A game is played to be won. There is a set task to be completed within set parameters, and who or whatever completes that task most successfully, usually as judged by some numerical value, wins. Despite what we were told in kindergarten, there is no game where everyone always wins. There are situations in life where an outcome may be beneficial for all parties concerned, and we often say these are situations wherein ‘everybody wins’. But no matter how nice these situations may be, they are not games, for if everybody wins, than nobody does.
In this sense, then, the most important function of a hockey team is to win hockey games. There is no value to be had within the economy of the sport other than winning, there is no reason to go through the expense and difficulty of creating a team without the ultimate goal of winning games. Certainly there are additional benefits to be had- in the certain markets there’s a lot of money to be made for everyone concerned, and the players can accumulate individual statistical value. But money is, usually, conditional upon winning, since a consistently losing team becomes less economically viable, and even a player who can manage to accumulate good individual stats on losing teams will eventually experience a reduction in his own value. Nothing is truly good in hockey that does not win, and win regularly.
It’s impossible to really explain why winning is so desirable. Winning feels good for no reason. Sure, there are lots of rationally great reasons to like winning- you get confirmation of the value of your abilities, and lots of applause and general kindness from others- but at bottom, the desire to win is one of those desires that just sits in the brain-stem, beneath rational consciousness. It’s an urge, an instinct, something we just need sometimes, not the way we need money or love, but the way we need food, sex, sleep. The pleasure of winning isn’t some sort of comforting sense of personal validation, it’s a chemical rush. It surges through your body and makes you do things without thinking- shrieking, jumping, laughing, dancing, crying. It’s one of those sensations that makes you feel simultaneously inside and outside of yourself, perfectly in the moment and yet somehow transcendent. It is, for a moment, an altered state of consciousness. This is your brain. This is your brain on victory.
No wonder, then, that athletes are so competitive- they’re addicts, they need that winning-fix, without it they go into withdrawal. What is curious, though, is that for such a primal, base sensation, it is also something that can be felt vicariously. The Habs' winning now affects me materially no more than it did at this time last year, and at this time last year the news of their winning made me feel absolutely nothing, which is the rational response- nothing about who I am or what I have is in any way affected by what 23 guys in identical uniforms do or don’t do. Now, however, I have some sort of connection with them that makes their winning physically, essentially, and inevitably joyful for me. It’s the bizarre, freakish thing about sports fandom- how can something so contingent, so dependent on individual perspective and experience, come to feel so essential? How do I, at home in my living room, become so joined to their experience of winning that it quite literally feels as though I have won as well, although I have done nothing? There are a lot of reasons that fans feel connected to their team, but somehow I think the shared feeling of winning is the foundation of it, the core piece, because it is so immediate, so visceral, and so pleasurable. That totally accidental, totally random pseudo-psychic link that makes their happiness into my happiness is the entire reason that I’m a Habs fan- only the Canadiens’ winning feels like winning to me. For whatever cruel reasons, they’re the only ones who can give me my fix, the rush I need to get out of watching the game. Everyone else’s wins are curiosities, the Habs’ wins are thrills.
Wins are like Halloween candy, sweet and colorful and almost infinitely desirable, but at bottom they’re mostly very similar, glucose and food coloring. More than that, too many of them can make you sick, and sometimes they damage you all the more because they’re so tasty and pretty that you don’t feel the creeping nausea until you’re vomiting in the bushes. And while some of them are filled with delicious cherry-glop, some are filled with razor blades. If it isn’t careful, a team that wins all the time can become blind to its own flaws, whether these are intrinsic weaknesses- overreliance on a particular player, weak penalty-killing, etc- or just the dull complacency that comes from being certain of one’s own superiority. There are streaky teams, where a run of wins seems to almost inevitably build bad habits, which then lead to losses, and then more losses while these are identified and corrected, which finally leads to a new series of wins, until those same bad habits start appearing again… wash, rinse, repeat.
But perhaps the biggest problem with winning is that it so easily betrays us, for it always promises more than it actually is. Ultimately, in a hockey season, there is only one real win: the Stanley Cup. That is the prize, the light at the end of the tunnel, the gold at the end of the rainbow. Yet twenty-nine teams will lose and only one wins. The thing is, that one team is not necessarily the best team. Of course, if you are this winning team or a fan thereof, you believe that it means you were the best, but from an objective standpoint, such is often not the case. If the best team won, they’d just give the Cup at the end of the season to the team with the best record. The entire reason for the playoffs is to give a wide variety of not-best teams a chance to win the only real thing worth winning. In the very end, the guys lifting that cup may not have been the most successful in the overall year’s competition by any standards. They may not have the best record or the most goals-for or the fewest goals-against. They may not have the best players. They may, in fact, have very little more than tenacity and good luck.
For 29 teams, all the winning they may have done comes to nothing. In the end they still lose. All season, all around the world of hockey, we all look at our teams’ winning and see it as part of something, a path, a story that is going somewhere. In the beginning, there were 30 different stories being written by the faithful (be they few or many) in 30 different cities, everyone, however secretly or irrationally, hoping that there guys would end with the Big Win that would render the story meaningful. If they win the Cup, than the story will then suddenly become a story about something, a story we can tell over and over again about all the things our guys did, about their innate potential, their struggles, and their eventual triumph. Without the Cup, though, the story fades to black before the final scene, we rehash it for a while over the summer, but we drop it eventually because there’s no real ending, it just fizzles away. The hockey season itself is often little more than a brutal, grey struggle for survival. With the win at the end, it becomes a struggle for something, towards something. Without it…
Without winning, hockey is depressing, and not just the way that losing any old competition is depressing. The professional hockey season is a meat grinder, by this time of year every team is comprised of the skating wounded- badly battered men playing through half-healed injuries, second cousins to zombies. They’re all held together with strategically placed braces and extra padding, cortisone shots, painkillers, and sheer willpower, a constant parade of vaguely described ‘treatments’ in the hidden bowels of the arenas that allow them to play as reasonable simulacra of functional human beings. Every hockey fan, and probably every player as well, has a moment in the season where they- even if only for a fraction of a second- wonder if it’s really worth it, if anything is worth the kind of exhausting, destructive pressure they go through. But you only wonder that until the next win, because when that rush comes, you don’t doubt it that all the sacrifices and all the pain were absolutely worth it. Because winning is just something they need to do, the way they need to breathe- it’s the essence of hockey-life.
What wins hide from us is that hockey has no ultimate purpose. Like all sports, it’s the song that never ends. The cycle repeats, over and over, season-playoffs-season, verse-chorus-verse, eventually everyone wins, but mostly everyone loses. It isn’t moving towards something, long term, there is no progress in hockey. The game changes through the generations but follows no path of development, for all the efforts of all the players, hockey overall does not become ‘better’ because of what they do or don’t do. There’s no point to it other then the endless pursuit of a transient feeling. Every game, every season, the entire structure of the sport exists only because the need for that feeling is so overwhelming that some people will quite willingly destroy themselves for it, and the rest of us will gladly help them do it for the opportunity to share tangentially a borrowed fragment of that joy. Because the game is played to be won.