Thursday, October 15, 2009

Game 5: The Boy

[Please note that the following is highly personal and subjective in nature. It contains almost no general-interest discussion of the Canadiens, nor any particular hockey analysis.]





Somewhere, just over my head and to the left, the cell phone becomes insistent. I can’t tell if the boy is awake or not. He’s not, of course, really a boy, being 28 and not wholly lacking a certain maturity one associates with adult males. But I’ll call him that in this essay, both as a gesture of affection and because other substitute names seemed even more ridiculous. Anyway, call him what you will, he is sprawled insensibly across the bed, unable or unwilling to respond to the staccato alarm or my impatient prodding.

It’s 9:45 am, and in Canada, it’s hockey night. In Taipei, it’s Sunday morning- a grey, moody, distinctly un-tropical Sunday morning. Out my window, fine drops of rain are tittering on tin roofs, and even the 101 looks forlorn, like a stack of empty boxes soaked through by the drizzle. Another game, another day, and I would happily stay in bed until noon, since that is the best feature of Sundays the world over. The boy is thinking the same thing, dragging himself from under the covers reluctantly, almost hoping there aren’t any good live feeds. Fortunately, unfortunately, there are two, so I grab a blanket and we perch ourselves on the couch for the awkward, mandatory ritual.

My Habs, his Oilers. Our apartment is littered with their symbols and their artifacts: bright flags and sweaty jerseys, pristine commemorative pucks, faded T-shirts, stickers, scarves, and utterly useless tuques- a museum of the many and varied marketing salvos of the two franchises. The hockey-filled apartment is one of the incidental pleasures of a cohabiting with another fan. There are others. The ordinary satisfaction of trading snarky jokes about Brian Burke. The melting thrill when he came back from Canada and gave me a Saku Koivu rookie card in a yellowed plastic shell. The enveloping contentment of being around someone who Gets It.

So long as I share my life with the boy, I will also share my life with the Oilers- their ups and downs, all their little dramas. It means, as a matter of course, that I have to recognize Shawn Horcoff as a legitimate first-line center, retain a soft spot for Fernando Pisani, and put up with rather more references to the swollen horror that is Mark Messier than I would like. Also, as the boy reads a lot of blogs, I have to have an opinion on the value of zone-starts as a player-quality measure. These are not great sacrifices.

For the most part, our two fanaticisms can coexist peacefully, he to his conference and me to mine. Thank the 30-team NHL, where the competition is so dilute that very few other teams have any meaningful individual impact on the success of my Habs. Like the Sharks, the Wild, the Preds, the goodness or badness of the Oilers is a matter of indifference to me, or at best casual curiosity. It is only in the unbelievably unlikely event of an Edmonton-Montreal Stanley Cup Final that it would matter deeply.

And on days like this one, when the Canadiens go to Rexall Place.

Early in the game, if you can believe it, I’m happy. It’s looking close, as I knew it would be, but the Habs are getting their shots and their chances at what seems to be a slightly faster rate than the Oilers, and I’m thinking it’s only a matter of time before a goal comes. I’m not sure how much faith I have in Carey Price, but I sure as hell don’t have any faith in Nikolai Khabibulin. The boy doesn’t either, which helps.

But just as the first period is melting off indecisively, there’s a goal and a roar and the boy says, Oh, Mike Comrie, all is forgiven, and I try to smother the creeping premonition that the luck is not on my side this game. He is grinning. I am discreetly digging my elbow into his ribs. It’s only 1-0, though, so the intermission can be spent companionably. Kevin Weekes is doing color commentary for the game, and using the position to blithely shout out ever more perplexing inanities, so we sleepily ponder the CBC’s hiring standards and wonder how many times he might use the phrase ‘Bulin Wall’ before the morning is out.

The second period doesn’t go so well. J-F Jaques gets his first NHL goal and the boy convulses with joy and yells, Don’t you write a book about this, Kevin Weekes, and I growl. At this instant, I hate the Oilers, even more so because I know it’s a cute moment and a guy who really deserves it and blah-di-blah-blah, but I wish nothing more than for Jaques to get reamed up the ass with a sledgehammer. By the time O’Sullivan gets the third goal a few minutes later (does every Oilers scorer in this game have to have some cute and/or poignant backstory?), when the boy tries to hug me, I shove him away.

