The mystery and the splendor
Don’t thrill me like before
And I can’t feel my love anymore
They told me the off-season would be hard.
They told me that these summer months are excruciating for hockey fans. Not only are there no games to watch, no on-ice action to lose yourself in and then rehash and argue over for the day or two or three that pass for ‘a long time between games’ in-season, but eventually there isn’t any news at all. A few flurries of activity- the entry draft, free-agency, and then… nothing. Absolutely nothing. They told me that August would be endless, painful boredom.
They were obviously understating it.
This has been worse than hard. Geometry tests are hard. Making char siu is hard. Putting up with your friend’s weird cousin who’s visiting for a week is hard. The hockey off-season? That is not hard. That is fucking soul-crushing.
It’s not soul-crushing because there’s no hockey. There’s still hockey. Hockey, and specifically NHL hockey, is year-round. There aren’t any hockey games, true, but hockey is a whole lot more than the games that are played. The off-season is the time when you learn just how much more it is. And frankly, it’s something I wish I’d never learned.
This is the time of year when hockey turns into paper. Sheaves and heaps of paper, printed with numbers. And the stars of the off-season are the practitioners of the paper arts- the GMs and league officials. We watch them ply their trade with the rapt fascination of an audience at a magic show- lookit how they can take all them papers and make hockey out of ‘em! We hope and pray that our GMs are origami masters, that one day they’ll come out to one of those long tables they usually speak at with a stack of contracts, and- with a fold here, twist there, abracadabra- hey, look, they made a Stanley Cup out of paper… What we fear of course, is that our GM might actually be more like that creature in the X-Files, and that all those contracts are doing is being wadded up with bile into a smelly, horrific nest in the bowels of the arena.
The paper arts of hockey are difficult, more difficult perhaps than those of the physical game, and I cannot help but have tremendous respect for those who practice them well. In spite of the many technical abilities involved, the things done on paper- building teams, negotiating contracts, managing revenues, creating and adapting rules- are more than simple mathematical skills, they’re complex processes which doubtless require considerable imagination and analytical sophistication. They can be done well in as many different ways as they can be done badly. My intention is not to denigrate either their importance or their elegance. But although they sometimes interest me, they fail to move me. Whatever the aesthetics are that make the paper arts so compelling to so many hockey fans, I am utterly blind to them.
However, no hockey fan who cares about the real game at the professional level can afford to be completely oblivious to the paper arts. I am very lucky, in a way, to be a Habs fan, because it allows me some measure of licit indifference to the business of the game. The Canadiens are as secure as a franchise can get, and the financial and business constraints that can threaten the success and even survival of teams in many other NHL markets are very distant from the everyday worries of Habistanis. But although I don’t have to go through the kind of hockey-business related agony that, for example, Penguins and Predators fans have had to suffer in the past year, the fact is that professional hockey does not have a track record of running the paper game very effectively. And when the business breaks down, when enough people in positions of power start doing bile-monster-mache rather than origami with the paper that comes their way, then eventually there is no on-ice game. Every techie that there is no show unless a thousand dull, mundane, almost silly details are properly ordered, and unless the paper game functions properly… well, my midwinter Saturday nights could easily become much, much more open then I’d like them to be.
So it is in some sense a duty for me, as someone who someday aspires to be a good hockey fan, to understand the paper foundations of the professional sport. Without that basis, everything else I think I might know is superficial. Hockey is a business, right? And so, apparently, if I want to understand hockey, I’m going to have to grow a little business-sense.
But the truth is: I hate the paper game. I have no aptitude nor affection for management. As much as I struggled to develop some rudimentary proficiency with the classic hockey fan fantasy GM chatter, as much as I understand and indulge the anxious desperation that creates it, when I engage in too much of it in concentrated doses- as I do these days- I only depress and disgust myself. It is not what I love about hockey.
What I loved about hockey is the game on the ice, in all its sweaty, bloody, messy, slushy, spit-covered, profanity-adorned glory. The tangibles, the things that could be felt with hands or heart, the sounds, the sensations. That’s what I believed in, that’s what I cared about, although I know it only vicariously and indirectly. That’s what I thought was important, and meaningful, and real.
That game, that thing I thought was so very urgent? It’s just a show. It’s a staged event designed to facilitate the transfer of money from some people to other people. It’s a canned experience, a commodity designed to sell itself and a whole host of other commodities in the most pleasurable possible way. From a structural perspective, the game- any game- that happens is one step away from totally meaningless. Who played, who won and why and by how much- these things are inconsequential. What matters, really, in real life, is how many tickets were sold, how many seats were filled, and not even so much for that game but for all the games over the course of the season and whether that money (once filtered and tallied and shuffled in various ways) is going to make somebody somewhere a profit. And so long as it does, everything is running smoothly and the show gets restaged next October. But the game itself? Irrelevant. So long as it sells seats and concessions and jerseys and such, nothing else really matters.
