Wednesday, June 27, 2007

As Canadien As Possible #6: All the Wrong Reasons

Saku Koivu is my favorite hockey player.

What, you’d figured that out already?

Well, I’m going to explain it anyway.

It’s not a very creative choice, I know. In Montreal, anyway, Koivu is a lot of people’s favorite hockey player. Even around the League, he is inordinately well-liked, by both fans and players. There are many popular, approved reasons for liking Saku Koivu. But the interesting thing is that not many of them have much to do with hockey. He is one of the few, rare players who is not popular because of his stats or his style, or anything to do with his game. Koivu is loved, when he is loved, almost entirely for his intangibles.

The most common and obvious reason that Koivu is popular is, to put it crudely, because he’s not dead. His recovery from cancer has become one of contemporary hockey’s most beloved stories, told and retold every year. It has become almost his trademark, the obligatory tale that is referenced almost every time he is mentioned. With good reason- it’s a deeply moving story. His cancer was very, very serious. He might have died. In the few clips of him making public appearances during that lost season, he looks like he is going to die- thin, pale, weak. In some of those pictures, it’s difficult to believe he ever was a professional hockey player, much less that he would be again.

Athletes are supposed to get hurt and suffer in a sea of neon in front of thousands of screaming fans, not alone in dark rooms. We expect to see them broken from the outside. Seeing one get eaten away from within by some invisible agent is peculiarly terrifying, because they’re supposed to be as thoroughly healthy as any human being can be. We are told all our lives that if we do certain things, if we follow certain rules, we will be certain to live a good long time. Well, athletes do all that- they eat right, exercise constantly, are looked after by extensive teams of medical personnel. Everything we could possibly do to avoid disease and decay, they do to the nth degree. To see one of them get hit with cancer- exactly one of those things we are frequently told we can avoid if only we eat more omega-3s and don’t smoke- is a stinging reminder of the lie beneath all our dreams of immortality; that all bodies are fragile, and life isn’t guaranteed to anyone.

But Koivu didn’t die. Not only did he recover, but he came back to hockey. In a sport where one of the primary, core values is the strength to endure pain and adversity for the privilege of playing, he fought more physical and psychological pain in one year than most players do in an entire career, set some kind of unofficial record for suffering. Yet in the end, with more reason to leave the sport than most have ever had, he came back to the ice as though that was not just a game, but a vocation- his life’s work. In so doing, he reaffirmed the power and the virtue of the game for many, and for some, the power of human strength itself to defy fate and misfortune. It’s a classic story in a unique key, and rare in its ability to unite sports-life and real-life on equal footing. It’s called inspiration, that thing that allows you to take something in someone else’s life and feel it somehow in your own. Koivu’s story is inspirational. And because of that, people love him.

There are other intangible reasons that Koivu is adored. For a certain generation of Habs fans- the generation that I would call mine if I’d grown up with the team- he has been a Canadien almost as long as they have any meaningful memory of hockey, the only constant on a frequently changing roster. To those too young to have known the great dynasties personally, he provided the team with a face and an anchor, not just leading the team but centering it (no pun intended), giving a sense of balance, stability, and maybe even tradition in an era where those things have grown rare. He is the guy who stays, even through over a decade of failure, even though he probably could have found considerably more success elsewhere if he’d left a couple years back. The fact that he stays, year after year, although there’s no good reason for it, is affirming somehow, for a lot of fans. It affirms that this is still a team worthy of someone’s devotion, a team that can inspire some sort of extra-special, blood-borne commitment.

He is loved, also, because he is a good man. Montreal as a whole should be immensely grateful for everything Saku’s done for the community, for the social conscience that has inspired him to improve our hospitals and help hundreds of sick people, both philanthropically and personally. Not a lot of cities get that kind of contribution out of even their entire hockey team, much less one guy.

But intangibles are treacherous. For as much as off-ice activities, stories, and personal qualities can gain a player deep personal respect and affection around the hockey world, because they are nebulous and subjective, they can also provide ample fodder for criticism, and even hatred. And as much as Saku is loved, he is also hated, and in Montreal sometimes hated quite vocally, angrily, and publicly. In a particularly pointed form of irony, Koivu is hated for, basically, the same reasons he is loved- because he is the team’s best player, because he is its most obvious symbol, because he is its leader and its heart, and even because he is good. The same hazy, emotional intangible qualities that inspire affection all out of proportion to that usually given to hockey players can inspire an equally off-scale loathing when seen from a different angle.