Hockey is, in a causal sense, the reason we’re both here, but it’s hardly the cement of the arrangement. Sometimes we commiserate, but more often we bicker, tease, nag, bet, and otherwise irritate each other. People bitch about their non-sports-addicted family members (they just don’t Get It!) but trust me, there are times when I vainly wish he was just some simple, complacent, totally non-kinetic music nerd, or gearhead, or even a soccer fan.

Ragging on each others’ teams is the least of it. There’s the arguments- the long, drawn out, hour upon hour arguments where we start debating draft strategies and end up pacing the floors at 4 am, shouting over each other, bleary-eyed and incoherent, and go to bed back to sullen back in icy silence. There are hockey topics we’ve had to agree to never mention again just to preserve the peace in the house. And if it’s gotten easier with time, it’s only because our discussions have become increasingly general and cautious, lacking most of the analytical depth we’d expected in the beginning. Our hockey conversations began in metaphysics and have ended in trivia. In some ways, life with another hockey obsessive is considerably harder on one’s relationship with the game than life with an indulgent, disinterested partner.

I know my Habs will not come back from this, and for a moment, I am seething with the most irrational, incredible, desperate, pointless rage at the boy and his oo-la-la Western Conference and his advanced stats and his sainted prodigies. The Oilers now are lucky. They’re lucky and they’re winning and I know with the highest reasoning I’ve ever reasoned they’re not a great team but they’re shooting like they’ve got God’s own sniper rifle and they’re surging and kicking ass and I don’t think when they fall they’re going to fall so hard as to negate this fantastical run they’re starting on and oh Sheldon Souray, can’t you rip a tendon or something the way you used to in the halcyon days of your youth? [Now, of course, I feel bad about having written this.]

My Habs, they’ve got nothing, no spark no luck no fight no will no system no discipline no special teams, nothing but the shot counts and tenacity on their side and I know back in Montreal it must be like an unplumbed level of hell these days and they’re due for a fucking break sooner or later, right? But whether they’ll get it, whether the pendulum will swing back, whether they’ll get a few bounces before the hole is too deep… I have doubts. I have fears.

The boy knows enough to let me be for a while.

His species of fanaticism is at least as serious as mine and probably more so, but mellower. This season, neither of us have much hope. The difference is in the tone. The boy has passed the point of hurting, passed the point of anxiety, passed nearly the point of taking it personally. He still cares, of course, he still follows assiduously every doing and saying in the Oilers universe, but he’s given up expectation, and with that some sense of pride. He’s seen his team go from good to bad and bad to worse, and over the last three seasons he’s used up most of his shock, horror, and outrage. His obsession has grown gentle; bemused affection rather than raging passion. Me, I still do the shrieks, the shrill rants, the pouting, the profanity. I want my Habs epic, one way or another, and so my mind makes them. I immerse, I avoid , I adore, I ignore, I am inconstant. He, to his team, is faithful.

Now that I am spending the second period assiduously avoiding looking at either the television or the boy, my eyes drift over the rest of the apartment. It’s not all franchise stuff, thank God. There’s the Canadian flag over the TV, the somewhat-unearned-but-charmingly-bloodstained Taipei Typhoon jersey on the adjacent wall, a precarious assortment of sticks leaning behind us, the lumpen, battered equipment bag in the corner.

I am sometimes ambivalent about sharing life with another hockey fan, but I am never ambivalent about sharing life with a hockey player. That’s the beautiful thing about the boy, he plays. Not very well, mind you, and not with the requisite jock-swagger one generally associates with hockey players, but nevertheless, winter upon winter lo these many seasons, he plays. He plays with an unquestioning, self-punishing certainty, even here, where the game is strange and expensive and nothing like the carefully-calibrated system Canadian boys are accustomed to. He plays, though he has the wrong body for it- tall, yes, but all thin tangled limbs, the coltish silhouette of teenager still waiting to fill out, impervious to exercise or diet. He plays, though countless awkward falls, overzealous turns, and unanticipated collisions have woven an ever-shifting web of aches and twinges across his back, though he’s sprained ankles and split lips and blackened eyes.

