Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Dark Age

The Canadiens’ centennial season should have been a glorious thing. It is a rare sports team that survives a hundred years, rarer still one that survives them in such winning style. In a perfect world, it would have celebrated all that distinguishes this most distinguished of teams, a long and laudable history of excellence girded with a unique cultural cachet and graced by the most intense hockey passion yet developed (yes, I’ll stand by that statement). This year ought to have been Montreal’s moment in the sun, like Grandad’s birthday, a chance for the respected elder to sit around with a beer and tell his stories and receive his due honor. It was a year that required a good team putting in a superlative on-and-off-ice performance, to do credit to the occasion.

Of course, as with nearly all hotly anticipated improbabilities, everything went wrong. The kids fell into ridiculous debauchery, the veterans broke like geriatric matchsticks, rumors swirled, the press howled, and the fans rained down their most emphatic boos on the boy they’d once called Jesus with utter sincerity. By February those once-sweet posters of contemporary Habs playing the stars of yesteryear were only terrible reminders of how poorly our boys would have fared in competition with their progenitors. And when it finally came to the fitting, crushing end in a pathetic blink of a playoff appearance, Montreal was left with nothing more than its shoebox of faded photos and the sad fact: It’s been sixteen long, dark years since the last parade.

The victories write their own legends. Win a Stanley Cup, and everything up to that point takes on an instant glow. Every player, every manager, every fan, every building, every trial and tribulation appears beautiful, suffused with genius and destiny. The long, dark years between, though, remain silent memories, of things seldom discussed and wished forgotten. In any given year, there are awesome moments, but without that final consecration, most of those moments quickly become occasions for anger and disappointment and righteous profanity. If they could do X and Y, if they had A on the left wing and B on the point, how did they still fuck it all up?

Saku Koivu played out his career in the dark hollows of the franchise, years of cold failure under the long shadow of the past. He is the first, awkward legend of our dark age. It has not been a good time for us, this decade. It has been harder, true, for others, but this has been the first time in forever that Montreal has had to come to terms with consistent mediocrity, and we’ve taken it badly. Saku bore the unhappy duty of being the best player on a succession of uninspiring teams in a city that demands hockey inspiration as a birthright.

Montreal is slow to accept that this is the way it will be. Most Habs fans now have no memory of what a six-team NHL was like, our fanaticism has been formed through expansion after expansion. But those 24 Cups, source of such pride and such entitlement, those are mostly the product of a six-team league, when four teams made the playoffs and eight victories won Stanley’s salad bowl, and a loaf of bread cost a nickel, and strippers wore seamed stockings and underwear reaching to the waist.

The world has changed. Now there are 30 teams, competition for the best players is tougher, there is collective bargaining and free agency and the rising KHL, and bread costs $5 and strippers have butt tattoos. Having the best player in the game might get you no better than a second-round defeat, the greatest dynasty in the league gets nothing more than a regular playoff appearance, and two Cups in five years is probably the best that dynasty can do, with a fair wind and a following sea, before the inevitable disintegration. This is a league full of losers, where losses accumulate in bunches, clustering into piles, heaping up over generations. If you’re going to play in this NHL, you damn well better make your peace with losing, because the losing is going to mock your hopes and trample your optimism for season upon season.

Winning is great and beautiful, and by definition it is the end goal of all hockey-work, but it is a harsh fact that the years will be more losing than winning in these times. And so the question emerges: what abides in the absence of winning? What sustains the people and the team? Why watch next season, and the next, knowing the likelihood of frustration and disappointment? Come a Saturday evening in mid-November 2010, why turn on the TV? Why battle and wrestle and clamber over a hill of maimed bodies to overpay for that annual January slump ticket? Why care, through all the defeat, about a 90% doomed entity like a hockey team?

History and genealogy, spectacle and hope, and ultimately senseless devotion: the Canadiens, most fortunate of franchises, have enough of all these (insha’allah) to outlast the hard times. Hold on long enough, endure, and the victories will come again. Although the next Cup may be more years distant than the last one is behind, it will find its way back to our little island eventually. In the meantime, though, you need all those other things, the things that don’t depend on victory. Like Saku.

Saku Koivu was a bright story for a dark time, a rare kind of player gracing a rare kind of franchise, and for fourteen hard years it was a small redemption to be one of the spare few teams in this League worthy of true, selfless, abject loyalty. His commitment to the Canadiens was one seldom made by modern hockey players, and even more seldom honored, and though none know exactly why he made it, for some time it made us a little more than just another crummy team dwarfed by a grand past.

