Sunday, October 11, 2009

Game 3: Elevation

The worst thing about hockey, the most frustrating, hair-tearing, sleep-depriving, enthusiasm-crushing, despair-inducing facet of the game, is not Gary Bettman. It also isn’t the CBA, southern expansion franchises, the instigator penalty, or Sean Avery. It’s not fighting, or dudes who don’t backcheck, or local television color commentators. It’s the luck.

Over the long term, maybe, there is a correlation between winning and playing well. But in any particular game, there may be no relationship whatsoever between the look of the game played and the outcome on the scoresheet. The soul of hockey is chaos, and there’s more than enough random in it to win without playing well. Through the first two games of the season, these Canadiens were winning, but they weren’t playing particularly well. They played the games in Buffalo and Toronto like their net was a black hole, exerting a horrific gravitational pull that drew them- and the opponents- and the puck- inexorably towards its bottomless depths. Every now and then some tiny particle of Hab would manage the tremendous effort necessary to rip himself free of that force, go careening up ice drawing a few compatriots along, but gravity inevitably reasserted, as gravity is wont to do, and pulled all things back towards their own crease. Either Price had a quantum singularity in his ass, or that team was playing shit hockey.

Whatever the scoreboard says, whatever the stats say, whatever that warm, contented victory-intoxication in my belly wants to believe, these Habs have been playing an ugly game. There are good miscellanea, there have been good performances from some and a good shift or two from almost all. There’s certainly no reason to write off the team’s potential-new faces, chemistry experiment, time to gel, blah blah blah. But those glimmers of hope cannot and should not be confused with playing good hockey. We had a lucky couple of games, so offer praise to the hockey gods and store up a little goodwill for the goalie, but I was preparing for a huge letdown in Calgary. Sure, I had some small hope that Martin had a plan and a cattle prod with which to enforce it, but it’s not likely that a team struggling to hold back the Leafs would be dangerous against the Flames.

And yet in Calgary they put in by far their best game of the neonatal season. Not perfect, not consistent (the second period, in particular, was a bit crap), but tough and spiny with a kernel of skill at the center. They pushed and shoved when they had to, broke out clean when they could, passed neatly, shot frequently, skated hard, and finished it all up with a third-period onslaught of admirable scale. Their first line, once Moen was moved off it anyway, was a brilliant creature, but it goes to the entire team’s credit that they seldom looked entirely pinned down by Calgary’s expensive, celebrity defensive corps. It was a loss, anyway, but a loss to the luck as much as the Flames- karma coming back from the previous two games. More importantly, it was an honest effort, worth being proud of.

This is one of the stranger phenomena of the sport, this mysterious elevation. Teams, especially flawed teams, frequently play better against more difficult opposition. Not necessarily better enough to win, but it’s not uncommon to see a struggling club take loss upon loss to bottom feeders, only to launch a furious attack in an otherwise ordinary game against a League-leader. Teams on the bubble can be schizoid like that, counter-intuitively playing well against teams that ought to murder them, than sucking whorishly against those that should be easy prey. It’s exactly the opposite of the logical assumption.

This occasional pattern, ‘playing to the level of the opponent’, might just be a name we put on randomness. If we assumed that every team had a certain number of good games in it and a certain number of bad games, and we scattered those outcomes God-like across the schedule, it would probably come out that occasionally there’d be a run of bad games against bad teams and good games against good teams. The results might seem unlikely, but the entire point of random is that every now and then the unlikely is exactly what one should expect.

But watching the Canadiens pull out that extra effort against Calgary, I thought, that’s not random. It’s human.

People aren’t consistent. That’s one of the reasons we have such a strong desire to delegate tasks to machines, because we know we can’t put in the same level of focus and precision every single time we attempt something. We don’t get out of bed every day with the same amount of energy. We don’t go to work every day with the same level of interest. Yes, hockey players are professionals, and it is part of their professional duty to be equally psyched up for every game. But it’s obvious that they aren’t, just like all of us- professionals in some profession or another- don’t care equally about every detail at every moment. We space out, we get lazy, we assume, we slack. Hockey players do too.

But there’s something about a challenge that kills those ugly impulses. If you love what you do at all, you love it most when you’re practicing it at the highest levels; when there is something new, something difficult, something original to be seen or done, and most of all, when there’s someone else- someone better- confronting you. You prepare more, you think more, you watch more carefully. Doesn’t matter if you’re a chess master or a dancer or a professor or a lawyer, you work harder when the challenge is greater.

Ken Dryden repeats himself a lot, and one of the things he’s repeated often enough that I remember it is that he’s grateful for the Bruins, because they were tough opponents. He’s absolutely right. Thank God for the excellent teams out there, whoever they might turn out to be this year, because they are the ones who are going to get the best games out of all our teams. Because they’re the adversaries who are going to spark the competitive impulse and the passionate effort, they’re the ones who are going to make everyone- even the piddly little rebuilding-phase franchises with their discount rosters and half-empty stadiums- skate faster, hit harder, shoot more, and maybe even win more. They’re the teams they all have to be good against, not the pedantic ‘have to’ of ‘have to eat your vegetables’ or ‘have to get pucks in deep’, but the ‘have to’ of necessity: have to be the best you can, just to stay in the game, just to keep up, not get run out of the building. Professional pride and the attendant fear of public embarrassment are powerful things.

So I’m going to take a cue from Dryden and give most heartfelt thanks to the Calgary Flames, in all their goofy, simian glory. I don’t know if they’ll actually turn out to be a great team this year, but they were good enough to bring out the better in my boys, and show me something of what a good 2009-2010 Canadiens might look like.

謝 謝!

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