October 17th, 2007:
You know I love you, right? I do. I have to say that first, so you’ll know how difficult it is for me to say this:
I think I need to see other hockey teams.
Please don’t be upset. It’s not you, really, it’s me. We’ve had some great times together, but I’ve grown too dependent on you. You’re wonderful, you’re beautiful, you’re very very dear to me, but the fact is that you’re just too unreliable, too unstable to be the entirety of my hockey fandom. And really, how could it have worked out between us? We come from different worlds, you and I: you’re a hundred-year-old multibillion-dollar Canadian hockey franchise, I’m a twenty-five-year-old American graduate student. As much as I appreciate all you’ve done for me- you’ve taught me all I know of hockey and given me endless hours of entertainment- I’ve seen what happens to those who love you too long and too exclusively. You’re a heart-breaker, you are, you hold out so much promise, yet you disappoint your devotees again and again, stringing them along for years. And truth be told, I’ve begun to find you a little oppressive, or maybe not you per se, but the stranglehold you have on hockey in this town. I need some space. I need to see other teams.
Gandhi hated trains. Say what you will about his philosophy or his politics, all his many contributions to human thought and transformative effects on the contemporary world, the thing I really remember about him- what I took from Hind Swaraj when I read it all those years ago- was that he hated trains.
Bear with me, for a second.
Gandhi actually made a very good argument for hating trains, one that- if only people took it seriously- has frightening implications for the way that everyday life has evolved since his time, especially in
What would he have made, then, of the current era, of air travel becoming the primary means of transport over long distances, of cars becoming the prevalent method of traveling even short, walkable distances? How alienated from each other, from ourselves, would he find us, and how much of our bottomless xenophobia and paranoia he attribute to this constant, unresolved, undiluted culture shock that underlies all we do? The conventional belief of the postmodern world, of course, is that rapid travel has enhanced our ability to understand places other than our native lands. After all, in the days before mechanized transport, the average person couldn’t see even a tiny fraction of the world in their lifetime, and although most of us do not take nearly full advantage of the many, many places we could go and things we could see, we live always with the consequences of it- with others who make or have made such long, abrupt journeys, with the constant implication that anywhere in the world is no more than a plane ticket away.
Gandhi probably took it too far, but I think he had a point. There’s definite value in seeing the points in-between, rather than just the departure and arrival spots. It means something, to understand when you travel how far you have gone and the shape of the intervening terrain. Ironically, however, this is exactly why I now love train travel: because in a rapidly accelerating world, it has retained it’s pace. When you travel by train, you get to at least see the whole stretch of in-between in however much detail you wish to look at it, and although it goes by quickly, there is plenty of time to observe the journey. More so, in fact, than in a car, for in car travel one is distracted by practicalities- one has to pilot the vehicle and navigate the route. Train travel is, however, exceedingly contemplative by modern standards. As a passenger, one has neither ability nor responsibility, the path is set, and all you can do is ponder where you’re going, and where you’ve been, and all those intermediary things passing by outside.
This train lacks the romance generally associated with train travel. There are no curtained compartments or brass-fitted hatboxes in the overhead bins. But still, it is plenty comfortable, if not luxurious, similar in design to an airline passenger cabin, but with more space and fewer features. It is also blessedly uncrowded, at 9:40 on a Wednesday morning, and I can nearly stretch my short legs out fully on the pair of seats while I lean against the window and watch the vaguely familiar landscape of
October is a good time to travel in
S is from
I sigh. I’m used to it by now.
“I’m not going for the nightlife. Really, I don’t care if these towns are the most boring, culturally bereft backwaters in the known universe. I don’t care if they don’t have museums, or beautiful vistas, or good restaurants, because I know there is exactly one thing they do have: hockey teams. Which just happens to be what I’m interested in at the moment.”
“You could go to
“I’m sure I’ll spend plenty of time there eventually, but right now, these are easier.”
He pauses, thinks for a moment. “I guess you have a point.” But then he shakes his head and laughs again. “Still…
As annoyed as I was at all the people who laughed at me when I outlined my grand plan, the thing that was going to save my hockey fandom from cynicism and disillusionment and the seemingly inevitable descent into a crotchety and hyper-nostalgic old age, I have to admit: I laughed at myself when I got off the train in Belleville. Only a few steps outside the station, in the parking lot, before I even reached the sidewalk, I stopped and started cracking up, not knowing why. And even after I recovered myself and continued walking, I couldn’t help but giggle all the way down
It is an unusually warm afternoon, far warmer here than it was in
Nevertheless, I realize now why this is funny. I make no sense in
I am told that there is a more proper downtown in
And my guess is, you never stayed. Maybe for a night, if you were really tired and couldn’t press on any further, but certainly you did little more than sleep. These places are not destinations, they’re waystations, places that those of us who consider ourselves cosmopolitan see as unnecessary intermediary filler between Point A and Point B. This is why my city-friends laughed at me, this is why I laugh at myself: because before hockey, there is no way I’d ever deliberately, intentionally go to
Yet this is not me before hockey. This is me after hockey. And here I am.
