Friday, April 11, 2008

Speed of Lightning, Roar of Thunder...

It's not a game night for me. This is Friday, the closest thing Habs fans have to a traditional night off, the calm before Le Hockey du Samedi Soir. It's a night to do other things. I should have gone out to dinner, or checked to see if there were any good shows. But instead, I went to the hockey cafe. I'm spending the night with my eyes glued to the big TV behind the bar, exactly the way they were yesterday and will be tomorrow. I went out to watch the game.

The Capitals-Flyers game.

Sens-Pens is on the other TV, the smaller one at the back, and no one is watching it. This time last year, that series would have been The One To Watch, the glamor match-up. Crosby! Heatley! Malkin! Spezza! There's way more star power on the small screen. Tonight, though, it seems like nobody has so much as a glance to spare for it. Maybe at the commercial break. Maybe.

The Capitals have captivated the hockey world. They are the bandwagon team of choice for fans who've lost their first loves to an early summer. Even those of us who have a team still in contention, and therefore more important things to worry about than the middle frame of an early game in an alternate series, are attracted.

I'm not rooting for the Capitals. I can't. This is no time of year for divided loyalties. But I'm not rooting against them, and I should be. All evidence suggests that they'd give the Canadiens more trouble in a later-round meeting than Philadelphia would. Indeed, the Flyers are second only to the Bruins on the list of probable easiest teams for us to beat. If the Flyers advance, the odds favor us in the second round. The guy behind the bar, a more pure-hearted Habistani than I, dances when the Flyers score. But I'm disappointed.

The Capitals are compelling because they're underdogs, and we all know that sports fans love an underdog story. There's nothing that brings out the irrational hope and unconditional affection in even the most cynical of us like a team winning that has no business doing so. But why? Sports fans are supposed to admire excellence, aren't we? That's why we're here watching the NHL teams compete for the Stanley Cup, instead of ECHL teams competing for whatever it is they compete for at the end of the season- a tournament which might well feature just as much heart and even more physical play than the spectacle now on TSN. We watch this level of hockey because we care about quality, because we want to see elite play. We want to see THE BEST win.

Except that we don't. If that were true, Detroit would be everyone's darlings. By virtually every standard yet devised, the Red Wings were the best team in the best league in the world this season. They're the elite of the elite. If winning records and consistent excellence of play really impressed us as much as we claim they do, our hearts would be fluttering for Lidstrom and Zetterberg, not Ovechkin and Backstrom. But no. Even as people far and wide predict that Detroit or San Jose will take the Cup, they don't discuss them with half the swooning, dreamy quality they talk about Washington with. Even though the Capitals only scraped into the playoffs on the last day of the season, even though they were one small step away from being as irrelevant as Vancouver this April, even though they are by almost no quantitative standard one of the really superior teams, everyone is fascinated by them.

It's a self-punishing thing to root for an underdog, because by pure logic, it's unlikely that they'll succeed. Most of the time they don't. Yet the triumphant long-shot remains the most universal and perennial sports story. Has anyone ever made a movie or written a novel about a team anticipated to be elite who play exceptionally well all season and cap off their dominance with a well-earned championship win? Nope. Almost all sports stories are about misfit rosters who begin in incompetence, slowly improve with a lot of luck and a lot of humorous-but-spiritually-enriching setbacks, and then just barely eke out a win over that elite, deserving team in the final seconds of the final game of the big tournament. In fact, the elite team is usually portrayed as outright evil, such that you feel it is not only narratively satisfying but morally right that the scrappy erstwhile losers sneak away with the trophy.

It's easy enough to see why people, as human beings, find the underdog sports story so appealing. Most of us are never going to be truly elite at anything in our lives. The experience of embarrassing awkwardness is far more widespread then the experience of excellence. The underdog story gives us hope that with good fortune and hard work, people can achieve more than they should be able to. These tales democratize sports, cancel out the tyranny of the genetically superior, and let us imagine that strength of will can win out over strength of body. It's very understandable why flawed, ordinary people are attracted to tales of seemingly flawed, ordinary teams who triumph anyway.

What I still don't fully understand is why sports fans are so attracted to them. If you're into sports, you spend at least 90% of your time respecting and admiring elite genetic freaks for the sheer fact that they are elite genetic freaks. You lust and fawn over born winners. If you have any sense, you want your team to be that bastion of incontrovertible superiority. You want the superstar UFA, the #1 draft pick. You might love a hard-working grinder on a personal level, but in your capacity as fan, your real craving is for a team of Supermen in your favored jersey. All season long, that's how we think, that's what we want. Then, the playoffs roll around, and everyone wants to root for the underdog. If underdog-ness is really so appealing, you'd think we'd hope for our teams to be bubble teams, we'd be gunning for that roster that just screams '7th-10th place'. But we don't.

It's the schizophrenia of sports fandom. We have a regular season, which is (ideally) supposed to be long and balanced, to give each team sufficient opportunity to show their capabilities through clear, rational, quantifiable, replicable evidence. And then we have the playoffs, where we toss all of that out of the window and give literally every team that's even half-good a shot at the only prize that really matters. All that solid, sensible data gone, in favor of a limited, elimination competition where hot streaks and good bounces can mean a hell of a lot more than intrinsic ability. The first season you can't win without being truly better in a sustained way against a variety of opponents. The second season you can win by being no more than 51% better in sixteen games against four other teams. The first season is the domain of demonstrable, consistent skill; the second is the domain of the beloved and dreaded intangibles- mojo, luck, momentum, heart, passion, toughness. Guess which season we give the real award for.

True, Ovechkin's amazing regular-season performance does something to mitigate the Capital's underdog quality, gives them a bright streak of 'elite'. Certainly Boston (an 8th seed heavily unfavored in their first round series) and Nashville (another last-minute success story, and one with a truly bargain-basement roster) have equally legitimate claims to underdog status that haven't brought them a lot of love from fans outside their home territory. But similarly, no superstar on a more successful team has gotten the same level of inter-franchise adulation that Ovechkin has. It's a chicken-or-the-egg question: Are the Capitals more beloved because they have a transcendently elite player? Or is Ovechkin more beloved because he plays for an underdog team?

The Capitals take the lead, then lose it, then come back to tie, a moment which brings scattered whoops and shouts of 'Let's go, boys!' from the assembled Montrealers. Nobody in this room should be rooting for Washington, either as Habs fans or as rational sports fans. But it's the playoffs, and it turns out that our deeper affection isn't for statistical superiority demonstrated over 82 regular games, or even the best interests of our own team. It's for the heap of red-clad underdogs collapsing on the ice in a gleeful heap, flush with the joy of unprecedented success at the crucial moment. Tomorrow we'll all go back to being Habs fans first and foremost, and if the Capitals do come to the Bell Centre somewhere down the road we'll have no sympathy for them. But tonight, when Ovechkin scores the game-winning goal, we cheer. At heart, it turns out we're human after all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The thing that got me to jump on the bandwagon was the passion of that team. There isn't a team out there that is just so damn HAPPY to be on the ice, to be playing hockey, and it shows.

Look at the goal celebrations, the interviews, even the faces on the bench during a game... they're having the time of their life.

I'm sorry, i don't have the gift of the words that you possess, so i don't know how to express how the team makes me, as a hockey fan, feel... Something about how it reminds me of kids playing in an outdoor rink, loving every minute... not just scoring goals, but simply skating and being on the ice and competing.

(Sorry, it's cliche and clunky, but that's the best these hands can do, i guess....)

Just take a look at Ovechkin's celebration after that game-winner.... he almost jumped through the glass. How can you not want to watch a player like that?