A couple days ago I saw Paul Maurice on TV. I hate Paul Maurice.
I do not hate him, as you might suspect, because he’s the coach of the Maple Leafs. In that capacity, in fact, I tend to pity Maurice. He generally has the wearied, bitter resignation of a man with a chronic wasting disease, all pallor and dark-circled eyes. Through most of the season I never saw him without thinking that he ought to go through life with a green-geled follow-spot and a mournful single oboe accompaniment, periodically coughing blood into a handkerchief. I used to think we should all give him a round of applause for facing his horrifying condition of Leafs-coaching with such plucky determination.
But now I hate him, because he reminds me of the Unbig Game.
You remember the Unbig Game. On April 7th, 2007, there was a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens. It was the last game of the season for both teams, who sat at 8th and 9th place in the Eastern Conference standings, separated by only one point. To the victor would go the postseason and an outside chance at the Cup, while the loser would go home to an early summer, or so it seemed. It was supposed to be a Big Game.
Big Games are one of the most important parts of sports. From a certain perspective, Big Games might be the reason we have sports in the first place. Sports mythology is all about The Big Game. The climax of any sports movie is The Big Game, wherein our hero and his team face off against their archrivals at the very end, and it always goes down to the very last moment, the final seconds, wherein improbable, critical plays are made in heroic style. But it is the bigness of the game that makes the improbable both critical and heroic, and that’s the compelling thing about them- there’s a lot of amazement to be had in ordinary games, but the vast majority of it ends up being irrelevant on the whole scale of things. The beauty of a Big Game is that nothing that happens is irrelevant, and it invites- even demands- that we pay attention to every detail. For even the most jaded, bored, been-there-done-that fan (or player, or coach, or analyst), the Big Game is an opportunity to experience the basic unit of the sport, a game in it’s structure and essence no different than any other, as important and urgent in itself. A Big Game is lifted above all others, not just one more part of the season, not just one night among many, but the moment where something, everything, will be decided.
That last game, the Leafs-Habs game, was supposed to be a Big Game. It felt like it was going to be a Big Game. In the days before, every hockey fan I knew on either side was twitching like a coked-up bunny rabbit, only louder. There was constant, jittery over-analysis. People played out the game in their minds in ever possible permutation, almost minute by minute. And of course, the myth-making and media-hype reached the most extreme levels of hyperbole: BIGGEST. GAME. EVER.
In all of this, Paul Maurice had the best quotation, so good that I actually wrote it down for future reference:
“I think each one of you probably knows exactly what it feels like, because you played this game at eight years old. You did, you played it on a tennis court, you played it in the backyard, on the outdoor rink, it was Toronto-Montreal, game seven of some sort, and pick your favorite team, ‘cause you won, and we’re gonna hope our favorite team wins tonight, but.. it’s gotta be as good as it gets. The playoffs have its own… you have your own memory bank of all the playoff games you ever played, there’s very few regular season games that you’ll remember. This one we will remember, for the rest of all of our hockey careers, remember the night that we played
As self-conscious, intentional hockey myth-making goes, it doesn’t get any better than that. The problem, of course, is that it turned out to be a lie.
Now, before I go on, I have to emphasize that this is still a difficult game for me to write about. As I know, as you know, as everybody knows, the Habs lost, and they lost badly. They lost, in fact, in the worst possible way, because they came close. If they’d won, it would have had everything you’d want from a Big Game- a come from behind, an unexpected hat-trick, and a playoff spot prize at the end. A great story. But they fucked up in the third period, collapsed, and lost, and there is nothing more excruciating than losing The Big Game. The Good Guys do not lose The Big Game. So in addition to the ordinary pain of losing and the ordinary pain of missing the playoffs, there’s the additional toothpick-in-the-right-ventricle of feeling as though you’re on the wrong side of the story. If you’ve seen enough movies, you know, only the wicked, weak and inadequate lose The Big Game. I cried. I cried on and off for a few days, and believe me, it’s not just because I’m a hypersensitive little girl- this was the kind of thing that made construction workers cry. I tell you this not to relive the moment or gain any sympathy, but because I want you to understand the full import of what I am about to say:
I wish the Leafs had made the playoffs.