Paradoxically, he is sometimes hated because he is the Habs’ best player. In this capacity, he is constantly compared by the fan base to the best players of other teams, and constantly found wanting. There are hundreds and hundreds of players in the League who are not Sidney Crosby and Vincent Lecavalier, but it’s doubtful that many have been so frequently criticized for it. Forget that it is hardly within Koivu’s control whether the Habs acquire talent superior to his own, or whether that talent, once acquired, fails to meet expectations (say, in the form of Kovalev), people talk about him as though ‘best player’ was a specific slot and he, by occupying it, somehow makes it impossible for anyone else to play better.

Some fans, I think, actually resent him for becoming so central to the team, because he didn’t ask their permission to do it. He wasn’t crowned ‘soul of the Canadiens’ by the media, he wasn’t born and bred and groomed for the role, he didn’t even fill out an application. He just did it. Montreal didn’t claim Koivu, he claimed Montreal, and one gets the feeling that it was a sort of coup that no one saw coming. Some morning a couple of years back people just woke up and realized that this quiet little Finnish guy was, in fact, the heart and soul of the Montreal Canadiens, and everyone kind of wondered, how the hell did that happen? Who gave him that title? I don’t even remember interviewing him for the job. There are those, I think, who’ve yet to recover from the shock.

If you really think about it, there’s something a little nonsensical about Saku Koivu in Montreal. Yes, it’s a great hockey city with a great heritage, blah blah blah, and if one was going to be moved to breathe and bleed for a hockey team (what a very silly thing to do), the Canadiens are a better choice then most. But it’s also a terrifically demanding and often unforgiving place to play professional hockey, one that a lot of players- even those who claim to have liked it here- express considerable relief upon leaving. It’s also a city that’s famous for an overwhelming preference for hometown boys on its hockey team, especially in positions of leadership and authority. Why on earth should Koivu particularly want to be here at all, much less with such fierce determination? True, there are certain unique rewards to playing here that might, for some players, counterbalance the downsides- the celebrity, the opportunity to play to an appreciative and knowledgeable audience, the almost guaranteed position in an endless and detailed collective memory long after your career is over. But on the whole, Koivu seems more indifferent to these things than most. He tends to keep a low public profile except where his charity work is concerned, he’s almost made a science of tuning out the Bell Center crowd when it threatens to infringe on his focus, and he doesn’t show much interest in mouthing any of the standard platitudes about the glorious history of the Canadiens. His motives for sticking around all this time are obscure, and at times I almost think he does it purely for the challenge it presents- to lead an unleadable team and love an unlovable metropolis, to take a franchise that has little left but its history and keep it alive, to keep it meaningful and relevant in the present. Maybe it’s a sense of loyalty that keeps him here, but maybe it’s just sheer stubbornness. It’s rather like having one of those weird friends who just won’t give up on you no matter what kind of terrible shit you do, and not because you’re such a fantastic person, but just because they’re your friend and that’s what friends do. We’ve long ago stopped wondering why Koivu attached to this team the way he has and simply started accepting it as the status quo. Which is a little bit sad, honestly, but it is the way of the world- to be loyal to anything for years at a time is, inevitably, to be taken for granted.

The truth is that the only players Montreal really, purely loves are it’s ghosts- the dead or those so long gone as makes no difference- and it’s dreams, the kid who might someday be the next big thing, or the local boy who doesn’t play here but oh man if he did that’d be… The horrific thing is that it’s very possible that the city would have treated the memory of his corpse with more respect than it will ever treat his living, breathing flesh. We’re more comfortable here with the safe, closed past or an unrealistically wide-open vision of the future than with an unruly and unsatisfactory present- in fact, the favorite way to think about hockey in Habistan is by linking the past to the future by skipping the present entirely, searching for the next incarnation of the old gods- The Next Patrick Roy, The Next Guy Lafleur. There’s almost a sense of contempt for a current team too full of players who can only be themselves and not our fantasies. But Koivu is all about the here and now, and in his own calm, understated and unsentimental way he constantly calls attention back to the actual team, his team. This is the role and the era that fell to him, and it’s not surprising that, while for some fans he is a metonym for faith in the current team, for others he is a metonym for disappointment in it. When people feel ground down by losing and fumble desperately for the one thing that might change everything, they start saying get rid of Koivu, because it’s the only action that would indeed change everything in one, single gesture.

