Wednesday, July 18, 2007

On Loyalty

One of the things I’ve learned to love about sports fans is their penchant for storytelling. Hockey is full of stories- myths, legends, jokes, and anecdotes of the past- which are told mostly according to the time of the year. There are early-season stories, mid-season stories, All-Star Game stories, trade deadline stories, especially playoff and Stanley Cup stories. And there are off-season stories too.

The timing is critical, since the meaning of the story changes with the context of the telling. Although the topic is generally something out of the past, and therefore something which has no direct bearing on current events, the telling of the story is a present act which speaks to the anticipations or anxieties of the moment in which it is told. Every tale of then is also a tale of now.

Lately I hear a good many stories about loyalty. They say- once upon a time- there were these things called hockey teams. Hockey teams- apparently- once upon a time- meant something specific, groups of men bound to each other and to a place by long experience and a deep personal devotion. There were players- once upon a time- they tell me- who loved their teams ferociously, who not only played with passion for and pride in their team, but fought and bled for its sake, not just in one game or one season but routinely, for decades at a time, the duration of their careers. These men- in those days- they say- were loyal, and the teams they formed were real, substantial things that defined dynasties and entire eras.

I find it hard to believe such stories, but it’s possible they are true. It’s possible that in the past the structure of the League favored players who could develop a singular, deep attachment to their team. In a time where drafting was for life and trading was comparatively rare, a player who could make the best of wherever he landed had an advantage over others. It would be logical to suppose that teams back then really were like families- a group of people stuck with each other by forces beyond their control, forced to spend long hours in each others’ company on a daily basis, eight months of the year for many years in succession. Surely not everyone was happy with the group they found themselves in, certainly all that compulsory closeness probably fostered resentments over time, but in such a system a discontented player could do little beyond make himself miserable. Like a family, it would reward those who could learn to love what they couldn’t change. I can imagine, if I try hard enough, that professional hockey was once like that.

Although they are not my own experiences and I’m not entirely convinced that they accurately represent the past, I find the stories of loyalty compelling. They are particularly pervasive in Montreal, of course, because they are the kind of stories that sting more for old teams with long memories, so much so that they don’t even have to be told so much as referred to. Single sentences- “[X] would have quit the game rather than leave the Canadiens”, or even just a litany of names which belonged exclusively to this city and this logo- these are enough to call up the proper dull, aching feeling. It is not surprising, given the inborn nostalgia of Habs fans, that they should be attached to the idea of loyalty, even if only as a relic of the past. But what interests me is that all hockey fans seem invested in the loyalty- or disloyalty- of players. Even where the team is virtually brand-new, has no substantive history and certainly no elder generation of players to whom the present roster can be unfavorably compared, fans seem to have a desire for players to be loyal to the team that goes well beyond mere sentimentality. It is a demand, a longing, a cause in itself for affection or condemnation. And so, although Habistanis are particularly susceptible, everyone looks for stories about loyalty. In the contemporary telling, they represent not so much a disconnect between the past and the present, but rather a disconnect between fans and players.

You love your team, if you have one. Maybe you think love is too strong a word, if that’s the case, feel free to tell yourself that it’s just a colloquial usage of the term. Tell yourself you love the team the way you love ketchup, if that makes you feel better. But define it passionately or casually, it’s still love, and it’s pathetic. It is pathetic and unrealistic and impractical, it is based on faulty logic, false premises, and a deep capacity for willful self-delusion. Unfortunately, if you’ve gotten to that point, there’s nothing you can do about it. When it comes to their team, hockey fans mate for life. If you’re really lucky you can add teams in a sort of hierarchy, my 2nd favorite team, 3rd favorite, etc. Or you can leave hockey entirely, or become alienated from the NHL and put your faith in minor-league or junior or European hockey. But you never replace your first love, not really, no matter how hurt or betrayed you feel, even as years pass and your love curdles into loathing, it never really goes away, and it never really changes.

But your team does not love you, nor do any of the scraps of people with actual feelings who are associated with it. Sometimes you will think they do. Sometimes things will be going well and you will feel a warm fuzzy affinity between yourself and your team, and you will think that they are all, from the managers to the players to the zamboni drivers, good and wholesome people who do everything they do for love- love of hockey, love of your city, love of the community, love of the team. If you’re a fan of a team that ‘won’ on UFA day, you’re believing it right now. They’re sitting at their press conferences saying all sorts of flattering things about your franchise, and you’re feeling a sort of residual glow because he chose us! Out of all the teams in all the world, he chose us! And although you may be aware that there is not necessarily any deep reason you got your pretty pretty prize, although you may look at other team’s acquisitions with a studied cynicism and call their big catches mercenaries and whores, when it comes to your own allegiance, you will believe- on some level- that they care in some specific, particular way for your temporarily-mutual team.