And oh yeah, that team? You know, the one I was so very passionate about? It’s a fucking brand, and for all the money I’ve spent on it, I’m don’t even have any stock in the company. It’s a logo and a name. Habs vs. Leafs. Coke vs. Pepsi. It happens to be a very nice logo, and I do thank the hockey gods daily for blessing me with a team whose jersey I can feel sexy in. But nevertheless, it is nothing but a symbol without much content, and what content there is is utterly and infinitely transformable. In point of fact, it might be more sensible to give your love to a soft drink, for Coca-Cola has probably had more consistently defining features over its history than any sports team ever. My fandom is little more than an irrational brand loyalty, and where is the virtue in that? What is so fulfilling or desirable about that kind of loyalty? Why should I be prepared to give my affection to this or any other roster, just because of the logo?
And backstage, underneath the spectacle, behind the brand? There’s nothing but the same dull grey machinations that underlie any capitalist enterprise. It is with rising nausea that I realize that on some level the paper arts are the real hockey. This is the deep structure of the sport, all the money and paper are the bare, unadorned gears that make the whole show possible. The season comes so fast and bright and loud that you don’t see them, but all that gaudy excitement is just a distraction, just another freakin’ light show in a life filled with such sweet, illusory pleasures. Physical hockey is the product, but paper hockey is the mode of production.
So here I am, whining and pouting like a petulant child who just wants the bright shiny toy and doesn’t want to think about the factory that produces it. This is not mature. This is not the way adults see the world. Adults are interested in business and production, in capital and revenue, in the paper arts. Adults know that there is no such thing as random, accidental beauty in the world and that everything exists for a practical purpose. Adults don’t want to play with the toy, they want stock in the company that makes it and they’ll sell that fucking stock when the right time comes too.
But it doesn’t matter that I know I should care about the business stuff, I just can’t do it. Playing along with the paper game feels like bad sex to me- maybe it’s kind of fun while you do it, or at least it seems like it could be fun enough that you want to try, but in the end it just leaves you feeling queasy and gross and almost painfully empty. Physical hockey, even experienced vicariously, is fulfilling. It always leaves me, left me, with an overwhelming surplus of thoughts and feelings and words and just plain energy. Hockey on paper, however, leaves me drained- not exhausted, which implies some sort of prior passionate investment- but simply cold and pale and irritated, bleeding out from a thousand paper cuts. I can’t love it, and I can’t fake loving it. And during this time of year, when that’s all there is to hockey, that means I can’t love anything.
They- wise, wise they that they are- tell me that all this anomie will evaporate roughly 2 minutes into the first pre-season game. Probably they are right, since I am nothing if not easily distracted by shiny objects and loud noises. But I don’t want to be distracted, willful blindness is not my thing. So what are my options? 1) grow up, accept that hockey is a business, and know that bearing that in mind is going to make it sometimes difficult, and perhaps eventually impossible, to love; or 2) keep to my spectacle and my all my empty little words, and stick my fingers in my ears and scream “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU” every time the CBA comes up. Both of these options, frankly, suck.
Fortunately, there’s always a 3rd option. Because you know what? Hockey is not a business. The NHL is a business, and my problem isn’t hockey, it’s that the National Hockey League is the only hockey I have thus far. Which is something that no wise hockey fan- none of the wonderful they who have tried to give me advice through this little hockey-depressive phase- allows to happen. There are endless varieties of hockey in this world, and everyone (probably one of the few beneficial outcomes of the lockout) has something else: minor-league hockey, junior hockey, European hockey, virtual hockey, their own hockey, their kid’s hockey. I need some of that. Hell, all of it. Well, maybe not the kid part, that’s an awfully long way to go to add a new layer of hockey to my life. But the rest of it? Sure, bring it on.
So call it a resolution, on the eve of my sophomore season: to get the fuck out of my little Habs-bubble once and a while and see some of the rest of the hockey world in all it's strange and wonderful permutations. Not that I live under the illusion that there’s some other variety of hockey out there that won’t have soul-crushing elements, some kind of hockey that’s all sunshine and lollipops and warm fuzzies (or more accurately, icy frozen fuzzies). But- insha’allah- this is one of those cases where the whole is infinitely more than the sum of its flawed parts, and by broadening my interests I will simultaneously deepen them, and maybe finally get some idea what this crazy fucking game is all about. Hopefully one that will make the soul-crushing colorlessness of the NHL’s paper arts seem trivial again.
Until then, consider my angst vented. This hereby marks the end of my reclusive, depressive, unofficial late-summer hiatus and leap-of-faith return to the very serious business of hockey blogging. Because- open the house doors and cue the overture- it’s nearly showtime again. And it's going to get better. Right?