I wish the Leafs had made the playoffs because Big Games need to have real consequences. That’s why they matter, that’s why they mean something. It would be easy to be a bit postmodern and say that a Big Game isn’t a Big Game because of its actual significance, but because of the expectation or attribution of significance. There’s something to that. Fans do try to invent Big Games out of their expectations. You know how it goes- middle of the season, things are starting to feel a bit tedious, maybe a bit repetitive, and you start making up reasons to give some games more importance than others. You look for rivalries old or new, for personal stories of ex-teammates, friends, or relatives playing against each other. You start saying things like: the whole season depends on the next two points! This is, of course, total bullshit- the game usually has no consequences much different from any others, but you’re feeling a little bored and you really-really want a Big Game, so you try to make one. It’s pretty much inevitably setting yourself up for disappointment- during the regular season, most games that you expect to be big end up being pretty ordinary, while others that were supposed to be mundane develop unexpected bigness. You can’t predict it, which is kind of fun, but you can never shake the feeling that your invented ‘Big Games’ are fake.
Hockey is not a postmodern game, in fact, it’s an aggressively premodern one, and fittingly, there are real Big Games. But real Big Games need to be big in both the anticipation and the result. For a game to be a Big Game, you have to know in advance that it will be, and that knowledge has to be confirmed by the winning or losing of something of value. Big Games aren’t accidental or lucky, they’re obvious and predictable: everyone knows that everything rides on them. Tournaments and playoffs exist to feed our desire for Big Games and winner-take-all situations, but even they can’t always provide enough of them. A team that wins a playoff series in 4 or 5 or 6 has played several important games, maybe lower-case big games, but only the last game can be a Big Game. Even in the playoffs, only Game 7s are guaranteed Big Games. A Big Game has to be at the end, not just sort of close to the end, but the absolute end. What we all forgot, in our eagerness for something meaningful and mythic, was that this last game, the Unbig Game, was not really at the end of the season.
The Leafs won, and rejoiced, but the joy lasted less than 24 hours. The following afternoon the Islanders beat the Devils in a shootout, an equally important game in terms of it’s consequences but one of little narrative power, and the Leafs too were unceremoniously eliminated, because of a game in which they didn’t even play.
Life goes on, as it always does, and the postseason went on as it has so very many times in the current era, with neither team having any significance. If love and history and mythology made a team great, the Habs and the Leafs would be unquestionably the two greatest teams in all of hockey, year in and year out. In terms of raw volume of human passion for the game, there is none like that devoted to these franchises, they are and have been more than hockey teams, more even then sports, they have been good times and bad a core piece of their communities, a insoluble portion of the essence of their cities, part of a sense of place.
But the times have been more bad than good in these waning days, and all the mythology in the world cannot conceal what is increasingly obvious: both franchises risk collapsing into hockey irrelevance. The history and mythology overshadow the teams themselves; fragmentary, troubled rosters with gaping holes, respected veterans who cling on out of some misguided sense of loyalty though they could find more success elsewhere, and cadres of maybe-someday boys who could eventually great, if they escape being traded or going mad from the continuous mediocrity.
That game, that Unbig Game, turned out to be a more perfect metaphor for the teams than anyone predicted. It was hugely hyped, hugely anticipated, and someone won and someone lost, and in the end, it meant absolutely nothing. It was just another game, and there will be no myth nor legend about it now, because one could not tell the story of it on either side without a sense of regret and loss, without being reminded that it was all- the anticipation, the pain, the joy- for nothing. It was all imaginary, that story, with no substance beneath.
They say that Habs fans should be consoled that the Leafs were so blandly eliminated, and at the time, maybe I was. But now, with a little distance, I deeply wish that the Leafs had made it. Don’t get me wrong, I would have been happy to see them knocked out in the first round,
More than that, though, I wish that the Leafs had gotten that playoff slot because then it would have then been not just a good story but a true one, it would have proven that Big Games happen and they matter, that there are essential, critical moments that can determine a team’s fate. It’s a rare and fortunate thing to be able to play in a Big Game. It should have been a bitter loss for the Habs, without the small consolation of knowing that in the end both sides lost. And it should equally have been something glorious for the Leafs, something worthy of remembering the way Maurice believed people would remember it.
Ultimately, it wasn’t really a Big Game, it was just a giant grey disappointment for everyone. But it’s clear that it was close enough to impress the powers-that-be. The 2007-2008 schedule has come out, and again, the Habs will play the Leafs in the last game, this time in