“This team just did an about face to fast. Something had to have happened in the dressing room…”
-Excerpt from a post on the Canadiens message board.
“…the most keenly watched drama in la belle province these past few months easily has been ‘As The Habs Turn.’”
-From an article in the
One of the more interesting sociological concepts to play with is that of ‘backspaces’. Goffman, way back when, hypothesized that the entire social world is divided into ‘front-spaces’ and ‘back-spaces’. In the original formulation, this might be thought of as loosely similar to what we sometimes call ‘public’ and ‘private’ spaces. In any given society or community, the front-spaces are those physical areas that are open to all, where social life takes place. Like the stage in a theater, they are where we perform our roles. Back-spaces, on the other hand, are places where access is restricted to only a few, the ‘behind-the-scenes’ zones of life where we prepare ourselves and our surroundings to play such roles. For example, if a store is a front-space, the stockroom is a backspace.
Later studies of tourism have found that people, particularly in capitalist societies, have a tendency to romanticize and fetishize back-spaces as the privileged location of authenticity. We assume that people are more honest in back-spaces, that what goes on there is truer, more real, than that which happens in the front. Obviously, we are not equally interested in all back-spaces- it isn’t often that you really have the urge to barge into a store’s stockroom. But whenever we do develop a pointed interest in or concern about something, we automatically look for answers in the back-spaces. This is the connection with tourism- tourists, generally speaking, associate the ‘authentic’ experience of the host society with an experience of back-spaces, areas that they imagine are not usually accessible to outsiders- ‘off the beaten path’, as they say.
Hockey has its own set of areas which are inaccessible to outsiders, and we call them, for short, The Room. The Room is not actually the locker room, in fact it is not just any particular place, but a nexus of time and place that forms hockey’s ultimate back-space, and therefore where fans are apt to believe significant truths are to be found. The actual locker room is not really a back-space in itself, because is at certain times visible to outsiders- reporters do interviews there, cameras show the players dressing for the game, it is even, in Montreal, displayed for tour groups. All of this is designed, in some sense, to give the interested public the sense that they do know something about the back-space, to give the illusion of access. But all it does is create further realms of mystery. There is not, as I understand it, just one room but a whole warren of rooms in the average hockey arena that are the privileged space of the team- showers, exercise rooms, in some cases a sort of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ locker room- to which players may retreat in perfect solitude, and indeed after particularly nasty losses the players often hide there. Moreover, the access to the literal locker room is restricted both in terms of who can enter and when- only those non-team-members with particular credentials are ever allowed admittance, and even they cannot just go in and hang around whenever they want. They are given admittance at particular moments, when they are expected. The Room, the mystery, appears the moment the reporters and cameras leave, in those back-spaces. We believe, somehow, that the players become something else at that moment, when there are no outside observers. Something more real, more authentic, and more interesting.
While I think many hockey fans are curious in a general way about what goes on in The Room, when things are going well we are mostly content not to know much about it. The occasional anecdote from ‘behind the scenes’ may be amusing or entertaining, a cute sort of human-interest story, but mostly we are content to let the players have their privacy, their own little world apart from us. Most fans would probably say they are entitled to such a space of their own. When we think about it, we tend to assume it is more or less like any other locker room we’ve in which we’ve been in our own lives, and if everything seems okay on the ice, we assume that everything is okay in The Room. When problems emerge, though, we become very interested in The Room, and the more mysterious the problem, the deeper our interest. When the Canadiens had the flu as an obvious explanation for their slump, most people accepted that and speculation about events in the room remained minimal. What was going on in there? Probably a lot of vomiting. More than that, we didn’t need to know.
But the flu passed and the slump didn’t. Combined with the terrible games in
We must believe that everything has a cause, and therefore a solution. We, by which I mean the Montreal Canadiens’ audience, cannot accept that the slump might be meaningless, simple bad luck, and even less can we accept that it might simply be the team reaching the limits of its capabilities. We cannot accept that losing is just losing, rather we see it as strange and mysterious, as if it were some kind of foreign concept only recently introduced to the city.
Mysteries attract mysteries. People search for patterns and likenesses to explain that which they cannot understand, and no two things seem more alike than two complete unknowns. This is how conspiracy theories capture our minds and thrive- because all strangeness and suspiciousness seem somehow alike, and we can’t help linking one inexplicable thing to another in the hopes that somehow, properly joined together, the interlaced mysteries will become one coherent web of meaning. One might call this inductive reasoning. Or one might call it speculation. Or gossip. Or madness. Mostly, the difference is in the terms used and the plausibility of the conclusions drawn, but not the process itself.
So the mystery of the slump is quickly linked to the mystery of the locker room, and people quickly start guessing that the one somehow explains the other. And at this point, an interesting circle of information seems to form between the established media and the fans, by which speculation becomes rumor becomes narrative becomes ‘common knowledge.’ The established media have a level of access to the team that the average fan doesn’t, and moreover we believe that they are professionally obligated to communicate only true things to us. So, as the slump gets deeper and deeper, more and more inexplicable, the fans begin to hang on every single word typed or spoken by a news source with Access. Every adjective becomes important. The media, I think, know this, because they- as far as they can without violating their professional commitments- play up the drama. For example, on the 17th, before the
This, bear in mind, is still a comparatively minor slump on the grand scale of hockey, a team with an overall good record having a decent season. At the point all these theories developed, only two consecutive losses after two consecutive wins. Yet it only takes a matter of days, less than a day even, for an entire narrative to emerge in the minds of fans, a story which can transform a comparatively simple piece of information- Rivet was scratched, he left the Bell Center and then returned- into an elaborate melodrama that ends up with a large number of people convinced that the entire thing began with some sort of nameless power struggle between Koivu and Carbonneau that’s been simmering since the beginning of the season. After the
For now, the slump is not over but is held- somewhat- in abeyance. There have been enough wins to calm the interested audience, and slow the production of new narratives, but enough losses to fuel continued speculation and no small amount of anxiety. The only really persuasive explanation for anything is a good story, and in the absence of inexplicable but catastrophic losses and public meltdowns by players and/or staff, there isn’t enough drama to keep writing the tale we’ve all been dreaming up over the past month. If the Habs reestablish a winning record, everything will be sunshine and daisies and fluffy white kittens, and no one will even remember that they were once so very certain that the team was on the verge of total implosion. If they begin losing again, however, the stories about The Room and the events in it will grow from sitcom to soap opera to epic tragedy at a geometric rate, and it will be interesting to see how new layers of knowledge accumulate, and if possible, how it gets read back onto the players themselves. If the fan-fictions, mediated by the media, comes to control more and more of how the team is presented and treated, how do they react to the stories that are told about them? How do these stories change them, the way they interpret their own personalities, their own relationships, their own game?