Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Inoffensive

If you’d notice anything immediately about the ice rink at the Taipei Arena, it’s the blank whiteness of it. Even when bustling, the arena is a gaping pallid space. It is wholly undecorated save for one large banner, blue and red, proclaiming bilingually the simple existence of the 2008-2009 CIHL season. There are no advertisements. There are no collections of memorabilia. There aren’t even signs telling players not to shoot pucks at the spectators or forbidding flash photography or asking patrons not to litter. Nothing painted on the boards, nothing plastered to the balconies, nothing dangling from the rafters, not even hanging innocuously on the walls. It is a functional room and nothing more.

On game nights it derives its character from the people who come. Kids’ hockey groups have the ice right up until game time and are often slow to clear off for the necessary Zamboni pass, so games start late. Any hockey night in Taiwan, there’s a stretch of dead time between when everyone is supposed to show up and when the games actually start- call it half an hour, maybe more. In that space, people chatter and gossip, exchange news and jokes and beers and cigarettes. Reluctant bureaucrats drift back and forth, getting forms signed and money collected. Photographers tinker with lenses and bags. On the walkway behind the stands, players dress slowly in constantly interrupted stages, often wandering around like the distracted toddlers in half-equipment. Teenagers skateboard erratically back and forth between the scattered sticks and bags. Further down in the stands collect an assortment of the non-playing- girlfriends, parents, classmates, and the occasional pure-souled hockey fan.

Spend a little time around the CIHL and one of the first things you’ll notice is that it forces a certain schizophrenia on many of its participants. The divisions that characterize most other hockey- between a managerial class and a player class and a fan class- don’t exist here. Or perhaps they do, but the same people in all three categories depending on mood and context. Pretty much everyone in the rink with a penis plays on one of the teams, but many of them do double or triple duty. A good player in the CIHL is probably not just a player but a referee or a team leader (read: mini-GM) or a photographer or a stats-keeper or a disciplinary committee member or a writer. Many are three or four of those things. So if you look up at the stands in the half-hour before a game, what you’re seeing only looks like small talk euthanizing blank time. In actuality, it’s probably where much of the raw work of the League happens. Eventually there will be formal meetings between title-bearing officials who will make binding policies, but it’s these pre-game and post-game chatters where most the necessary prior negotiations take place. Anybody who wants or needs something, anybody with a problem or an agenda, is looking to catch the right people and initiate the right idle conversation. An anthropologist looking to map out the ur-structure of the CIHL could make a good start by looking at who all’s sharing bench space at 7:53 on a Sunday.

It’s safe to say that, this Sunday, a significant number of these discussions will mention the Kaohsiung Mustangs.

***

It hasn’t been a good season for the Kaohsiung team.

No, that’s a cowardly euphemism. It’s been a disastrous season. It’s been ugly, cruel, frustrating, nasty and brutal, and for some guys the only problem remaining is that it won’t be short enough. They’re skating onto this ice with a record of 0-5 and a G(oals) F(or)-G(oals) A(gainst) ratio of 7-32. By the end of the night, those numbers will be 0-6 and 8-37. I don’t care that you, reader, know nothing about the Mustangs, probably know nothing about the CIHL, and might even know nothing about hockey: just reading those figures caused you a moment of pain. Maybe just a moment, maybe only a sympathetic twinge, but if you can read Arabic numerals and have a brain capable of processing the relative size of two numbers, that’s a painful thing to see. I don’t have to tell you what it means. It means losing, losing frequently and losing dramatically, losing on the scale that isn't merely bad luck but reveals some sort of intrinsic, deep, undeniable badness. The Mustangs are a bad hockey team.

Watching them skate out, you get a good idea of what all those erstwhile French aristocrats must have looked like climbing the steps to the guillotine. If you’ve followed any NHL team for a significant period of time, you know that after a while losing streaks take on their own deranged momentum. As a loss goes from being a possible result to an expected result to a seemingly inevitable result, players become anxious, mutually recriminating, and ever-so-slightly indifferent. The more you fail, the more you play to fail, and the mien of the Mustangs is fatalistic rather than combative. I don’t need to tell you about the game, all I need to tell you is this: they will go out and play this as they have played all the others. They are going to lose, and lose badly, and it is going to hurt. So as they, suspended in time, go out face their defeat, let’s not linger on the misfortunate facts. Let’s look for the causes.

***

In the stands, Dave Campbell (League Commissioner, defenseman for the Taichung Lions, and overall hockey guy) looks down and sees a failure of character. Although he makes a perfunctory effort towards diplomacy, his irritation with the Mustangs is intense and palpable. He literally- literally- throws up his arms in frustration. See that? How do you not clear that? That’s an easy play. He doesn’t understand what is going on; more accurately, he understands the events but cannot find the meaning in them. Looking at these players, he sees potential. Drafting and talent-ranking are perhaps an inexact science, but he’ll tell you that he sees the same capacities now that he saw in the preseason skates, and that intrinsically the Mustangs are not a bad team. Yet here they are, playing badly, and he has no ready explanation why.