Perhaps you believe this because they generally say it. Hockey players- except in rare cases- will make extensive protestations of personal, emotional attachments to wherever they are playing at the moment. It begins with the generic assertion that wherever they end up, via drafting, trade, or free agency, is exactly the place they always wanted to be, but for most of them it seems to quickly morph into loyalty-talk. This is a great organization, great building, great fans, great teammates, great management, great city, blah, blah blah… I love playing here and would never want to go anywhere else, really.

They’re lying. That is simply, factually not the way that professional hockey is today. The League is a breathless shuffle of things and people, constantly in flux. Every team is constantly changing in myriad ways- switching coaches, GMS, or key parts of the roster, moving buildings, moving cities. Even if one is fortunate, or maybe unfortunate, enough to stay in one place through enough of his early career to form some kind of personal attachment, that team itself is unlikely to be stable. Saku Koivu has been a Canadien his entire career, but in that time he’s still played under 4 different GMs and 7 different head coaches, with 154 different teammates. He could have changed teams a couple of times and ended up with similar numbers. Once upon a time, perhaps, being loyal to a team meant loyalty to other people as well as a logo. Today, to be loyal to the team is to be loyal to nothing at all.

In such a world, players are clearly aware that team loyalty is a liability rather than an asset. If you play in the NHL today, there is probably at least an 87% chance that you will be relocated without your consent at least once in your career, and a 100% chance that most of the people around you will be similarly moved. No amount of personal feeling is going to affect the movement of the commodities in the GMs giant hockey bazaar, so any sensible player is going to accept that instability is a fact of life and try to find ways to make it work for him. You can see it, a bit, in the way that team values somehow get transmuted into general hockey values. So while once upon a time ‘standing up for your teammates’ in a fight was imagined as a spontaneous gesture arising from a genuine emotional attachment to one’s comrades, it’s now an entirely transferable principle. A good ‘team guy’ is expected to be good with any team that might buy his services, irregardless of who his teammates are or how long he’s known them. I am prepared to give my teeth for this or any other franchise.

Hockey players have evolved with their sport and become masters of serial monogamy and transferable loyalty. It’s only a few fools and anachronisms who try to hold onto an old-fashioned one-team career, and most of them are punished rather than rewarded for it. Disloyalty, over the long term, where teams are concerned, is not a character flaw of hockey players, it’s a professional commitment for hockey players. We call them professionals because they get paid to play hockey, but a profession is more than just a salary- it’s a lifestyle and a worldview, a set of commitments and compromises that come with the nature of the work. Maybe the problem is that hockey was never really supposed to be work, it’s not work for we-who-watch. Maybe the fact that it is work takes something away from the ideal that it should be fun. Maybe it’s just pointless to argue over the reasons- one way or another it became work and the work changed, and as the work of hockey has changed the dispositions and traits of those who choose it as a vocation have changed in keeping.

Like disloyalty, lying is also a professional commitment for hockey players, something they simply have to do in order to be allowed to practice their craft. Both the rhetorical assertions of team-devotion and the casual, mercenary pragmatism of team-hopping are equally embedded in the work of the contemporary hockey player. Often, when a player who had formerly professed undying devotion to the team leaves it voluntarily, fans will be irate at the contradiction, and view it as a personal, moral flaw in the player himself. But the contradiction was always there, it’s the contradiction between the structural nature of an unstable League full of unstable teams and an outdated rhetoric of personal commitment predicated on the notion of an entity that no longer exists. Usually, between their kind lies and our willful self-deception, the illusion of a substantial relationship between ‘the team’ in the abstract and the specific players on the roster can be maintained, but every now and then the gap between the reality and the illusion grows too wide and the disconnect becomes painfully apparent: Fandom is based on an antiquated notion of what a team is. We expect the emotions and sentiments from the 6-team League of the past to be replicated in the 30-team League of today, although absolutely none of the formative systems remain the same. To expect contemporary players to have an unswerving loyalty to their team, even when it goes against their best interests, is to trivialize the complexity of teams themselves. It is ludicrous of us to expect a guy now, playing with a rotating cast of hundreds of linemates, to feel the same way about his group as a man 30 years ago who would play many seasons with the same faces. A modern ‘team’ might be created in July and disassembled again in March, and even those teams that change more slowly still exist in the shadow of that potential. It is only a rare and beneficent confluence of factors- a reasonable degree of success, a conservative GM, sheer luck- that allow for a team to keep a substantial portion of its roster together for more than a year or two at a time, irregardless of what the players do or do not in their occasional moments of free choice.