I don’t often get a whole lot out of stats. Not that I don’t enjoy a good spreadsheet from time to time, but when it comes to hockey it’s pretty rare that I can get excited about columns of numbers. Yet whenever I see/hear/read/participate in a conversation about Koivu I long for the sweet solidity of figures, in the vain hope that such would restrain both the hero-worship and the vitriol. Why is a discussion of Koivu never just a discussion about the value of a 75-point season? Put it in terms of the numbers and he more or less emerges clearly as what he is: a very good player at a very reasonable price. On paper alone, it would be ludicrous to argue that Koivu is the greatest thing ever to happen to professional hockey, and equally so to say he sucks. But when people argue about Koivu, his stats and his on-ice performance are totally secondary, because they’re usually arguing about his heart.

I haven’t done a formal study to support this, but I’d guess that Saku Koivu’s heart is the most-discussed internal organ of any currently active NHLer. Apparently your average ordinary hockey player scores goals with his hands, but not our Saku, no, he scores with his heart. If he plays well, people will be quick to attribute the success to his heart rather than his ability, but conversely, when he plays a bad game- or worse yet, a sequence of bad games- that failure is considered a form of heart failure. In this more than in anything else, Koivu-hatred is just Koivu-idolatry taken to its furthest logical conclusion- after all, if his heart is so great and so wonderful that it can win games on its own, how come it doesn’t win every game? How come he doesn’t have the ‘heart’ to break his own slumps? How come his ‘heart’ can’t wake up his linemates? It seems often as though any shortcoming of the team as a whole will eventually be attributed to Saku’s suddenly-insufficient heart and uninspiring leadership. But of course, as soon as things improve, the Sacred Heart of Saku will be instantly remythologized, only to be debunked again at the next setback.

And sometimes, even his undeniable off-ice goodness can be turned into a criticism. People who don’t like Koivu, for whatever reason, will often portray themselves as rational, unbiased hockey strategists, and suggest that any and all enthusiasm for the captain is all about sentimentalism and even pity. I’ve been told repeatedly that, if one only looks at his game on the ice, it would be impossible to justify any particular affection for him- I mean, come on, he’s not really that good of a hockey player, is he? Who wouldn’t rather have Briere?

This is the part where I start taking the whole mess quite personally. Because for mine own part, I love Koivu for all the wrong reasons, reasons that often make me feel like an anomaly in the cult of St. Saku. Don’t get me wrong, I respect him for all these intangibles. I respect his courage and his goodness. I respect his endurance and his evenness in this most mercurial and pressure-filled of hockey environments. And most of all I respect that beneficent arrogance, the audacity, through which he’s claimed the leadership of my Habs. Yet none of that is the reason he’s my favorite player. All those intangible things are good and interesting and worth telling stories about, but in the end, they’re all extraneous. And I can’t say I like him for those things for the simple reason that I didn’t know any of that when I first started watching. I fell for him without knowing about the cancer or even the eye injury, without even knowing what that little C on his shoulder meant (now there’s an embarrassing confession).

In the earliest days of my hockey-life, friends would sometimes ask me if I had trouble seeing the puck. I thought they were crazy, until I realized that this is one of the common explanations given for why Americans can’t get into hockey: they can’t see the puck. I have no idea what is wrong with those Americans. Maybe they have cataracts. Maybe they have very small television sets. Maybe they get their hockey games on the Bad Angle Crappy Resolution Sports Channel. But personally, no, I never had any problems locating the puck- it is, more or less, the entire focus of the game, and if you ever lose it for a second all you have to do is look wherever all the players are looking and generally that’s where it is.

However, I did have a terrible time keeping track of the skaters. Nowadays I could probably identify all of the Canadiens and most of our regular opposition players by stride alone, but back then I thought I’d never, ever be able to figure it out. It is, after all, a sport where any given guy is only on the ice for 45 seconds, where you generally can’t read the names from the distance of the camera and most of a player’s distinguishing physical features are concealed by thick layers of equipment. It took me weeks and weeks of careful attention to be able to consistently match names to numbers to positions for the entire team.