It was easy enough to say I was going to use this season to get out of the Habs-bubble, but somewhat more difficult to do. It is, in fact, virtually impossible to escape the Habs-bubble without escaping
This is my bubble. People who don’t live in hockey-consumed places wonder how I can spend so much time wrapped up in Habs-minutae, but I wonder how I could be here, be interested in hockey at all, and not be consumed by the team. It’s like quicksand, there’s just so much information and discussion to be had, that once you start following it, it seems impossible to avoid being sucked in.
By and large, I have few regrets about the depth of my Habs-fanaticism. Objectively, I think one gets more out of hockey- especially professional hockey- by being devoted to a team, rather than trying to be a ‘fan of the sport’. And subjectively, there is no other team I’d rather devote myself to, in part precisely because of the richness, complexity, and obsessive madness of Habs fan culture.
But after the disappointment of missing the playoffs last season, and the depression of watching ‘My Habs’ get pulled apart and stitched back together in the offseason, I realized that an NHL team is a poor foundation on which to build one’s love of hockey. While I still followed the NHL, still watched games as long as there were games to watch, without ahbabi I felt unmoored in and uninspired by the rest of the professional hockey world. Like being a guest at a fantastic party where you don’t know anyone, watching the NHL without my Habs’ perspective to look from just wasn’t as fun as it should have been. That was when I started thinking, maybe my relationship with the Canadiens isn’t entirely healthy.
So I have to get off this island. Coincidentally, seeing more of the hockey world will have to entail seeing more of the world generally, or at least, more of
From there, I map. I get big maps of
Apparently, yes I am:
- October 17th:
- October 19th: Carleton @ McGill (CIS)
- October 20th:
- October 21st: Concordia @ McGill (CIS)
- October 25th:
- October 28th:
- November 2nd:
- November 4th:
- November 7th:
- November 11th:
- November 14th:
- November 20th:
- November 23rd:
- November 24th:
- November 28th: Wilkes-Barr/Scranton @ Hamilton (AHL)
- November 29th:
- December 5th: Baie-Comeau @
- December 7th:
- December 9th:
- December 12th:
- December 14th: Sault Ste. Marie @ Kitchener (OHL)
- December 16th: Sault Ste. Marie @ Guelph (OHL)
- December 19th:
- December 23rd:
- December 29th:
- December 31st:
Outside, the Yardmen Arena looks like a shipping crate caught in the middle of asexual reproduction, spawning the adjacent Wally Dever Arena . Inside, it is half high school gymnasium and half mathom house. Leprechaun-green plastic seats line both lengths of the ice, perhaps 15 rows deep, with a small 2nd balcony above. The ends are standing room only on both levels, except for three ‘boxes’ sectioned off from the rest. Other than the seats and a couple of colored stripes along the cinderblock walls at the back, the entire thing is painted tan- top to bottom, as if they’d just dipped it in the world’s largest vat of brownish paint. But the color doesn’t matter much, because every available surface has been hung with something. Mostly it’s advertising, bright plastic signs promoting a whole range of products and services, but also a collection of commemorative banners and memorabilia from the days of
It’s a smallish arena and it isn’t full, but the audience is substantial for the space and buzzing happily enough to make it feel crowded. The atmosphere has a feeling that I find difficult to label, and when it comes to me, I am surprised: this reminds me of the Saturday morning church doughnut sales when I was in the third grade. Alone, I am an island of silence in a chattering sea. Everyone around me seems to know everyone else, people call and wave up and down the rows, lean over each other, talking eagerly to someone four seats down or two seats back. It is the universal talk of any community anywhere- of health, of children, of the weather in the season past or the season to come. I feel odd eavesdropping when the topics are often so intimate- should I really know about this gentleman’s daughter-in-law’s knee surgery?- but it’s inevitable, as though I am in the midst of a single mass conversation.