Still, discussions of loyalty bring out the selective blindness in most hockey fans (and I include myself in that category). Players leave when we don’t want them to, and we are apt to feel personally wounded. A wronged fan can inevitably run down a lengthy list of things that they’ve done, either personally or as part of the overall community, that demonstrate their superior and superlative loyalty- I cheered, I cried, I spent money, I had patience, I waited, I supported, for the team, for all these years, and he just leaves? Fucking asshole, after all I did for him… It’s easy for fans to get wrapped up in a self-righteous or self-pitying sense of unrequited love, but deep down we are no less hypocritical, no less prone to lie. We’re just less clear-eyed, more emotional. We will overestimate our own capacity for loyalty and devotion, retroactively feign faith or affection that might not have actually been so pure in the past. In fact, our desire for loyalty is hilariously selective. Everybody wants the loyalty of the freakishly talented and/or extremely useful players- it’s Souray that Habs fans are cursing for disloyalty these days, whereas David Aebischer is free to go do whatever he wants, with our blessing. If, hypothetically, Aebi were intensely, passionately devoted to the Canadiens, it wouldn’t matter- we still wouldn’t want him on our team, he serves no purpose for us. But Souray was useful, so we want his loyalty, and though it’s not exactly accurate to say we expected it, we’d hoped for it, and felt it’s absence acutely.

A cynic might say that hockey fans’ nostalgia for loyalty is really a nostalgia for slavery, the desire to reduce players to things possessed rather than people with free will, a desire to replace the legal confinement of the old system with the voluntary, but no less restrictive, confinement of personal obligation. But me, I’m not that cynical yet. I think the more powerful reason fans want players’ loyalties so badly is because it makes them more like us. Fans mate for life, and usually with a team not of their own choosing- the team of their fathers, the team of their city. The bond is wholly emotional and tremendously powerful- the term ‘fanatic’ is applied with good reason. Bound up as we are by an involuntary attachment that we call ‘loyalty’, although that implies more conscious control than we have in the matter, we want to believe that players experience a similar sensation.

If I want their loyalty it is mostly because it affirms my loyalty, because it affirms the power of the game on the ice as I see it- my building, my city, my community, my form of hockey. A player who has a loyalty to a team that goes beyond the letter of his contractual and customary obligations is somehow moved by the same specificities of context and circumstance that move the fans. It’s the way we’d like to believe we’d be, if we could play at that level. Disloyalty affirms only their difference from us- that they are professional, wealthy, and immensely, mysteriously talented, and therefore they have commitments, desires, and options that fans cannot truly comprehend from the outside. Loyalty, though- pointless, impractical, anachronistic loyalty- that we understand all too well.

7 comments:

alice said...

The stories about loyalty that fans tell are part of a general class of cultural myths that Things Were Better in the Old Days. Maybe people really didn't have to lock their doors. But they also had to worry about polio and a variety of childhood diseases that we now have vaccines against. When it comes to sports, this loyalty myth conveniently overlooks two crucial factors. First, the economic and contractual structures of the major North American sports have changed drastically, in particular due to the advent of free agency. I'm not sure how the changes affected hockey, but in baseball it's very clear. Fifty years ago, the only way a player for one team could sign with another team was if the team holding his rights no longer wanted him. In other words, the apparent loyalty of the player was enforced by the economic structure of the league. Of course, when there is no choice, there is no possibility of loyalty.

A secondary aspect of the loyalty myth is that there was less player movement in the past than there is now, so that you could watch and root for the same players for many years. Part and parcel of this is the belief that the majority of player movement is the result of free agency rather than trades. Again, I'm more familiar with the statistics from baseball than with those from hockey. But, certainly in baseball, if you look at the careers of players who played more than 10 years, you find that there roughly the same percentage of players who play their entire career for the same time today as there were in the past. Conversely, there were as many players who moved from team to team then as now. In other words, there are as many Martin Brodeurs and Saku Koivus as there ever were. And there always were more peripatetic players like Eric Lindros and Jeremy Roenick.