But Koivu jumped out at me from the very first game. He was visually and viscerally distinctive. Something the way he skates, wide-legged and bent nearly double, given to wild bursts of straightaway speed punctuated by abrupt changes in direction and loopy unexpected twists- not exactly pretty, but ingenious nevertheless. More than that, though, it was the way he played, always in the middle of everything, a sense of urgency and excitement he brought to the ice with virtually every shift. I remember thinking, way back when, that if anybody was having fun in professional hockey, it was definitely this #11 guy. I don’t know if he loves hockey in that Canadian sense of meta-hockey love, where you love capital-H Hockey, the idea of it, the symbol of it, The Game in the most romantic sense. What I believe is that, perhaps more than anybody else I see regularly, he loves to play hockey- the literal action of it, the feeling of it, every shift of every game, maybe a little bit selfishly sometimes, in that he is doing what he does only because it's what he wants, the fulfillment of some very personal need.

There’s a certain kind of energy that usually comes to a hockey game through the presence of rookie call-ups. They’re usually not very good, in the sense that they don’t often score and they sometimes do really silly things, but over the course of the season I grew to love watching those games with the patched-up roster because new kids always play with such frantic enthusiasm. Suspecting that it might be one of the few NHL games they’ll ever play, they try zealously to make things happen- anything, so long as it’s exciting, so long as it might just might turn into something amazing, no matter how long the odds. Although he’s older and has nothing of that wide-eyed desperation, Koivu, in his good games, brings an eerily similar vibe to the ice, a hyped-up impatience that will take risks and try to create something.

His instincts are those of a playmaker, and as such he’s often dependent on his linemates. Unfortunately, the Habs have a tendency to acquire offensive forwards with more of an individual virtuoso style. The readiest example is of course Kovalev, but you could say a similar thing of Higgins in a different tone- most of his great plays are completely his plays, he starts them and finishes them, and he doesn’t necessarily need someone with great ice sense to set him up. On a team of individualists, Koivu needs to be paired to do his best work, and as such he’s currently closely bound to Ryder, who, although frustrating in other ways, remains the Habs’ only instinctual sniper, a guy built to finish other people’s plays. The thing, of course, is that on the grander scale of the League, Ryder is just a good sniper, not a great one, and tends to be streaky, so Koivu spends a lot of time setting up chances that go nowhere.

But he’s a player who’s willing to go outside his natural boundaries and do what has to be done. If someone needs to stand in front of the net looking for redirections and rebounds, he’ll do that. If someone needs to try to dig the puck out along the boards, he’ll do that. Even if he’s not the best person for the job, even if it’s something that everyone knows he can’t really do- let’s face it, it’s pretty rare the Koivu out-muscles anybody- if he knows it’s got to be done and no one else is doing it, he will do it. He respects no opposition, not even that of his own limitations. It was compelling to me at the beginning, and it still is, the way he’ll work himself into every corner of the game and find some chance, some possibility there.

If he really is such a great leader, that’s where I think I can see it, in that constant desire to take the game, any game, any given moment and any given play and try to bend it to his will. After 650 NHL matches, he still seems to take every single night personally. Amidst the endless white noise of the Bell Center, where even many of our long-term players often find themselves drawn into the crowd and its moods, looking up into the stands as if for approval or guidance, Koivu’s eyes never leave the ice, he never stops watching the angles and the momentum, feeling out the game at hand and it’s possible trajectories. He plays in the moment, every moment, good and bad, with such completeness and such a peculiar form of stubborn joy that it seems like an explicit dare to everyone around him to match his focus and his commitment.

I hate seeing Koivu criticized, but sometimes I hate seeing him praised too, when it’s all fluffy rapturous praise about his good, good heart. He’s a professional athlete, not a nun, and it’s just not right that he should be valued entirely for some vague ideal we have of personal virtue, or because he gives us a roaring case of the hockey warm-fuzzies. It’s not right that his game- an exciting, creative, deliciously unique performance- should be tossed aside as easily and unthinkingly as it often is in favor of the feel-good tear-jerking story, just because his numbers ‘only’ put him in the League’s top 40 and not top 10.

I don’t care what anybody says, I don’t care if he’s aging and injury-prone, I don’t care if he’s overpaid, I don’t care if he’s never won a Cup, and as weird as it sounds, I don’t know if I really care whether he behaves like Gandhi or a manic-depressive orangutan in everyday life. I just love watching him on the ice. Everything else is bonus points. I’m grateful, of course, for all those intangible qualities he brings to the Canadiens and the community, but mostly I’m grateful for them because they rationalize what I knew from the beginning, when he was nothing to me but a funny stride and an incredible pass: that he’s my favorite hockey player.


Jordi said...