Comparative to the Habs games I’ve been to, the crowd here skews both older and younger. At the Bell Centre, most of the audience is comprised of men between the ages of 25 and 50- that sweet-spot nexus of maximum sports fandom and maximum disposable income. At the Yardmen Arena, however, whether due to the demographics of
They are loudish but not aggressive, and excessively noisemaker-happy. All the horns, cowbells, bam-bams, and rattles give the crowd noise an almost musical quality, albeit a sometimes very irritating one. There is a video scoreboard, and therefore there is pre-programmed music, but although I count at least 28 giant speakers hanging from the rafters, the building has miserable acoustics and whatever they pipe out of them doesn’t come through terribly clearly. Other than the trivia questions, which bring a smatter of shouted answers, and the highlight-reel clips of fights from previous games, people seem to mostly ignore the scoreboard displays, and the screen seems content to be ignored. Mostly it shows unobtrusive slideshows, more ads and photos of team events- here are the Bulls serving pizza at a diner, drawing with kids at an elementary school, showing middle-aged guys how to take a penalty shot; the future of the NHL.
Make no mistake, however, this is the future of the NHL. Some of them anyway. As a good hockey fan, I did my homework before coming here- the team’s record (6-1-1 at the time, good for 1st in their division and 4th overall), the top scorers, the goalie stats, and of course, who’d been drafted. Without even thinking, I know one of their players: the ironically-initialled P.K. Subban, defenseman and Habs’ 2nd round pick last draft. The Belleville Bulls, in fact, seem to be a breeding ground for 2nd round picks. I figure that must be a good thing for a junior team- after all, 1st round picks are much more likely to get taken away to the big show immediately, leaving the baby team struggling, while a 2nd round pick is still a pretty good player who will nevertheless be left where he is to develop further. In addition to Subban, who I’m already affectionately thinking of as ‘one of my guys’, there’s potential Panthers, Ducks, Stars, and Kings here, including one bachche whose already been traded once (Shawn Matthias, drafted by
As the game goes on, and the crowd begins to speak more of the things in front of them rather than those at home, this tension is evident. Behind me, a kid is trying to remember the sequence of development that these players pass through, reciting it as an inevitable trajectory: midget, junior, AHL, NHL. A woman down the row tries to remind him of the anomalies- that some players skip straight to the NHL, while others never get there at all, some play in other minor leagues, some go to college, but the boy rattles off the list of ex-Bulls that meet his prototypical standard and she laughs and concedes the point. For him, the movement on to the NHL is the raison d’etre of the team, part of the attraction is the belief that the people he’s seeing now- live, in person- will later be the ones he sees on CBC on Saturdays. They are, in a sense, already professional hockey players who’ve simply not played their first game yet. However, next to me, an older man is telling his friend that this is the only hockey that’s really worth watching. These kids, he says, haven’t been corrupted by the system yet. They’re in it for the team and the joy of the game, the sheer thrill of playing and the childish dream of being able to play forever. This is real hockey. The fact that they leave it, move on to become professionals and millionaires, is to be lamented, not anticipated.
It is a difficult game for me to watch. It is surprisingly different from the kind of watching I am accustomed to, and in spite of all my research, I am utterly lost for at least forty minutes. Somewhere along the line, I became an excruciatingly analytical hockey fan. I watch games now for a hundred difficult-to-see details that I nevertheless find critically important- I try to catch line matches and play systems, watch a whole range of individual players for style and positioning, tally scoring chances, giveaways, blocked shots in my head. I didn’t used to watch games this way, but somehow- without even realizing it- I came to assume that this was the proper way to watch hockey. It doesn’t interfere with my ability to enjoy it on an entertainment level, in that I still bounce and cheer at a good play and roll my eyes and swear at a bad one, but it does mean that most of the time my attention is devoted to being able to claim a very particular understanding of the game.
Not that I’m good at it. I’m not, I know I’m not. My speed of perception is still not nearly fast enough to keep up with the rate that events happen in hockey, and my emotions where the Habs are concerned exert a powerful distortion field over everything I see. But I want to watch analytically, I want to be able to feel I am seeing the game truly and clearly, I want to form opinions and perceptions that will hold up in arguments with much more knowledgeable and experienced fans. I know I’m not an expert, but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t aspire to some sort of eventual expertise. Part of expertise is the acquisition of information, knowing certain stories and certain statistics, but the larger part of it is a particular discipline of attention, a way of watching.
With my Habs, I am getting there, getting close to the ability to see the salient parts of a game and compare them to other games. This is, in essence, the reason I’ve always done the recaps- not to inform others, but to train myself, and train myself not to summarize a game but to evaluate it, to be able to discern in it not just it’s own nature but the past and the future, the threads and trajectories it implies. I’m getting better at it, I can see that when I look back over my recaps- however frivolously or casually offered, my comments are getting incrementally more original and more confident, and- I’d like to think- slowly- more insightful.
