Tuesday, February 19, 2008

2-19-08: Canadiens 6, Rangers 5

This was a first.

First time ever.

The Montreal Canadiens are 99 years old. 99 years, in addition to being a cool number, is a very, very long time in hockey terms. Their age makes the Habs somewhat distinctive in a number of ways, but most particularly in that they are a team defined by their past rather than their present. Habistan is, for the most part, a nostalgic and world-weary place; Habistanis a dour folk, enthusiastic but fundamentally unimpressed by the good games of any ordinary season and the small triumphs of any ordinary player. The records have all been set and reset, all the bests and greatests were defined long ago. Most nights, the best a current Hab can do is try to be worthy, try not to provoke the lingering suspicion that he is an embarrassment to the legacy. The fans look down on the current teams as though seeing them through the wild, sepia-toned eyes of Maurice Richard, or peering bemusedly through Ken Dryden’s mask. In these latter days, in the era after parity and expansion, there may be faint possibility of equaling or surpassing the quantitative achievements of the past, but there is little hope of replicating their scale or their import. It’s a cruel paradox: more statistics are tracked now than ever before, there are more ways that a player can become lord of his own special numeric niche, yet fewer and fewer of the achievements seem meaningful; the small triumphs of the present serve only to throw into sharper relief the impossible triumphs of the past.

Even when they do well, the implicit comparison is always there. The slightest stumble and someone is immediately sighing in a bar or screaming over the radio certain cruel truths. That Carey Price is not Patrick Roy, Mike Komisarek isn’t Larry Robinson, Saku Koivu isn’t Jean Beliveau, Gui(llaume) Latendresse sure as hell ain’t no Guy Lafleur. The Bell Centre isn’t the Forum. And this team, even at its best, isn’t going to go 60-8-12, or whatever the equivalent would be in this day. Of course the comparisons are unfair, but that is in itself the sorrow, the sense that all the wonders are behind us; that even our joy in current success is just acquiescence and compromise. Nowadays, Habs fans will settle for competence, but not without the gnawing, disquieting knowledge that their long-deferred birthright is dominance.

So do not underestimate what it means to this community to bear witness to a genuine first. Last night, for the first time in 99 years, the Montreal Canadiens came back from a 5-0 deficit to win a game. On one of our nights, in our building, on our televisions, right before our very eyes, they did something that was never done on Forum ice, something that was never done by Richard or Lafleur or Roy, something that even the greatest of the great Cup teams never did. Something that has only happened very rarely anywhere in the NHL, and that is especially rare in the modern hockey world where most nights belong to the 3-2 game. Our boys. Our Habs. Our Montreal Canadiens.

***

Being down 5-0 is death. That is a certain loss. The best teams in the League playing all-out offense for a full 60 minutes will still struggle to get 5 goals. So believe me when I say that, by the time Drury was celebrating the Ranger’s 5th unanswered point only five minutes into the 2nd period, everyone thought this was over. Everyone. Everyone at the Bell Centre, everyone in Montreal, everyone in New York, everyone skimming the scores at nhl.com. I don’t care how devout, how idealistic, or how naïve you claim to be, at 25:03 into this game you knew it was over. Even the 3-year-olds in Youppi! suits who call every player SAKKOO and enjoy games mostly for the bright lights and loud noises knew the Habs were totally fucked. Even the teenage girls in pink jerseys, the fat guys with hairy painted bellies, the drunken CEGEP boys in the cheap seats- none of them were so much as holding out hope for an OT point.

The Rangers came into the game swaggering, undefeated against the Habs all season long and some intimating that they intended to make this game a sound beating both on the score sheet and along the boards. They were going to sweep us, literally and metaphorically, sweep us away from first place, under the rug, back down to the rest of the pack. They would give us a potential post-season match-up to dread. And at first, they fulfilled all the worst omens implicit in the match.

Everything that could go wrong, did. Carey Price, the goalie-prodigy, the hot hand, the Future of the Franchise, after three solid-to-great games, was abruptly pulled after letting in 3 goals on 11 shots. Mike Komisarek, who the Habs’ often rely upon to act with the implacable authority that can only be commanded by someone of his size, was getting riled by the Rangers’ thumpers and agitators and taking impulsive penalties- as was Alexei Kovelev, their leading scorer and steering force of their most potent offensive line. Lundqvist, in net for NYR, was cold and sharp, although few of the Canadiens’ shots reached him anyway. And New York was playing ingeniously, opportunistically, and above all arrogantly- seemingly taking advantage of every misdirected pass, every ill-coordinated rush, every penalty, every giveaway. At the end of the first, their rookie Dubinsky challenged Komisarek to a pointless fight, solely for the purpose of transforming his goal and his assist into a Gordie Howe hat trick, probably thinking that he would be the night’s biggest story. In short, the Habs’- in spite of playing a fairly competent, contentious game- were apparently being destroyed on both the level of skill and the level of luck, and by the time they were down 5 goals, the only thing in doubt was whether it was worse to be incompetent or cursed.