It was inevitable that he should go, but it is a travesty that he should go like this: in a spasm of inchoate rage over a humiliating centennial, in the pathetic symbolic gesture that is an off-season ‘house cleaning’, as though he were so much insensate dust on the great name of the Montreal Canadiens. This is the hockey equivalent of trying to get over the betrayal of an adored but inconstant spouse by bludgeoning the family dog to death with a fire poker. Saku is not, was not, and has never been the problem with the modern-day Canadiens, but he is representative of them, and his dismissal might soothe a certain embarrassed dismay over the 2009 edition Habs, but it does nothing to make the team better on the ice or as an institution. We, in the unforgivable first-person plural, are less now than we were, and even if the 2009-2010 Habs are pretty good, they will be a more ordinary team. Having purged their memory and given away their soul, my team will be at best a pretty amnesiac- loved out of duty or pity, but not for anything earned.

Koivu is much memorialized these days: for his heart, for his loyalty, for his leadership, all worthy qualities. As a farewell, the best I can say of him is this: he is one of the rare hockey players who knows what is important. He always kept his head in the game, left his heart on the ice, and spent his free time and money on worthy causes. In Montreal it is easy to be a Canadiens-rockstar, easy to get caught up in the hype and the symbolism and the celebrity, ensnared in media adulation or squabbles, thrilled or enraged by the fans. More than a few players here have gotten caught up in the many tempests in this little teapot, and most of them have been burned by it. Saku, though, he didn’t play those games. He played hockey, and he played it with a passion, intelligence, and intensity that few- even among the larger and more talented- could match. He played with that same passion through the kind of injury and sickness and harassment and loathing and underappreciation and overexpectation that would (and have) made lesser men flee this town. He served with class and stoicism in an era where such things are neither as plentiful nor as valued as they should be. We might find a better talent, some day, to pin the C on, but in these fading years, in this modern NHL, we will not find a better man.

We should be honored that he led this team as long and as well as he did. We should be ashamed that we cannot say, unequivocally, either that he was loved or that he will be missed. We should question the manner of his departure. And above all, we should remember that no matter who takes his position in the line-up, we will not replace him, not for another decade or more. Our dark years- and even the bright ones, should we be so blessed- will be a little dimmer without him.


Snap Wilson said...

Habs fans thoughts on Koivu are as divisively ridiculous as they are on anything else. From a distance, it's an interesting career to be singled out for such devotion. Koivu's never been a first-tier superstar. He's talented certainly, and has "great heart" it's been said repeatedly, but players of his talent level are exchanged by teams regularly. He isn't a physical Richard/Howe/Neely type that fans typically rally around. He's an injury-prone perimeter player, not soft but not particularly gritty. He's not Qubecois like most Habs heroes, or even Canadian. He's not really an emotional rah-rah type. I wonder how much of the devotion surrounding him is related to his return from cancer.

In any case, I've liked what I've seen from Koivu over the years, and as a Ducks fan, I'm looking forward to getting a closer look at him. For the first time in a long while, he won't be the "heart and soul" of his team or even wearing a letter. He'll just be one of the guys. Maybe that's what he needs at this point.

E said...


if you don't get it, than you just don't get it. whatever his objective merits are, time valorizes a player in curious ways. i can't guarantee it, but i suspect that if you ask fans of any team about a player who was on their roster for upwards of a decade, you'll get a lot of emotionally charged responses, be the player himself great or middling.

i agree it might be 'good' for him, in some vague way, to be out of the spotlight, but given how long he stayed in montreal, that may be what he needs, but it isn't what he wants.

oh, and also, "perimeter player"? really?

Olivier said...

Well, I'm pretty sure History™ will be very kind to him; he had awful teams (Brian Savage on the first line? Really? Zednik as our best goalscorer?). cancer and never had a bona fide successor for shouldering the brunt of the offense. Ribeiro kinda, sorta emerged, but way after Bob and the habs lost patience. So he had it rough.

But he *was* and *is* a perimeter player. Some might think this is a bad thing, indicative of leotard-wearing proclivities or something, but it isn't, really. If you are good at it, playing the perimeter means holding onto the puck and creating openings trough stretching and displacing the D. Koivu excels at that and a scorer of Selanne's abilities, playing against second tier opposition, will probably benefit mightily from it. That we never had a legit, find-the-seam-with-a-quick-release shooter to play with him is sad, really.

As for his capitaincy, well, I don't feel ashamed about anything. His died the messy, unjust and quite distasteful death most of his predecessor suffered. I'd even wage his successor won't have it easy either; this town tarred and feathered mightier legends in the past and will do so again if given the chance.