It is a bitterly hilarious predicament, one closely familiar to any follower of hockey. It’s the problem one has seen in recent years with the Senators or the Lightning- a team that ought to be good, that looks good on paper, that has undeniably worthwhile components, yet does not win. And, like countless observers of teams somehow worse than they have any right to be, he locates the problem in the world of emotion and psychology. Hockey is, after all, a game of feeling more than one of thought. Events on the ice are closer to unfiltered impulse than to reasoned choice, so it’s very reasonable to locate in-game problems in the netherworlds at the bottom of the brain. As the game before him unfolds, as the Mustangs compound mistakes with mistakes, as seemingly obvious plays fall apart before they even begin, Campbell wonders what could possibly be going on in these guys heads. He wonders about leadership. He wonders about pride. He wonders about desire. He wonders, obliquely, if some of these guys even like hockey. He wonders about the thousand psychological safeguards that, for him at least, guard against play this bad. One or two might fail, but this is an unjustifiable meltdown. He doesn’t want to question anyone’s character, but…

***

Leaning on the boards, Julian (Team Leader, ninth round draft pick, and most emphatically not captain) looks out and sees a failure of ability. He knows these guys- not all of them, not extremely well, but enough- and even if he was the sort of hockey player (or the sort of person) to believe in ‘intangibles’, he doesn’t think it’s the problem. They want to win. After five losses, each one seemingly worse than the last, they really really want to win. On the bench, Tommy- he’s a Taipei guy, he’s a good player, he’s certainly intense- is making the requisite speeches. But, from Julian’s eyes, it’s not a question of inspiration or passion or hunger or sincerity or getting their heads in the game, it’s a question of talent. In his deepest hockey heart, he believes with the peculiar conviction of the talentless that talent is born and not made, or made so early in life that nothing anyone can do now will change it. A good player is a good player is a good player. Passionate-and-good, lazy-and-good, temperamental-and-good, hell, even drunk-as-shit-and-good, chain-smoking-and-good, overweight-and-good, pumped-full-of-horse-tranquilizers-and-good… it doesn’t matter; on the ice, all of those are preferable to hardworking-passionate-tough-and-bad. The Mustangs, he thinks, just don’t have enough raw goodness on their roster, and as such they’re always going to be below the average. To call this attitude fatalistic might be an exaggeration. He’d call it practical.

Look through his eyes and you must look at the problem with ruthless logic. Forget the rankings and expectations, forget the assumptions, forget the potentials and look at what is on the ice. The Mustangs, game after game, have to work their asses off to do things other teams do easily, and every inch towards the offensive zone is a struggle. As a collective, they don’t skate well, don’t position well, and don’t communicate well. They misdirect passes and lose races to errant pucks and give up ugly rushes on Leo Liao, their beleaguered and sensitive teenage goalie. Were they an NHL team, were they any level of team in North America, they’d have some options. They could get extra ice time. They could practice. They could work on developing skills and inculcating strategies. But this is Taiwan and they’re a Southern team. Their players are strewn all over the island, the majority of them live well out of range of the ice rink, and nearly everyone works long hours well into the night. Tommy’s oration is about the only traditional avenue of hockey-improvement they can take, and if present evidence is to be believed, those talks may well angry up the blood, but they’re not making anyone’s legs or lungs stronger. It’s a privilege of the talented to believe that talent comes from the heart and not the muscles. The less gifted can’t afford those illusions. Later, Julian will watch clips of himself playing on YouTube, pictures on Flickr, and (proudly, regretfully) pointing out his thin legs and awkward stride, he will wish inwardly that heart mattered as much as the clichés suggest.

Now, he thinks only one thing: his team will get better when- and only when- it gets better players.

***

On the wing, Jon Milette, third-round draft pick and sensible hockey player, looks around him and sees only a single unfilled hole. For him, a hockey team is a nearly mechanical beast. It has set components that perform certain functions according to their structure. Some pieces are extraneous, but others are necessary; remove some peripheral spring and the features might change, but pull out a core gear and the entire works stop. A massive dysfunction may result from the absence of only one, basic thing- but similarly, the addition of that necessary bit is all that stands between total breakdown and smooth running.

The Mustangs, Milette says, need a goal scorer. That’s it. That’s all. Just one guy. Sure, he believes they got screwed in the draft (he thinks his talent is somewhat less than his ranking suggests- a common opinion among most Mustangs who were preselected for the team), but that is what it is and the team isn’t necessarily doomed for it. He knows he’s a useful component, and he sees the use in most of his teammates, and moreover he looks at the rest of the CIHL teams and sees that they all struggle with the same flaws. Everyone has to contend with a sledge of low-round players. The difference is that most of the other teams have one or two high-end scorers, and this is a scoring League.

