem is that I cannot really see the Habs for myself. Everything I see of them comes with a prepackaged interpretation- there is always some helpful commentator or analyst to tell me what is a good play and what is a bad one, to tell me their strong points and weak points, to draw circles on my TV screen with the magic red pen, showing me where to pay attention, showing me the important part of the game.

Finally, the last game before the All-Star Break, I get to go to the Bell Center again in person. I look at the tickets and I tell myself: This is my opportunity. I may not get another one. I have to see ahbabi clearly tonight. I have to know what they are.

***

The tickets have positioned me, ironically, behind the broadcast booths. I can see the ice completely, but the top half of the scoreboard is cut off. This isn’t a bad thing, since it turns out that it’s actually more interesting to watch the press. I’m directly behind the little room that is helpfully labeled as being for Pierre and Yvonne, and before the game I’m almost as excited to see them as I am to see the team. I nudge my companion and point, “Look! That’s Pierre!” In real life, The Media look very ordinary. Well-dressed, but ordinary. It’s difficult to remember, watching them pace behind the boxes on cell phones, that they are so powerful, that they determine so much of how we- the rest of us- understand this sport. If I was at home, I would be seeing the game with their eyes.

**The Beginning**

A confession: I have always, deep down, imagined that the Canadiens are among the best teams in the League. I don’t say this very often, because it’s a difficult claim to support on any objective criteria. Even I, personally, could probably demolish that contention in an argument more easily than I could defend it. They’ve played some truly terrible games at regular intervals this season, and there’s no getting around that, even when looking through the most forgiving lenses. But for me the personal evidence is nearly as compelling as anything objective: this is the team that won me over to hockey. Not just the Montreal Canadiens with their history and tradition and venerable legacy, but these Habs, these guys, this particular team- they’re the reason I’m here. I’d seen hockey before and liked it, but I can pinpoint the exact moment, the exact second in my life when I became a hockey fan, and it was their moment. They played the game that I fell in love with, and as such, if it is possible for me to trust my own eyes at all, I cannot really believe that they are anything less than beautiful. If they didn’t have, somewhere within them, a game as transcendent and gorgeous as anything being played anywhere in the League today, I wouldn’t be writing this sentence.

***

In the beginning, the Canadiens let me have my illusion. They come out faster than the Sabres, looking comfortable and confident. The Sabres are taking silly penalties, which you’d think they’d be smart enough not to do, because their penalty killing is embarrassingly bad. The Habs pick up two neat, opportunistic power play goals in the first. They’re winning, and making it look easy. Going into the 2nd, the crowd is buzzing like a swarm of very contented bumblebees. Snippets of overheard conversation: A serious-looking middle-aged woman rhapsodizing about Latendresse- how talented he is, how well he’s playing with Kovalev, how important he’ll be to the team in the coming years. A pair of teenage girls in jerseys trying to come to an agreement on the comparative merits of Komisarek vs. Higgins. A group of guys talking about Bonk’s new baby. It’s an easy, calm atmosphere- you’d never guess there was ever a slump, that there are hovering trade rumors. You’d never guess that these are the fans that are famed for their difficulty and cruelty, a crowd made of the same substance that booed their own team off the ice repeatedly in the past week.

Bouillon opens the second with another pretty one, this time at even strength. 3-0 and looking very much as though it’s already over- the Canadiens have all the momentum and the Sabres seem tired. Somebody behind me offers to bet his friend that Biron is going to get pulled by the end of the period. I’m thinking, thanks ahbabi, for showing me what I needed to see.

**The Middle**

When I was a kid, I had an actual bottom-feeder. A plecostamus, one of those small brown flat fish that eats algae off the bottom of the fish tank. My parents had me get one to keep the tank clean, and at first I’d resisted, because my aquarium was supposed to be for pretty, delicate, quartz-colored fish. But the plecostamus won me over almost immediately. I called her Jane, because she was ugly and it seemed to me an appropriately dull name, and I loved her as much as I think anyone has ever loved a small brown flat fish that eats algae off the bottom of the tank. She outlived all those pretty, delicate, quartz-colored fish that she was purchased to serve, eventually remaining the only thing in my aquarium, and given that she tended to blend in with the rocks on the bottom it often made people ask my parents why on earth there was an empty fish tank in the living room. When she finally died, I buried her in the back yard under the lilacs.