It was good, though, that the worst happened, because there is nothing more liberating than failure. This does not just apply to hockey, but any situation in life- there is a moment, just after the thing one dreads the most has finally come to pass, when the tension breaks and the sense of destitution is replaced by a sense of boundless freedom. Because it turns out that the thing you imagine to be the worst possible scenario is never actually the worst possible scenario- it happens, and then it’s over, and you look around and realize that the world hasn’t ended. Life goes on anyway. It is in those situations, more than any others, when you learn who you really are- by what you do when you have nothing either to lose or to gain, when you have no fear of any worse consequences but neither any hope for redemption.

The interesting thing, then, about watching what happened when the Habs hit rock-bottom less than halfway through this game is the way they all reverted to their hockey varnashrama dharma- their natural style. For all its chaos, professional hockey is very much a system of designated roles, both formal and informal, to which a player is assigned based on aptitude, age, experience, team necessity, and occasionally personal preference. In other words, every player on a hockey team has his own unique game, a game which arises at the nexus of his own talent and the possible uses of that talent vis-à-vis his teammates. On a well-built team, of course, the varna assigned to a player is very closely consonant with his natural talent and previous training. Struggling teams, on the other hand, must often use players in unnatural or awkward ways, simply because they have too many of one sort of piece (rookies, checkers, defensemen) and too few of another (enforcers, scoring forwards, left wingers). Add to that the natural desire of many players to ‘improve’ or ‘adapt’ themselves by trying to force skills or styles that are not comfortable for them, and one realizes that the average hockey team actually has a large number of skaters playing in something other than their optimal style on any given night. Sometimes that’s okay. Hockey ethics, generally speaking, are an ethics of constant struggle for increased domination both over the self and of others, closer to Nietzsche and Machiavelli than the Bhagavad Ghita.

But when the worst happened, the Habs in some way didn’t start fighting harder but stopped struggling and played on instinct. Each of them, in turn, seemed to tune out from the Rangers, gave up any hope that any particular offensive or defensive action would turn the tide. Facing 30+ minutes of pointless hockey left to play, they stopped trying to make the play they should and simply made the plays that they were, each according to his nature, his kind of hockey.

It began with Begin, who is the epitome of perfect complicity with his hockey-varna, for he never varies his game. Up or down, win or loss, healthy or hurting, every night he touches blades to ice he plays basically the same game, the only game he has. This is probably why fans love him so, because he can be counted on to deliver the same brand of merry brutality with determined regularity. And in a game like this, when everyone else seems deflated and discouraged, that boundless energy and unwavering reliability are more comforting than anything else. Watching him thwack his way around the boards, as he always does, inevitably makes one wonder why every player can’t be so consistent, so blithely insensitive to context. Certainly, it seemed to make a few Habs wonder that, and having no good answer, his ethic spread in a way it rarely does.

Begin himself, though, even at his best, just isn’t good enough to turn the tide of a game single-handed. Michael Ryder, on the other hand, is. The Habs’ streakiest player at any time, Ryder has been having a terrible season where every unsuccessful game seemed to spawn a worse one two nights later. His natural style had been almost entirely lost to a series of failed attempts to emulate teammates, to be a hitter, to be a playmaker, to be something other than what he is, and the results have not been pretty. He’s been demoted. He’s been scratched. He’s the focal point of nearly every trade rumor to sprout up featuring Montreal. If he doesn’t go within the week, it is a near certainty he will go over the summer. He is, where the Canadiens’ franchise is concerned, virtually gone already. He is the skating dead.

Ryder’s great virtue, probably his only exceptional virtue as a hockey player, is his shot. On a good night, he has the team’s quickest, surest release, and can on occasion incarnate the mysterious and dazzling power of the true finisher, the sniper. Coaches often advise their players to keep it simple, but simple is different for different men. For Ryder, keeping it simple means shooting- however improbable the angle, however narrow the window, however awkward the available lane, if he shoots enough his natural talent will come through and he will complete the chances that others might blow. So when he gave up his ambitions and anxieties and reverted to type, he shot. And he scored.

One goal in a 5-0 game still does not bring much hope of a win, but it is often enough to arouse the team’s sense of pride, the hockey player arrogance that knows that although there is no difference in the standings between 5-0 and 5-3, it is morally wrong to go down gently. Even if you can’t win, you can send a message, you can do whatever it is you do best and at least let them know that you are in the NHL for a reason, you will not be steamrolled like a bunch of indifferent amateurs.