Whatever the level of hockey, goal-scoring is both the most foundational skill and the most mysterious. It's so basic that sometimes, as a fan, you can almost forget about it. Since the Habs renaissance, I've thought about the mystery of scoring only rarely, being transfixed instead by the more arcane issues of penalty-killing, shot-blocking, line-matching, and other NHL-type preoccupations. One comes to take for granted that goals can and will be scored, the potential goes unquestioned, and the problems that remain perplexing have to do with creating the optimal circumstances for goals rather than with creating goals themselves.

No one really knows where goals come from. They're like truffles- delicious tidbits that appear from time to time under certain conditions. So long as the conditions keep happening and they keep appearing, we're happy. But what, exactly, is the mechanism that makes a goal? Why can some players score and others can't? It's easy to discern the elegance of an effective hockey offense: quick skating, accurate passing, precise shooting, and the occasional well-timed display of reckless aggression. And yet, it's possible to do all of those things- create the right conditions for goals to happen- and routinely end up with no actual goals. Most of us fall back, in the end, on a view like Milette’s, wherein scoring is more or less a superpower. It’s an unprocessed ore, not a product; a necessary component of good play, not a result of it.

It’s an optimistic view, maybe even a little idealistic, and extended far enough it is the attitude that can keep fans on a veritable hamster wheel of unfulfilled (perhaps unfulfillable) hope. Milette’s belief in a goal-scorer, writ large, is the reason trade deadline day is such a popular holiday on the NHL calendar- because everyone, the good and bad and mediocre alike, is hoping to find that one player that will make their team perfect. We often feel that we are just one or two pieces away from not just a good team but the right team, the team we want, the team we dream of.

***

Put a brave face on it, but the situation is dire. Julian knows how this story plays out, he saw it last season when the Mustangs ended on a four-game-skid to last place. Taiwan is not Canada, you cannot play hockey here out of convention or boredom. Particularly for southern players, there’s a substantial commitment of time and money that must be made- one that doesn’t fit in easily with a normal Taiwanese life- and only a great love of the game or a great nostalgia for what it represents make the effort worthwhile. Repeated and seemingly inevitable failure can sap the glow out of both those things. The season is a third over, and already the Mustangs’ postseason prospects are negligible. Without a win soon, guys will drift away from the team, for Leo’s postgame tears are only the most obvious outward sign of what everyone has already begun to feel- eventually frustration will turn to hopelessness, and from then it’s only a short step to having better things to do with your Saturday nights. Some of them would come through anything, of course, just to be on ice, feeling liberated by failure and energized by a contracted roster. They’d be playing glorified shinny while the rest of the teams played competitive hockey against them. But that isn’t anyone’s first choice. Playing is for winning, and teams are for community, and even the most devout believer in the pure pleasures of the game will not want to see the aspirations that began the season crushed so early.

There is only one solution left: the Mustangs are getting a new player, or maybe two. Every year there are a few guys who want to play who don’t make the initial deadlines. In late November, once they’ve scrounged their equipment and paid their fees, they get perfunctorily drafted out to the existing teams. The first choice, perhaps more, in this midseason bonus draft will belong to the Mustangs. Tossing it to the Kaohsiung boys is a tacit acknowledgment of what will never be admitted explicitly: that the initial rankings were wrong, the methods for preserving parity failed, and their team in its present form is not viable. In a professional league, of course, the attitude towards non-viable teams is a genteel version of ‘sucks to be you’, but the CIHL is an exercise in hockey philanthropy where there is such a thing as the common good, and that good is to get as many people playing as possible. A hobbling, damaged team only hurts the cause, and so: new players. Maybe Milette’s imagined scorer. Maybe Julian’s revered talent. Maybe Campbell’s tough-minded inspiration. Maybe all of those things, maybe none. More than anything else, though, it’s something to hope on.

Pray, Diz, if you know how.

5 comments:

Sarah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah said...

(deleted first comment because of a typo)

Boy, I wish I could write half as well as you do, E

A wonderful piece, which anyone whose team has ever hit one of those bottomless losing streaks can identify with

(and for fans of those teams who haven't yet hit a spectacular slump - there but for the grace of god, guys!)

Mookie said...

Ellen, beautiful account of such an awful feeling. I have to admit I felt some of that last year. Julian is truly a leader. He carries the weight at all times. That's why I love him.

Go mustangs, hang in there.

Sherry said...

E, it has been too long since I've visited your blog and I only have myself to blame for that.

I had no idea you were in Taiwan. That's my home country! I've always been fascinated by hockey presence in Taiwan and I'm glad you've been able to have a first hand account of it yourself.

Mike said...

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Thanks