So it is definitely possible for me to love bottom-feeders.

***

Never underestimate Buffalo. The Sabres are, iceberg-like, infinitely more complex than they appear on the surface. If there was any justice in the world and hockey had the audience it deserves there would be lengthy tomes of Sabres-theory all over the bestseller lists, philosophers and anthropologists would be having symposia about them, there would be novels and movies devoted to them. They are that interesting. However, life isn’t fair and hockey doesn’t have much of an audience, and therefore the only really important thing is the conclusion: Never underestimate the Sabres. If you are any other team in the NHL, no matter what kind of a lead you get, always play Buffalo as if you’re one goal down in the last five minutes, because they will punish nothing so rapidly as complacency.

Or stupidity. Not quite halfway through the game, 3-0 lead, and Latendresse takes out Komisarek. I think I can actually hear Briere laughing, and a second later it’s 3-1. Like that, it’s an entirely different game. The Habs deflate back into their zone, clinging ineffectively to Huet, nervous. 3-2. They scramble to clear the puck, but even when they do it avails them nothing, for the Sabres simply swirl back out to their zone, reform, and come back with neat determination like a squadron of fighter planes. The Canadiens are panicking, knocking the puck around almost blindly, passing to the Sabres more than to each other. 3-3. The mood in the stands shifts palpably. A kid behind me is shrieking directives at the ice with needle-shrillness- BACKCHECK, BACKCHECK, SHOOT- while the guy in front of me seems to believe he is having a personal conversation with Komisarek at a distance of 500 feet- no, Mike, no, don’t do that, Mike, get in the corners, hit the guy, come on. An inebriated gentleman, who will henceforth always have a special place in my heart as Drunken Obnoxious Sabres Fan, is stumbling up and down the stairs, trying to start arguments with some Habs fans and hitting on others, depending on gender. At the second intermission I started hearing fragments of trade-talk, and there are Rivet-centered debates are popping up all over in the darker corners, like mushrooms

The crowd is nervous. The Sabres, even chased by their own small variety of slump, are running away with this game, and the Canadiens are just standing there, watching. Somebody once said, on a message board after another Habs game, good teams don’t play this badly. It’s true.

**The End**

So it sits at 3-3 as the clock ticks away, and the gods of hockey are mocking me for coming to this game expecting answers, expecting to see the truth. Although I have been attentive and careful, have tried to see with my own eyes and decide for myself what I really think this team is, what I have seen instead is two distinct snapshots of two completely different teams. I do not want to fall back on the old explanation that they’re schizophrenic and emotionally disturbed- that may be true, but it doesn’t really tell me anything about what sort of being they are beneath their various disorders. Collective Mood Disorder is a comforting explanation for a distraught fan, but its comfort, not clarity.

But the clock runs down and the tension builds, and I can’t keep thinking and worrying and analyzing because there’s simply too much yelling to be done in the last minutes of a hockey game. 10 minutes to go and the Habs are rallying but the Sabres aren’t backing down, and the white wave of sound is building around the arena and my heart is pounding and it really feels somehow like everything, everywhere, the fate of the universe as we know it is riding on that little black piece of rubber. And when Perezhogin gets that break and we’re all on our feet, in that moment before the ecstasy and the victory, I get my wish. I see the Canadiens clearly.