I love seeing the players rally around Koivu, but what almost struck me was that it was so easy to see him whiped from the entire NHL. I get absolutely petrified thinking of the what if situation that comes from the mortality of Koivu. (I know I know, getting scared about something that didn't happen but I'm very emotional about Koivu).

I think it's a lot of false goodwill, the way they sort of look to Koivu sometimes. I get that same feeling, where I hate seeing people sort of trivialise him as a player. But I don't know, I get weepy over Koivu.

LeeT911 said...

I've been reading your blog for quite a while now. Not since the beginning, but for pretty long. I wanted to let you know that I enjoy it very much, but I've never felt compelled to comment until now.

Saku Koivu is my favourite player too. In fact, I think Saku Koivu is the player who got me interested in hockey. Before his cancer, I only kind of followed the Canadiens in passing. But I remember, that first game that Koivu came back after his recovery, I was studying for an exam and I had the radio on CJAD.

You see, I didn't grow up in a hockey home. I'm the only fan in my family. And I'm too young to remember the glory days of Jean Beliveau or Guy Lafleur, but I remember Saku Koivu. That was Koivu's first game back, and even though I had an exam the next day, I wanted to listen to it at least. Besides, we were fighting for a playoff spot that year, and that game could've been the clincher. So I remember hearing the crowd cheering for him, hearing the announcer call out his name like only Michel Lacroix can, and I remember the thunderous applause that went on and on and on. I think I cried that night, listening to the radio, and I remember wishing I could have been there, at that game, and seen Saku Koivu.

The rest is somewhat hazier, but there was an interview after the game, or maybe the next morning, and I dont' remember if it was Rivet or Souray speaking, but whoever it was said something about Saku coming back with a bald head after missing a few months, and he just went on with his business like he'd been out for two games with the flu.

Saku Koivu is the one who made me into a Canadiens fan. If it weren't for Koivu, I wouldn't have blinked when Rivet was traded away, I wouldn't have cared if Markov hadn't been re-signed, and I proabably wouldn't have noticed the whole Samsonov debacle at all. To me, Saku Koivu makes being a fan of this team worth it. He's been playing here for as long as I can remember. And although, intellectually, I recognize that the other players are important also, to me, Saku Koivu is the team. And, like you said, I don't care if he is a smallish, injury-prone forward, he's still the captain of this team, and he plays like he wants to stay here.

Callmeteem said...

I really enjoyed this good and thoughtful post. And you're right he can be loved for the wrong reasons just as well as hated for those same wrong reasons.
Good thoughts.

Jeff J said...

Before the eye injury and the cancer, Saku had already been through enough to warrant a Masterton trophy nomination. He suffered some pretty serious knee injuries early on. He may not be the player Lecavalier is but history will be more kind to Saku. Whether he gets his name on the Cup or not, he'll be remembered for his story and contributions in Montreal after the franchise in Tampa is long gone.

Of all the hockey-related material I've read, none of it is as well articulated as yours. Keep on keepin' on.

To answer your question over at my place: I'm probably done posting. I'd put it at 90% certainty.

E said...

jordi- i understand, completely.

leet- sometimes i really do think that generational differences are huge in determining how people think about koivu. a lot of fans tend to define their relationship with hockey in terms of events that moved them when they were young and/or new to the game- for a lot of people who were kids/teenagers when koivu came back, it was one of those defining moments. older fans tend to be more jaded about it (although not by any means all of them).

jeff- i agree that he'll will be remembered longer and more favorably than a lot of contemporary players who are considered 'better'. i just hope he's remembered as a hockey player, and not just a great guy who also happened to play hockey sometimes.

sorry to hear your giving up the hockey bloggin' life. i can only hope it's for bigger and better things.

Faraz said...

This was a wonderful post. Kudos.

Anonymous said...

As some posters have commented, love for certain Hab's players can be generational. I am over 50 years old and have seen the glory years of the seventies, Lafleur, Dryden and Savard. My favourite Hab is is still Saku. Before the cancer and the eye injury he played the game with skill, tenacity and integrity! I only hope to see number 11 in it's rightful place someday. I'll be looking up!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful article, thank you for the effort. Really, it's good to see these kind of works of art.

I have no feelings for Canadiens. Of course I respect the legacy, and it's always good to see another hockey town.

Many of the qualities described in the article seemed to me as qualities of Finnish people in general ... stubborn, focused, loyal ... I guess Saku represents in many ways these very typical qualities of a Finn. No matter how hard you hit him, he always keeps on coming to the end.