What we saw, in this game, was the best of what this team- these Habs- have to offer. Not the best they could be, not the realization of the potential that might someday pull them within reach of the Cup, but the best they could be at exactly that moment, the best game that each of them had in him. And it wasn’t perfect. But it was intense, and fascinating, and truer in a way than any regular season match has a right to be. A sometimes glorious, sometimes awkward group, they still play many nights without a strong sense of articulated team-ness, as parts in search of the whole, but this game gave tantalizing hints of how those parts might come together to be more than merely sufficient. It showed that they can, maybe someday, maybe someday sooner than we thought, be extraordinary.

Lapierre charging towards the opposing net with the overexcited arrogance of the best kid on the pond in a last-goal wins game. Sergei Kostitsyn rattling around the offensive zone like a playful ping-pong ball as though as if he’s still in London on his way to the Memorial Cup; his brother Andrei no less eager, but using his speed with a more precise, elegant, proto-Kovalevian reverence for aesthetics. O’Byrne, a fluid skater for his size, watching the action with a slightly amused detachment, not certain if this is really his team yet or not, but taking his cues readily and naturally from Hamrlik, his more assured defensive partner.

Higgins, slightly neurotic but careful of everything, leaping forward into the play when the opportunity strikes, yet always with half his attention on the play behind rather than ahead. Plekanec, buzzing in truly beelike circles in front of the net, attuned to the rhythm of the play as if always waiting to step in on the next downbeat. Komisarek, covering the Ranger’s breaks with the positional deliberation of a skating goalie, acting as the immovable object to Markov’s unstoppable force.

Koivu, setting up beautiful plays even if half of them are for ghosts, playing every moment he has the puck as if it’s an assist just waiting to be counted. And Kovalev doing the opposite, shooting seemingly every time he’s in a circle, the only shots he seems to take anymore, determined that any loss this season will be in spite of him and not because of him, shooting so emphatically that he ends up lying on the ice after both his goals.

And you could hear the crowd, even on the television, howling and shrieking in a modern-day imitation of the way German tribesmen used raging screams to terrify invading Roman armies. The fans know they cannot really affect what happens on the ice- like a battle, a hockey game is won on strength, skill, and strategy, not noise- but they do the only thing they can, the same thing that Habs fans have always done for Habs in the long, tumultuous history of the alliance between city and team. They made that arena into another world, a sonic universe unlike any that any opposition has ever played in, shook the I-beams with sound waves and let it be known what it really means to visit our building. They drowned out the ice noise, and it was only the advantages of broadcast technology and his own excitement that kept Pierre’s frantic, tumbling play-by-play from getting lost as well.

They won. They played hopeless and desperate, they played only because they had to kill the remaining time, but they won. The shootout came and Saku scored and Huet held and they crowded each other into a group hug that left them looking like a giant, grinning, bleu-blanc-rouge amoeba. For about a few minutes, they were the happiest team that the NHL has seen all season, a ball of pure joy, and the excitement that had built in the Bell Centre broke over them in one great wave of ecstatic adulation. It was perfect.

***

It doesn’t mean as much as it should.

It should, of course, be a sign, an omen, a turning point. A game like this should mean something. It should be a message to the rest of the League, a giant fuck you from the Montreal Canadiens to all the opposition who think they can put them down readily, to all the analysts who counted them out from the beginning of the season, to all the perennial hecklers and skeptics who call themselves loyal fans.

It’s a week before the trade deadline, and I want to believe such a game meant that this is a strong team, a team complete enough to make their run intact and on their own merits. They’ve earned something, not just with this performance but with their performance all year, with the way they’ve consistently exceeded expectations, faced their flaws one by one and slowly improved on most of them. I wanted to believe that Bob Gainey looked down on that massive hug with his weary eyes and saw in them the sparks of what he’s been trying to build all along. Perhaps this was enough to make him believe in them too, with a tiny fragment of the earnestness with which the crowd in that building and in every sports bar in the city believed in them for that moment.

Such is foolishness. Gainey is a careful, rational, and unsentimental GM. If he thought a roster move was good for the team last week, he’ll still think so next week, for any decision he makes is made only after detailed analysis and long consideration. He will, with the pragmatism of his profession, see this game as the freak accident, the statistical outlier that it is, and make his trade decisions based on the preponderance of evidence rather than the feeling of the moment. So although it seems horrific to think of trading Ryder or Huet after their key performances in this first-ever event, I know that if Bob doesn’t trade them it will only be because he couldn’t find sufficient returns. And ultimately, I am grateful for that, painful though it is. I do not want a GM who will make sentimental decisions- this isn’t a movie, and the big championship at the end will not be won by the team with the spunkiest underdogs or the most heartwarming moments. It’ll be won by the team with the best luck and the savviest management.