Here is what I saw: The Canadiens 06-07, ahbabi, the only Habs I have ever known, are not any sort of team yet. They are not a being, but a becoming, an event and not a thing. To argue over what sort of team they ‘really are’ is pointless, because there is no essential nature to the team- the team is a hybrid and a synthesis, its features are different in different moments, and ever game is part of a process that is creating and recreating the Montreal Canadiens. At the end of the season, when it’s all over, perhaps we can look back and say what sort of team they were, but whatever name we give this team, whatever we decide that it really was, will be little more than a eulogy. The 06-07 Canadiens will be dead and gone then, pieces of them perhaps reincarnated in the 07-08 Canadiens, but that will be a different team that will, again, only become itself over 82 games.

Perhaps other teams are real things, solid identities that can be known. Perhaps the Sabres really are ‘elite’, through and through, in the very core of their being, a stable and excellent product. It’s possible, perhaps, for certain teams to be so good or so bad that it becomes not just a transient state but a defining characteristic. But for the rest of us, the vast majority who bounce around the standings, our teams are something that is being built before our eyes, and we can only imagine the shape of the finished product. It is good, in a way, for me in my sky-high seat to realize this, because I do not fear any longer that I am missing something, that I am blind to what the Habs really are, and because I do not believe any longer that my aspirations for them- even the wildest and most optimistic of them- are impossible. It’s just the shape of things to come that I imagine, and if the shrill teenager behind me or the quiet old man beside me imagine a different shape, we are none of us wrong- whatever eventually happens, the different Canadiens we see are all in this moment equal possibilities. But it is scary too, because it means that the games they play are more individually important- the game is tied because they came out flying and then curled in on themselves, and both of those are the real team, and the outcome will determine not just what kind of game they played more of on this particular night, but it will form a small piece- 1/82nd, to be precise- of what they are. If a team is a process and not a thing, than every loss and every win is formative. They are the sum of what happens in the games, and this game, hovering on a particularly nasty edge between the very-good outcome and the very-bad outcome, will actually make them better or worse. This has to be a regulation win, not because they can do it, but because only by doing it do they become the sort of team that can do it, and they (we) need to go into this All-Star Break knowing not only that they have the ability to bounce back, but that they did so.

Practice is formative of character, ahbabi, you are what you do.

Go Habs Go.

8 comments:

Reality Check said...

And I thought the game was played on lucky bounces and bad calls on two Sabres goals!

Tom Benjamin said...

I think all teams are the way you describe. Even awful teams will have their moments and even great ones can look terrible. Streaks and slumps all the way. It is a fine line between them.

The difference between the good teams and the bad is that good teams have long streaks and short slumps, while bad ones are the other way around. Everyone searches for consistency.

That's why it is so frustrating for the fans of bad to mediocre plus teams. We see that they can play great but we can't understand why they can't play that way all the time. When they don't meet the expectations we ascribe it to a lack of intangibles like leadership or chenmistry or confidence.

The players don't understand it either. Dryden once described the old Oilers on a bad night. He talked about Fuhr going down too early and how he knows he is doing it, but he can't help it. Sometimes, Dryden said, Messier's skates feel like Mercury's wings and at other times, they feel like broken galoshes and he doesn't know why either. At times the team is in sync, at others, they are a bunch of uncoordinated individuals. They want to all read the play properly and do the right thing, but one misread and it all falls apart. Some nights it is one misread after another.

While it is frustrating, it also means there is always grounds for those who choose optimism and always grounds for for those who opt for pessimism.

Julian said...

Dryden was at his best when he was talking about the intimate details of the game like that, IMO. There's a part in The Game where he talks about Gainey and a one-on-one battle he had, the game within the game, with another player I can't recall. He talks about Gainey being in control of the game, of one instance where he was able to actually enjoy it and savour it. I recently watched the "too many men" game 7 from 1979, and I looked for that when watching him. I couldn't see it, of course. It has to be the sort of thing you can only see from the bench when you know the game better than just about anyone, AND you know the individuals on the ice just as well.
As someone who's never played hockey at anything close to a high level, sometimes I wonder if I'll ever really understand the game in that way.

BTW E, that bit Tom mentions is from Home Game : Hockey and Life in Canada.