But I didn’t realize until the
And they are absolutely fucking useless for watching the Belleville Bulls. It is, for one, a different team, and I am back to struggling to identify who is who from shift to shift. It is difficult to even remember who they are, much less their line and approximately how many minutes they get. Moreover, it is a different level of play, and although the skill level is still high, my expectations are too much higher- the kids are noticeably less defensively sensible than their elders, more prone to overzealous offensive showing-off. At first I find myself being hyper-critical, until I realize that I’m simply applying the wrong standard for this context. And finally, I am simply too close for my customary analysis. My seat is good objectively- center ice, roughly just above glass-level- but it is far closer than I’ve ever seen a Habs game, and without the high, steep angle afforded by the television camera or the cheap seats, I cannot see the positioning the way I am accustomed to, and for all practical purposes, that means I can’t see it at all. And I’m trying. I’m trying, and failing miserably. I can see the game, but I feel blind to the reality of it, my perception infantile, understanding nothing but a senseless whirl of color, shape, and sound.
It was a long way to come not to be able to see anything.
It was a good game, the home team won, and Subban had an interesting night with an assist and something like 14 minutes of penalties, mostly for fighting. But I walk back to my motel disappointed. What, after all, is the point of getting out of my bubble, only to find out that I carry it with me, that the real bubble was in my own eyes, my own brain, all along? Sure, maybe I could break it in a year of watching the Bulls, I could learn to watch them similarly. But one game? What’s the point of going to one game?
I have lost my sense of hockey as an experience rather than a discipline. Leaving aside the emotional aspects, my Habs fandom is far too analytical, but that is the nature of the beast. Express simple feelings, as such, about the team and you’ll get yourself laughed out of any gathering of self-respecting Habistanis. No, the Habs are such an important and complicated cultural phenomenon that no one can get away with merely liking them- you have to love them, worship them, obsess over them, and if you’re going to talk about them, you damn well better know your details and know them correctly. The Habs are a team to be watched intently, always with an eye towards forming an opinion- do I think Huet or Price should be the starter? Kostitsyn or Grabovski in the line-up? Ryder: to bench or not to bench? I must have a view on such things, or at least an understanding of the reasons the question is being asked and the views on each side- this is the common custom of hardcore professional sports fanaticism. If you can’t argue, you’re not really even there.
But this structural, point-counterpoint style is something we’ve learned as fans, from endless newspaper op-ed columns, from talk radio, from intermission panel discussions on sports networks. There is more to fandom then knowledge, more even then passion. There is, or there should be, a pleasure in it, one that comes without the burden of playing endless fantasy-GM games in one’s mind all the damn time. If all one wants is something to analyze, there’s a whole world of sciences and studies out there, countless opportunities to test and stretch one’s observational and logical abilities. There is, in fact, no reason that hockey can’t be one of those fields, but in reducing it to that- to a theory, as the title states- I suddenly feel like I’ve missed the point. Like the professional players that my seat-neighbor was criticizing, I’ve kept the sport but lost the game. I’ve lost my own sense of play, the joy that comes just from showing up, the part that doesn’t worry about being right or wrong, good or bad, smart or dumb, but only wants to be around hockey for the sake of being around hockey.
Regardless of whether I ever learn to watch and judge junior hockey, or minor league hockey, or kid’s hockey or adult amateur hockey or women’s hockey or college hockey, by their respective proper standards, whether I ever successfully remember the names of the players and their individual skill sets, whether I even see most of these teams more than once, I am still going to learn from this. And what I’ll learn is not just about differnt kinds of hockey and different experiences of watching it, but to experience a single game in-itself. Deprived of past or future, part of no story that I can identify, these games are little more than cheap flings, hockey one-night-stands. Once upon a time, I imagined this project as yet another self-improvement exercise, one that would enrich and expand my understanding of hockey. Maybe it will, but if it does, it’ll be in a roundabout, indirect way, and it’ll take a long time. Meanwhile, all I can do is enjoy the journey. All I can do is play around.
Please understand, ahbabi, I don’t want to break up with you. I’ll still watch all your games and come to visit you whenever I can afford it (you are such an expensive date). I just think we should try an open relationship. After all, I know you’ve been seeing millions of other fans (hell, you outright flaunt your relationship with those RDS hussies), it’s only fair that I have the occasional fling with another team. But you’ll always be my first love, although I know you can never return the feeling. You'll always be the team I come home to.