Thursday, April 26, 2007

As Canadien as Possible #1: Getting What You Deserve

Welcome to the first of my occasional off-season rantings and ramblings about the Habs. These will exist to fill my consuming need to talk about the Canadiens in some detail regularly whether or not they’re actually playing- so expect things about players, trades, contracts, media gossip, prospies, the mysterious problem of even-strength scoring, and maybe the occasional historical/social topic. They’ll be coming about once a week, weather permitting, and will probably be of no interest to anyone who isn’t a Habs fan, and maybe not of much interest to those who are. But this is my blog, dammit, it exists to make me happy, not you. So there.

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Jack Todd came out with an article in the Montreal Gazette yesterday wherein he suggested that the problems with the Canadiens stem from problems with the fan community, the atmosphere in Montreal. The fans, he said, have become too complacent, they don’t demand success from the team the way they used to. Rather, we are turning into Leafs fans, patient, sweet-natured creatures who will love and support their team no matter how bad the season, how gap-plagued the roster, or how faulty the management. This, Todd asserts, although it may not be directly responsible for the team’s inadequacies, is certainly aiding and abetting them. He believes we will not have a great team again unless we demand one, not only with our voices but with our money.

With all due respect to Todd and his superior knowledge of both the Canadiens and the city, I disagree. Habs fans are still as demanding a lot as any fan community you will find anywhere in professional sports, and have not been known for treating the team with much sympathy. One might note that, while the survey he references shows strong support for bringing back Gainey and Carbonneau next season, it doesn’t show much sentimentality regarding the roster. Only 69% of respondents said they wanted to see Koivu come back, a high-ish number, but not considering that you’re talking about a guy generally described as not only the team’s best player but it’s ‘heart’. No, I don’t think the great flaw in Montreal fans is that they are seduced by the comforts of mediocrity.

They are, however, easily seduced by drama. If there is one thing that characterizes the relationship between the Canadiens, the media, and the fan base, it is a shared longing for the team to be not just a hockey team, but a soap opera, an epic, a great story. The Habistani people love not only a good off-ice controversy and all the rumors and gossip that come with it, but on-ice drama as well. Todd mentions, irritably, that Habs fans were paying $125 per seat minimum during the last few home games of the regular season, to see a team that had slumped badly and was not likely to make the playoffs. But they weren’t doing it out of love for a sub-par team, they were doing it because the team was in the midst of a dramatic (but typical) late-season playoff push, and therefore every game had an innate tension, an innate drama. It was that point of the season when every last goal and every last penalty could make or break everyone’s hopes. People paid through the nose because they could be assured that, whatever happened, they were going to be seeing a very dramatic hockey game.

In Alex Kovalev, then, Montreal got exactly the sort of player it deserves.

Kovalev has made his career, in Montreal anyway, on drama. He is unquestionably dramatic on the ice. The essence of Kovalev’s style, the arc of his career, has been a sense of how to play dramatic hockey. It is well-known, going back to long before his time with the Canadiens, that he doesn’t have much interest in the grind of the regular season, day-to-day ordinary hockey in the NHL. Like a lot of fans and reporters who claim that hockey doesn’t really get good until April, Kovalev has always appeared to treat the majority of regular season games as optional, a time when it doesn’t really matter what sort of hockey is played. Every now and then he contributes something, but mostly during the regular season he is content to be a non-factor.

The counterpoint to this is his late-season/postseason game. They say, some mysterious They, that he is the most talented player in the League, and if you watch only some of his legendary performances, you’d believe it unquestioningly. He has an natural aptitude for the beautiful goal, the goal that pops out from the rest of the game like a police siren at 3 AM. Kovalev’s goals are the sort of goals you remember, often the sort that you can’t forget, goals that remind you why hockey is worth watching. In addition to this, he has an impeccable sense of timing. The value of each of those goals is raised because they are comparatively rare, but also because they tend to come at critical moments, in close, essential games that have important consequences. Thus one remembers them not only because they are lovely but because they are important. And so Kovalev has everybody constantly waiting on his coming. The team, the fans, the journalists, in Habistan and to a lesser extent in the larger hockey world, wait through the season, like Didi and Gogo, in anticipation of that one magical moment when Alex Kovalev will arrive.

He has also managed to be a fairly dramatic figure off the ice, in a way that is extremely well-suited to the Montreal environment. He doesn’t give many interviews, but has quite the talent for the occasional pointed one-liner that goes over big with the press. A lot of his comments are ambiguous and double-sided, can be read multiple ways, and in a city where people love to analyze players’ comments for insights into the team dynamic, he provides good fodder for speculation. This year his big interviews, though, have gone to the Russian press and thus come back to the city via circuitous routes and multiple translations, a very spy-movie approach to hockey news. Earlier this year there was an entire fiasco concerning an radio interview he may or may not have given in Russia, which was remarkable not so much for it’s controversial nature as for it’s ability to raise in comparatively few words a whole host of sensitive subjects- the question of whether there is favoritism for Quebecois players and bias against Europeans, whether or not Carbonneau is capable of effectively managing and communicating with his roster, the implication that the franchise is overestimating the value of its youth. Part of the reason it was hard to tell whether or not the interview was real is that it was so perfectly controversial that it could have been invented- if you wanted something to spark really emotional debates amongst Habs fans and media, you could not have scripted anything better. And again, now, he comes out with another interview, again in the Russian press, claiming that he was maltreated by the team and that he won’t continue playing here if he doesn’t receive assurances of more respectful treatment. Again, it is perfectly timed- after the rawest pain of the season’s failure has faded but while the ache of it remains, and critically, before any of the major off-season changes have begun, while the team’s 2007-2008 shape is still uncertain. Again, it hits the tender spots, and puts him back at the center of attention at a moment when he risked losing relevance.