E said...

alice- wow, i probably could have been a lot more concise about all that, couldn't i? suffice to say i agree with almost all your points. the only thing i might debate is the statement "when there is no choice, there is no possibility of loyalty." you're right, in that- pragmatically speaking- when loyalty is compelled by contract it doesn't necessarily have the same emotional content we associate with the term, but i don't want to be dismissive of people's feelings and perceptions just because of the structure that facilitates them. in other words, i think in an era of more long-term contracts it is possible that players genuinely did feel more attachment to their teams. there's a part in the game where dryden goes on a little tirade about the destructiveness of trading and player-movement to the sense of 'team-ness', and how hurt and offended he would have been if he was ever traded (roughly pages 169-173 in my edition, for reference). now, yeah, of course you can say that he only felt that way because he was playing in an era and for a team that allowed for more roster-stability, but that doesn't necessarily make the sentiment any less true or legitimate. i'd argue that loyalty was probably real enough, for a lot of guys anyway, even if it was structurally, economically enforced.

i don't have any stats on player-movement in the past, either. my sense is that in the case of the habs it was probably considerably less back in the day than it is now, but that could just be the mythology talking, and i really have no idea about the league as a whole. it'd be a good topic for future research, if i ever get the time...

alice said...

A few more observations...

Back in the days of The Original Six, there was far less possibility of player movement. Furthermore, I suspect that if you looked at entire rosters and not just stars, you'd find more movement.

I have to stay home tomorrow to wait for the guy who's going to clean my furnace. I might see if I can figure out how to find some of this stuff, say comparing the 59-60 and 60-61 Rangers and Habs.

E said...

let me know how your research goes, i admire your initiative. i've been compelled to sit around the apartment all afternoon while my sink is repaired, but i'm ashamed to say i've done nothing so productive with my time...

Teebz said...

Great post, E. I know my dad lives and dies with the Bruins (so he's done more dying in recent years than living). In any case, he is a die-hard from his childhood days, and has never wavered.

Julian said...

There's alot of business-aspect stuff (which let's admit, has a pretty big impact on player movement) from before the "modern" NHL that I simply know nothing about. I mean, right now I think I have a pretty good grip on how players can change teams, on the rights of the players and the rights of the teams in terms of controlling their own fates. But anything before, oh, say the early ninties, I'm just not so sure on. How the salary issues worked, what sort of a role the NHLPA played, how teams were run to maximize their payroll vs performance, etc etc etc. I can't even think of any changes that would have taken place in that time period, but the fact that a team like the 1980's Oilers were even able to exist for such a long period of time is just unfathomable today.... so.... what's changed?


Sorry, this isn't really connected to the topic, i'm just thinking about things i don't understand with regards NHL before my time,and this is a pretty big one.

alice said...

This took longer than I thought, and, with all that, I just got through the 59-60 Habs. According to the Canadiens web site, 24 players suited up for the Habs in that season, 19 of whom played in a substantial number of games.

Of those 19, 4 played their entire careers in Montréal: Jean Béliveau, Henri Richard, Maurice Richard, and Claude Provost. One additional player, Gerry McNeil, who apparently backed up Plante but didn't get into a game (this was his last season), also played his entire career in Montréal. Of the remaining 15, 10 were traded away (mostly to the Rangers), 2 were claimed away in waiver-type drafts, and one was claimed in an expansion draft.

Only one core player wasn't home-grown. Marcel Bonin started with the Red Wings, was traded to the Bruins, and claimed by the Habs in an intra-league draft at the end of the 56-57 season.

That leaves Boom Boom Geoffrion. When I was a kid, first watching hockey, I thought that Boom Boom Geoffrion was absolutely, positively the coolest name imaginable. Geoffrion was claimed on waivers by the Rangers in June of 1966, after playing the preceding two seasons for Québec of the AHL.

All of this information, with one exception, comes from the Canadiens web site and www.nhl.com. For some inexplicable reason, nhl.com has no data on Claude Provost, so I had to supplement the info from the Canadiens' site with information from hockeydb.com.

Out of all of this, the player I really want to know more about is Jacques Plante. Just looking at his career year by year, there are puzzles. Apparently he retired from the Rangers in 1965, tried to sign with the Seals two years later, and was stopped from doing so by an arbitration ruling that the Rangers still owned his rights. He was subsequently traded to the Blues, and played another few years in the NHL and, later, the WHA.

Then there's the question of turnover. Five of the 24 players on the roster weren't on the roster for the 60-61 season. Four more were gone by 61-62.

I'd have to do the actual comparisons with, say, the 02-03 Devils to be sure, but I'd say the two teams are comparable, both in terms of the numbers of "lifers" and the amount of player turnover not brought about by retirement. I picked the Devils because, like the 59-60 Habs, they were in the middle of a run of league dominance.