But not for one more day. Although the Habs have played their final game, this is still technically the regular season, and in this last quiet moment before the maelstrom hits, I want to look backward and inward. Regardless of what happens in the next two months, this has been an amazing hockey season for
It sounds hyperbolic, doesn’t it? After all, on the wide historical scale of all the teams that have ever been in athletic competition, the 2007-2008 Canadiens are not anywhere close to perfection. Hell, they’re not even the most perfect team on the scale of their own franchise’s history. They’ve been successful, sure, but they’ve had all kinds of problems, and in spite of their record not many outside the circles of the devout are jumping to declare them the Stanley Cup champions-to-be. They’re nobody’s ideal of a Cup winning team, and you’ll hear all the reasons repeated ad nauseum before the playoffs start- too small, too soft, too many kids, too few stars. It doesn’t matter if these things are true, they’re enough to knock these Canadiens a couple notches down from candidacy for eventual beatification. Even if they do make it through the war of attrition get to skate around the Bell Centre, battered and grinning, with the holiest-of-holies hoisted in sweat-slicked palms, they still wouldn’t be quite the stuff that feeds hockey’s preferred mythos of winning. They’d be seen as the fluky team, the ill-starred (or more accurately, un-starred) children of a League made mediocre by parity.
Today, though, I’m not talking about winning. The weeks to come are going to be all about winning, I’m going to be as consumed by it as everyone else, but the fact is that sports are not really about winning. They can’t possibly be, because the vast majority of any sport at any time is losing. By the time June rolls around, all but a select few among NHL players and fans will be losers. And it’ll be the same next year. And the year after that. And even if you win in that third year, you’re still going to lose again. The average fan or player of any sport anywhere will experience considerably more losing than winning in their lifetime. If being a sports fan was all about vicarious winning, we all would have given up and transferred our attention to global geopolitics long ago, because you’ve probably got a better chance of picking the winning side in your average civil war than in your average hockey game. Winning is the day-to-day fix and the occasional big thrill, but it’s not what keeps us coming back year after year.
Nobody really knows why we have sports. It’s an odd phenomenon, even in the realm of entertainment. We pay certain people vast sums of money to engage in essentially the same basic physical competition over and over and over again, and no matter how many times we see it, we always want to see more. A television show would get canceled in a month if it was as formulaic as a hockey game. A movie would bomb if the performances were as wooden as those of your average stay-at-home defenseman. But the same things that would bore us to tears in a fictional setting thrill us in sports. And so people say sometimes that sports are not entertainment, but something deeper- a sublimated form of war, a vent for excess testosterone, a representation of national or cultural values. Here’s my theory:
Sport is metaphor.
A lot of people hate sports metaphors, of course, and there’s no better way to annoy the non-fan in your life then by interjecting one into the middle of an otherwise serious conversation. Try breaking it off with a lover using a lengthy analogy about Ray Bourque’s demand to be traded from the Bruins; you’re going to end the night in an alley next to the smoldering pile that used to be your clothes. Some people don’t get it. But for the fan, I think, the metaphors are the addicting element, the thing that makes the sport not merely pleasurable but intellectually important and emotionally essential.
The game takes place in a metaphorical world. It is akin to reality, in some ways, but it is a simplified, contained, controlled version of it- a representation of human social life reduced to its most basic parts. It is a performance in a space, defined by both arbitrary rules and natural laws, wherein actors work, both cooperatively and competitively, towards concrete immediate goals and, simultaneously, nebulous long-range aspirations, encountering a variety of obstacles, limitations, and oppositions along the way. It is an unscripted parable playing out in real time. As such, it is no surprise that in our psychological worlds there is a free interplay between sports and real life- take a spin around the hockey blogs on any given day, and you’ll find aspects of the sport described by analogies with law, religion, family, love, nationalism, history, and even, on rare occasion, baseball. A fan can use virtually everything else in the world as a metaphor for hockey- and hockey, in turn, as a metaphor for virtually anything else.
For me, then, part of what defines a remarkable team is not just the quality of its play but the quality of the story it tells, the ideas you can derive from it by analogy. And by this standard, these Habs have been fascinating all season long. I’ve learned a lot from them; not necessarily things I didn’t know before, but- as with any parable- familiar lessons represented in iconic fashion. For example:
The lesson of Alexei Kovalev: Even incredible individual talents benefit from a collaborative spirit.
The lesson of Bob Gainey: The right decision is often unpopular.
The lesson of an improved home record, improved third period play, improved penalty killing, and improved secondary scoring: Marginal changes can accumulate to have major consequences.
The lesson of a 3-1 record against the New Jersey Devils: History is not destiny.
The lesson of a team with six French Canadians, five Anglo Canadians, three Americans, three Belarusians, two Russians, two Czechs, a Swiss, a Finn, a Slovak, and an erstwhile French-from-France Frenchman: A good community is about common aspirations, not common backgrounds.
The lesson of a devious power play and a gorgeous passing game: Working intelligently is just as important as working hard.
The lesson of Matheiu Dandenault: An unfavorable situation, handled gracefully and responsibly, can turn out for the better.
The lesson of Chris Higgins: Lack of immediate results is no excuse not to keep trying.
The lesson of Saku Koivu: Leadership is the ability to make others better.
The lesson of February 19th: Ten minutes from now, everything might be completely different.
I could go on, but you get the idea. That is the real beauty of the 2007-2008 Montreal Canadiens: they’re not just a very good hockey team, they’re an incredible confluence of metaphors. Most of the time, the last thing you’d ever want to suggest is that people emulate hockey behavior in everyday life- taken too literally, ‘punch people who disrespect you’ and ‘just ignore that shooting pain in your spine’ aren’t exactly principles to live by. But these Habs are the exception. A life lived the way they played this season- with tenacity, intensity, joy, and sustained good faith- would be an excellent life.
At least, if you leave out the drunken purse-snatching part.