However, although this game was ultimately meaningless in the context of this particular season, that does not mean it was unimportant. In a long season, even a long postseason, single extraordinary games are almost always meaningless- they are, after all, no more significant in the columns of Ws and Ls because of how they happened. But the lack of significance they have in their particular time and place is balanced by the tremendous significance they take on for people over much longer time frames and much greater distances. A single extraordinary game is one of the most potent things in a hockey fan’s- any kind of fan’s- memory, the details of these events hold a visceral power that ultimately trumps all the in-season minutiae- this player’s +/-, that goalie’s save % in the past 6 games.

In the course of my own hockey fandom, I have heard many tales of extraordinary games and their consequences, good and bad. The Richard riot. The Habs vs. the Red Army. Roy’s final game. Koivu’s return. The stories about these games- and a thousand more valued for more personal, idiosyncratic reasons- are much of the substance of Habs fandom. They form our sense of how we know the team, even the versions of it that existed well before our own personal experience. For hockey fans, great individual games are the texture of memory.

I have often wondered what story I would someday tell, when I am of the elder generation and I am trying to explain to others what it means to be a fan of this particular team. Before, the best I had was the last game of last season, a story so sad I would rather remain silent than tell it. But now, I can imagine telling a story. Someday, I will be old and gray and sitting beneath the rafters in section 679 of the Molson MegaCentre, squinting down with tired eyes as the 149th incarnation of the Montreal Canadiens staggers out of a depressing 2nd period down 3-0. I will watch the naïve thirtysomethings around me groan and shake their heads and whine about how the team hasn’t been the same since Aatos retired. And I will pause for a moment my endless complaints about how the 3-D holographic scoreboard and frictionless puck have ruined the sport, and look up at the forest of shimmering red and white banners adorning the ceiling, and remember everything ahbabi have been and could yet be. If I have a function in all of this, if there is anything that I can do for this team, anything I can give in gratitude for all they have given me, it is only memory. So I will turn to the skeptical, disheartened teenager in the next seat, and I will fulfill my varnashrama dharma. I will tell a story.

This story.

3 comments:

Julian said...

Yeah, it's times like this when I feel so out of the loop all the way out here. Not that I necessarily would have been watching the game had I been in more appropriate timezone (there was an oilers game on at the same time), but I might have at least caught wind of it and switched over, or done something to feel a little more connected to the hockey fandom world at large, instead of waking up and slowly realizing the magnitude of the story.

And that bit about the habs long defered birthright being dominance is actually the reason they're my second favourite team, The Game and my own father's bias notwithstanding, I guess I have such a thing for history and tradition that in a lot of cases I'll actually root for the favourite over the underdog. Same reason I tend to pull for Brazil during the World Cup, I get this feeling that their supporters have this arrogant "this is our game, we're the only team that should ever really win" attitude that I like, for some bizzare reason. Maybe I just feel sorry for them, fans that have been spoiled and then been cut off.

Yamp said...

I think this game was a gift. I like this team, really. Each and every player (well, almost! ;)). I cheer for them, am sadden by their misfortune or slump, jump up and down with excitement when I witness their realization, their good luck or simply their beautiful play. I feel like it's my team, like I know each player somewhat more than I should rationnally think.

The Trade Deadline is coming fast. I know I will surely lose a few member of that team I feel is mine. It's how hockey is, how Gainey is, and I know it's the right thing to do for him, but I still feel angered and sad that I'm not gonna be able to cheer for a player I like anymore, because he'll be gone. I'd want to say "Don't break my team apart"! There will probably be the new guy, which I know I will be reluctant to accept at first, but will most likely grow to love like I love all the Habs now. I probably would have been more upset now if it weren't for this game. Now at least I know I'll have something to hold on to to remind me of this precise combination of player that I have learn to love.

This team, the one I feel so close to, will remain the team that came back from a 5-0 loss. Each player immortalized in this brief moment.

I'm ready for the change now... Bring it on! ;)

E said...

julian- i think that, more than anything, is what makes the habs and habs fandom different from [team x] fandom in the generic. there's something compelling about the arrogance, the sense of entitlement, and the long series of justifications that underlie it. that's what i tell myself, anyway, when i'm trying to justify why it's this team i love and not the sabres.

yamp- i know exactly what you mean, i felt the same way last year. from the perspective of marginally more experience, you do learn to love the new guys, although it takes time. but you don't have to stop cheering for ex-habs when they leave. sure, you have a moral conundrum when they play us, but in general you can still keep an eye on their careers and celebrate their successes. hell, i still give a little whoop for samsonov or bonk or rivet when the autres matches scores come up during intermissions and i see that they've picked up a point. i still think of them as my guys, even though they've gone into exile.