And still, the boy loves hockey more than anything. More than money, more than sex, more than a hot shower on a cold morning, more than a cold beer and an Arrested Development marathon. More than truth, justice, and virtue. More, probably, than me. Maybe more than his mom. (To his mom, if she’s reading this: that’s probably not true, but don’t press him on the point.)

Playing hockey is the bridge too far for me. I can skate, sure, but my hands are leaden and my eyes wandering. Someday, yes, maybe, I will get back to Canada and find myself a friendly, decorous women’s beginner league, where I can slide around precariously with other giggling, self-conscious females who missed out on hockey until it was too late. Maybe on occasion I’ll goaltend, badly, for shinny or practice. But I’ll never really play, never skate in a game that means anything to anyone, never have to sacrifice or even give all that much to sport. Real hockey is something I will never experience. Bad luck, yeah; bad choices too.

Still, I love being around it. Not just the watching of it, not the fan bullshit, but the details of it. I trail the boy around and soak up the antiseptic chill of freshly-Zambonied ice and the sour reek of old equipment and the resonant smack of pucks off Plexiglas. I carry stickbags and wash jerseys and go to the emergency room and fill out scoresheets and other such nauseating feminine tasks. I watch, all that gliding and sweating and swearing, I reenact in my brain stem all those rushes and retreats. The boy plays, and I dream on his playing.

Sometimes I wonder how many of the fanatical hockey moms of the world, the supportive wives, the ravenous puckbunnies, are borrowing, second-hand, a life they missed the first time around. When I was a little girl, I wonder, would I have played hockey, if I’d been aware that I could play hockey? Probably not, probably I was so timid and bookish that I’d have shirked sports as resolutely in Badger Pond, Alberta as I did in Chicago. And anyway, the contours of women’s hockey aren’t especially appealing. Aside from the truly elite level, it’s a fuzzy, shrunken version of the men’s game, lacking nearly all of the cultural resonance, social rituals, and ragged, ugly edges that make hockey itself. It’s a consolation prize, for those of us who lost the genital lottery. I’m never really going to play hockey, but if I could, I’d like to think I’d play like the boy- not talented, not flashy, not theatrical, but wholly and passionately nevertheless.

The two seasons I lived in Montreal, when my Habs were eliminated from the playoffs it felt like death, like the end of hockey, a bottomless loss. Hockey was Manichean than, because there was only one virtuous team and only one true victory. Now, though, in this life, as far as possible from the NHL, it feels more cyclical- so many different varietals of the game, so many endless kinds of wining and losing, infinite permutations of play. There are gloves drying on the windowsill and sticks propped in the corner, and Roman Hamrlik scoring one last unnecessary soul-soothing goal on the TV, and I know that tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, in Montreal or in Edmonton, in Turku or in Turin, and even in Taipei, there will always be another game. I should have known that all along, but really, I learned it from the boy.


He smiles, stretching out the shiny pink high-stick scar on his upper lip, with far too much sincere pleasure. “So what did I win?”

“A day with an irritable girlfriend who resents you.” I don’t mean it the way I might have in the middle of the 2nd period.

“That’s not what I was hoping for.”

“Then you should remember to make your bets before the game.”

And we go back to bed.


Scott Reynolds said...

Fantastic story. I've really enjoyed all of your "game stories" so far this season. Thanks.

Not So Frosty said...

These stories are my favorites. They are lyrical and speak to my soul. As a female fan in Southern California, it is comforting to read of another who shares similar emotions. Sure there are hockey fans here, surprise-surprise, but the fanaticism is quiet and polite. We are watching and enjoying your Koivu and the bond he shares with his countryman and linemate. I am sure he is enjoying his anonymity and privacy out here. Keep up the wonderful work.

travesti said...
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