E said...

i believe i’m beginning to detect a recurring theme in the comments sections, and that theme is “READ KEN DRYDEN, YOU DORK.” stated, of course, in much more polite terms. it’s on my to-do list, really, i’ve just got a huge stack of books that i have to get through much more urgently. anyway, i hope y’all can be forgiving when my posts replicate issues previously addressed in the canons of hockey literature.

tom- i think the question that’s still unanswered for me is, if all teams are indeed like this, how and why do the consensus positions emerge? and more importantly, how does counter-intuitive consensus form? how is it that some with unimpressive records can still be seen as a fundamentally good teams who are merely struggling or underperforming, while others with good records are bad teams who’ve gotten lucky? how do the experts of various stripes come to know, or believe that they know, things about a team’s intrinsic quality that go beyond the 27-17-5?

julian- that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? what do players see of the game, what do they understand about it that we don’t? and is there a vice-versa to that, are they blind to things that are obvious to us? and how the hell do you get inside their heads and find out?

RC- tomayto, tomahto

Stevens8204 said...

Parity is the new NHL but your viewpoint is very strong. You have a good way of expressing the angst and joy we all feel as hockey fans. Come check out www.thenhlarena.com. We're all in the same boat just riding different ships to the Cup.

stevens@www.thenhlarena.com

eric said...

Hi.

Im a new reader to your blog and I'm starting from the beginning of the season and going there. I have to start off by saying excellent writing. I've been a hockey fan for 10 years now and your blog/perspective has renewed my faith in what I've been mourning as a dying game. As bad as the state of the NHL is, its still a beautiful thing. I also sympathize with your confusions over your team. I bleed Flyers orange, so I know a thing or two about existential pain, especially this year.
Anyhow, just wanted to chime in and say what wonderful working you're doing.

allan said...

i think the question that’s still unanswered for me is, if all teams are indeed like this, how and why do the consensus positions emerge?
....


I believe that the answer to this is as simple as the drive for certainty which you described in the initial posting. Hockey by its very nature makes clear definition impossible, but that does not make concrete statements any less tempting.

Expert opinion is rarely any more accurate than that of anyone who takes the time to review all of the available information. Take prior track records, decide if the new players are better than the old ones, and if the maturing kids outweigh the aging veterans, then make a snap judgement. Ultimately, it's luck that rules the day. Maggie the monkey was the top prognosticator for TSN for most of the playoffs, after all.

Tom benjamin said...

tom- i think the question that’s still unanswered for me is, if all teams are indeed like this, how and why do the consensus positions emerge?

Tough question. I think the media pundits kick it around over beers and decide some teams will be a little worse and others will be a little better. The ones who signed name players will get better and the ones who lose name players will get worse.

The consensus is always wrong when a Philadelphia appears or a surprise breakout team arrives.

and more importantly, how does counter-intuitive consensus form?

Does one ever form? I'd need an example. Personally, I believe in team strengths. Teams win with strengths. Team speed is a strength, good goaltending is a strength, good defense up the middle is a strength, and so on.

Even with strengths, teams might not win because a good goalie doesn't play like a good goalie.

It's a very simple game, but extraordinarily hard to play.

how is it that some with unimpressive records can still be seen as a fundamentally good teams who are merely struggling or underperforming, while others with good records are bad teams who’ve gotten lucky?

If they are expected to be good but are not, they are underperforming. If they were expected to be bad they are overachievers due for a fall.

The fact that the expectations may have been out of whack from the start is ignored.

how do the experts of various stripes come to know, or believe that they know, things about a team’s intrinsic quality that go beyond the 27-17-5?

I think that if they were honest they would admit they don't really know. The record (in conjunction with the expectations) set the opinion of intrinsic quality.

I think the Habs (and the Canucks for that matter) have played better to this point than their intrinsic quality, but does it really matter? Both teams have shown they are capable of playing really well. If they play really well at the right time, they can go a long way.

The new parity eliminates strong favourites. Nobody has a good chance to win. Even when there were a half dozen elite teams, none of them had a really good chance.