E said...

no no, i wasn't suggesting that perimeter player is an insult (although it usually does have a pejorative connotation, fairly or not), but it disagrees with the way i've generally perceived his game. one of the laudable things about koivu, to my eyes, is that despite his size and injury history, he didn't shy away from the front of the net. in fact, on the lines he's played on over the past three years i've been watching, he's often been the *most* willing to shove and jostle in front of the goalie. perhaps that says more about the kind of linemates he's had than about his own nature, but there's a significant list of erstwhile habs i'd describe as perimeter guys before koivu.

Snap Wilson said...

Sorry, E, no offense intended anywhere in my post. I was hoping for some explanation as to the specific appeal of Koivu which isn't necessarily evidenced by the quality or nature of his skills, genealogy or, from a distance, personality.

In regards to the perimeter player reference, Olivier summed up my intended interpretation, and I think that's where his skill set makes him most effective, but yes, I think the crease-crashing was more a product of team necessity than desire.

In terms of what Koivu wants vs. what he needs, well, nobody held a gun to his head to get him to sign in Anaheim, and temperamentally speaking, the cities are about as far apart as can be. I'm sure there were offers closer to both Montreal and the hockey spotlight in general.

E said...

there's a link on the sidebar, a post called 'all the wrong reasons', that i wrote a while back about saku. it's the best i could do to describe why i think he's loved, and hated, and why i came down in the former camp. check it out, tell me if it helps at all...

Snap Wilson said...

E, thanks for the referral to the earlier post, and yes, that clears it up quite a bit. I've forwarded that to other Duck fan friends of mine.

When the Ducks got Adam Oates, I suddenly noticed a lot of things about him that I had never noticed before: how strong he was, especially in the upper body (impossible to move off the puck), the various ingenious decisions/tricks/shortcuts he would employ on the ice. He was nearing the end of his career at this point, a different player than he was in his prime, but effective in interesting ways.

I'm looking forward to noticing similar things about Koivu's game, the details, such as the bow-legged skating style you mentioned. The details are often as interesting as the end result.

Jeff J said...

I'm late getting to read this wonderful post, so my comment here is mostly for posterity.

Snap Wilson doesn't get Habs fans' relationship with Koivu. And that's cool. I don't get a grown man's fascination with the classic Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game. We all have our relative failings. C'est la vie.

On "perimeter player:" These binary labels lack resolution. Relative to Ryan Smyth, sure, Koivu is a "perimeter player." Relative to Joe Thornton? No way. He's no Cam Neeley, but he's closer to Neely than he is Craig Janney. Koivu is from the same tree as Forsberg and Crosby, though not a specimen of the same quality - more of a passer than a scorer, fearless down low. He was never a great finisher, but the goals he scored were from in close. He had his eye scooped out because he was going hard to the net. He was most often the man down low on the PP, although that may be due to a lack of a better option for the role. So in my view, Koivu was not a "perimeter player" as per the general connotation.

A baker's dozen years ago yours truly said on usenet that Paul Kariya was the only player I'd trade straight-up for Koivu. This was at a time when Koivu was 21 or 22, a time coinciding with Lindros' peak, and it wasn't yet clear to me that Forsberg was Forsberg. He had already forced Pierre Turgeon off the roster and was tied for the league lead in scoring (38 points in 30 games) when some bastard on the Blackhawks wrecked his knee in the back half of a vicious home-and-home. Habs swept it, btw. Recchi bravely/foolishly took on Chelios after the final buzzer.

Post-cancer, people seemed to forget Koivu's rash of knee injuries. Those were injuries suffered in the middle of crucial development years. He lost most of his 25yo season with a dislocated shoulder. He lost his 27yo season with cancer. He lost his 30yo season due to the lockout. I feel his eye injury hampered his even-strength performance in 06-07. To cap it off, he was a Hab during the worst stretch in franchise history.** This guy quite literally left a lot of blood and tissue in Montreal. It's tragic. Maybe not as sad a story as Orr's, but pretty damn tragic. He could have easily had *elite* numbers. Despite the compelling nature of this storyline (and we sport enthusiasts love a tragedy), it's not usually the one that first springs to mind when you ask a fan about their thoughts on Koivu.

** It's worth noting that, through the so-called worst stretch in franchise history, the Canadiens never earned a draft pick earlier than #6. In fact, Montreal has *never* earned a bottom-five pick, post-Original Six. If the Koivu years were the Dark Age, we're even more spoiled than we realize. If the post title is one of those crafty ones with double meanings, perhaps suggesting that the coming seasons will constantly reinforce that we are all merely cheering for laundry rather than heroes... then I say, "well done."