That same fan survey that Todd writes about found that 51% of people would like to see Kovalev leave the Canadiens, exactly what he is now threatening to do. A fairly narrow margin, really, one would think that in a good many hockey cities, after such a disappointing year, many more fans would be calling for such a player’s head. But Habs fans, even now, I think, find it difficult not to be sucked in by this kind of drama, and this eerie talent Kovalev displays for pinpointing a sensitive spot for fans, journalists, analysts both professional and amateur alike, might serve him well. Many are still unsure exactly how to characterize the past season, and especially how to characterize the disastrous performances of both Samsonov and Kovalev- players who by all accounts should have been good, and particularly should have been good together, but were among the worst on the team for the vast majority of games they played. For every fan that blames them specifically for it, there is another who blames the coaching, the management, or some other dynamic on the team, such as the ever-popular ‘locker room cliques’. Samsonov’s great error was admitting publicly, at a couple of junctures, that he was slumping or having a difficult time, which in some way made the decision for us- after all, if even he says he’s not playing his best… But Kovalev never, ever, admits that he’s not playing well, whatever evidence there is on the instant replay. When he’s slumping he says nothing, and when he’s doing well and seems important, he’ll come out with a series of oblique but sharp-edged criticisms that place himself firmly in the role of victim; ahh, poor me, trying so hard, so committed to the team and the sport, but always held back by the near-sighted, selfish machinations of those around me.

Which is not to say that anyone really believes this. Habs fans are drama queens, but they’re not entirely stupid. Even those who love him have never credited him with great leadership ability or any great passion for the game or the team. At best, even when he was loved, he was loved as a mercurial, calculating, deeply self-interested (if not exactly selfish) player, one who wanted respect, admiration, and a starring role and wanted it all on his own terms, with no guaranteed return. Those fans who supported him generally did so based on a ruthless cost-benefit analysis, recognizing that he had many, many downsides and many, many flaws, but believing that his talent was so great and so essential that it was worth tolerating virtually anything in the hopes of being able to draw it out.

Therefore, knowing full well what he is, everyone tried very hard to keep Kovalev happy this season. Of all the players on the team, Carbonneau bent and baked himself into golden-brown jumbo pretzels to please dear, delicate Kovy. He gave him endless time on the second line with Samsonov, centered by nearly every player he could find willing or unwilling, he waited patiently for them to find their chemistry while around him everyone in the city screamed that it was a hopeless disaster. In spite of Kovalev’s poor performances, he never scratched him, and until early February, never so much as cut his ice time a little- and when he did, Kovalev promptly retaliated by taking 5 weeks off for a slightly suspicious ‘injury’. Through the first Kovalev-media scandal, Carbonneau and in fact the entire organization closed ranks and supported him without exception. It’s fairly clear that Carbonneau, on some level, bought into the Kovalev myth, that he would somehow show up at the last second and heroically lead the team to postseason salvation. The coach, while developing a reputation for being distinctly unsentimental regarding the rest of the roster, treated this veteran winger with tremendous deference. And in the end, when he finally took a chance and ‘demoted’ Kovalev to the 4th line with Lapierre and Latendresse, it seemed to pay off; that line won us a few games down the stretch, and Carbonneau took great pains to show that it wasn’t a ‘4th line’ in the negative sense, but rather that he was trying to roll a full 4 line team- Kovalev got roughly the same ice time with that trio as he did with others he played with.

But in the end? Kovalev did indeed ‘show up’ and do great things in a few of the season’s final games, there are two you could easily say he won single-handed. It wasn’t enough, though. Most importantly, he didn’t show up in the last game of the season, the most critical situation. It was exactly the sort of moment that, according to his carefully-cultivated reputation, should have been Kovalev’s forte, a single game with everything on the line, where a single win would take the team to the first round of the playoffs and maybe beyond. This is what Kovalev does, supposedly, he plays hero when you really, really need one, he turns on that magic skill which is supposedly the best in the League and carries the team. He can do that, we believed, he will do it, and we believed he’d do it because we believed that he feeds on drama and great stories as much as we do, and it would have been a really, really great story.

But he didn’t show up, the game was lost, and the season ended. What is the value of a game-breaker who cannot, or will not, break the important games? What is the value of a playoff superstar to a team that doesn’t make the playoffs? Looking back on the season, can we really say that Kovalev was the best thing, or hell, even a good thing, to be taking that roster slot? Are there not dozens of players in this League, and maybe even a couple of kids in the Habs' own organization, who could have put up similar numbers (albeit in less dramatic fashion) over the course of 82 games with a juicy top-line role, and been more consistent and more defensively reliable, all for a lot less money and with a lot less ego?

Even his teammates, who so carefully defended him when he was accused of attacking them, begin to speculate more or less openly after the season was over as to whether he is really all that he is supposed to be. Without ever disparaging his talent, some suggested that he does not bring much of anything to the team other than that talent, and the promise that it will make an appearance in certain, necessary situations. We all begin to wonder if maybe he isn’t getting too old to play hero the way he’d like, if maybe all that skill hasn’t started to fade, and even when he wants to ‘turn it on’ he somehow cannot anymore.

Where will he go, if not Montreal? No team that is more competitive than the Habs, none of the League’s current elites, seem likely to give the sort of 1st or 2nd line spot he’d demand to a guy with an established record of sleep-skating through 60 games a season. And no team that isn’t competitive is going to bring in a very expensive underperformer with a reputation for being difficult, for there’s no reason to tolerate any of Kovalev’s various idiosyncrasies if you’re not even going to make the postseason. He only makes sense in a place like Montreal, a team perennially on the cusp of success, a team that needs a late-season/postseason game-breaker to provide that extra push that might just might make them really competitive. They say he signed here because he believed Montreal was a city that understood hockey, where he thought his talents would find a truly appreciative audience, and he was right, more than he knew, because this city has provided a great stage on which he has been able to be something of a great character- by turns thrilling and infuriating, but always very dramatic, and we’ve soaked that up eagerly and begged for more, because Lord knows we love anything that gives us fodder for debate and discussion.

But the fact is, at this exact moment, there is no good hockey reason for the Canadiens to keep Kovalev, because they did not make the playoffs this year, and therefore he is almost by definition useless, and maybe the fans are finally getting a little tired of drama, and of a team sitting season after season right on the edge of potentially being good. But to get better after this year, we don’t need more of Alex Kovalev, we need a little less flare, a little less suspense, a little less drama, and a little more in the way of talent that can show plain, ordinary, solid consistency. The only reason to keep Kovalev- and he damn well knows this- is because he’s under contract for a lot of money, he’ll be difficult to trade for anything resembling a decent return, and they’re not likely to want to buy him out the same year they’re already buying out Samsonov, that’d be too much money going to nothing. But he’s not facing a good 2007-2008 season. Gainey and Carbonneau showed with Samsonov that they’re not afraid to healthy scratch an expensive, name player who doesn’t live up to expectations, leaving him to the somewhat cruel humiliation of wasting away night after night in the press box rather than simply cutting him loose, and Kovalev’s failure to show up when he was supposed to has effectively taken away the only reason they had to indulge him. Whatever he might say to the Russian press, he needs the management’s goodwill a hell of a lot more than they need his, and this recent ultimatum seems like a desperate, if fairly sophisticated, attempt to get himself a little media leverage. If I was going to speculate (and I am), I would guess that the Powers That Be at Le Centre Bell have an ultimatum of their own for him: you are under contract, we own you, so start playing more consistent hockey and stop causing problems for the team, or your slot is going to Grabovski and you can have fun spending all that money on the very stylish new suits you’ll be wearing a hell of a lot more often than your jersey. You don’t want to play in Montreal? Trust us honey, you can very easily spend next season not playing in Montreal.

Eventually, everybody gets what they deserve. Montreal has spent too long being the sort of city that deserves a petulant, inconsistent maybe-superstar with a massive talent and equally massive ego, who gives rare flashes of gorgeous, impossible hockey and nothing else. For a while, Kovalev very much deserved the contentious, colorful adulation he got from the fans here. But that time is over, it died with this season’s playoff hopes. This is The Montreal freakin’ Canadiens, it’s a hockey team, it’s not Days of Our Lives and it’s not Hamlet, and it’s high time we learned to appreciate the lesser talent that is there every night over the greater talent that might show up one of these days. Maybe some team somewhere has won a Cup on the strength of a player who thought that regular season games were beneath his notice and happily slept his way through until late March, but the Habs are not going to be that team. And it’s time, after the way this season went, to give Kovalev exactly what he deserves: nothing. No spotlight, no media circus, no heated arguments, no defense or condemnation, no praise nor hatred. He didn’t give us the dramatic on-ice performances he’s always promised, so he doesn’t deserve the dramatic off-ice attention he’s always gotten. Let him take his injured pride to Gainey, to Carbonneau, to his teammates, the people who know something maybe about Kovalev-the-Hockey-Player rather than Kovalev-the-Theatrical-Luminary, and let them decide what to make of him.

In one thing, I agree completely with Todd- this franchise, this team, this city, and this fan community definitely deserve better. Time to start acting like it.

2 comments:

Yamp said...

Finally a Canadien post! I've missed this! ;)

mineral said...

A truly amazing post. Please give us more!