Thursday, October 22, 2009

Game 6: Memento Mori

…everyone you know someday will die.

You would definitely have noticed them.

The camera noticed them. They must have been among the more heavily-adorned fans that night, in their jerseys and face paint, but they couldn’t possibly have blended in. Nor would they have wanted to, for what else could be the point of dusting off the old Nordiques gear for the Canadiens’ season opener?

The cameras found them after one of the Avalanche goals, raising their glasses and proudly shaking their clothes, as if one might miss the turquoise and the mutated elephant amidst the row upon row of bleu-blanc-rouge. I assume they wanted to remind all of the assembled Habs fans and those of us watching on her ships at sea of the glories of the Nordiques, who were no negligible team in their day and gave us some of the most intense rivaling we’ve ever been rivaled. But for me, having no personal memory of the Nords, the effect was rather different. They didn’t make me think of glory. They made me think of death.

These zombie fans, with their Quebec fleur-de-lies or their Hartford evergreen, are acolytes of the dead teams. There are too many. Since the inception of the NHL, 48 teams have played under its auspices. Eighteen have perished, enough to form an entire conference of ghosts and then some- a murky netherworld where the Cleveland Barons play no-forward-pass rules against the Montreal Wanderers.

There isn’t a lot of mystery about the causes of death. People can die of any number of things, but hockey teams almost exclusively die of poverty. The game might be their soul, but finance is their blood, and for all the talk of winning being hockey’s ultimate goal, no team has ever died of losing. At best, winning (particularly the winning of a Stanley Cup) is a kind of prophylactic, it reduces the chance of contracting a fatal financial disaster. Nevertheless, successful on-ice teams have failed while their underperforming cousins struggle on.

What can we learn about the mortality of hockey teams from these poor corpses? Expansion is risky, for one thing. The NHL’s most expansive periods have also proven its most punishing- virtually all dead teams date from the wild pre-WWII era or the kudzu growth of the 1970s- and, of course, the damaged foster children rescued from the wreckage of the WHA. Obviously more expansion teams have survived than not, but it seems that an ambitious generation will eventually see some attrition.

Most teams that die, die young. The notable exception is the Minnesota North Stars, who played 26 seasons before they went south, and the WHA imports made an impressive go of it. But most of those who die make it less than a decade, and many of them only a year or two. As with infants in peasant villages, the first years of life are the hardest on a hockey team. The corollary is that persistence is a kind of protection- every further year a team plays, the more likely it will get another.

Teams that fail once tend to fail again. After the long, stolid Original Six period, teams don’t die outright so much as move. Beyond the first couple of seasons it amounts to the same thing, since a team with a different name in a different city with a different owner and a different roster is pretty much the definition of a different team. But looked at from a certain perspective, as many as three of the failed teams might be considered the same, very unlucky franchise. The Golden Seals became the Barons became the North Stars became the Stars before finally settling on a stable identity, and the Scouts became the Rockies became the Devils, and it seems likely that the Jets who became the Coyotes will become something else again. So if your team is inherited from someone else and not very old…

The positive flip side of this is that former NHL cities are prone to reincarnation- having had a dead team seems to be a virtual guarantee of getting another. Ottawa got its Sens back, after a generation, and New York regained its 2nd team. Pittsburgh and Philly, St. Louis and Atlanta, Northern California, Ohio, Minnesota, even non-Montreal Quebec got two chances. Considering that Hamilton and Kansas City are up for resurrection in the imaginable future, the rate might climb to nearly 100% for cities the NHL chose itself. WHA cities, and 2nd teams from Montreal, are exceptions.

We know, also, that the moral qualities of neither fan base nor ownership matter particularly. Well-intentioned owners in hockey-mad cities have seen their teams killed off by economic fluctuations, whereas foul owners in hockey-indifferent cities continue to make money. The life cycles of hockey teams have painfully little to do with hockey- they’re all about currency conversions, and interest rates, and corporate investment, and other such dull banalities.

Some dead teams are more fondly remembered than others, some are more widely lamented, although the difference might be time more than passion. Most of the remaining zombie-fans are attached to teams that caved in the mid-nineties- you can still see Nordiques fans roaming free in their natural habitat, and it’s not uncommon to find a stray Jets fan nesting under your porch in the winter months. You’d have to look a lot longer and deeper to find the few remaining devotees of the Scouts or the Golden Seals. The Maroons and Americans are so long gone they’ve become public domain, part of the collective past of Hockey.

However good or mediocre the franchise was in its time, dead-team fanaticism is almost impossible to pass on. I get why so many Nordiques fans chose to try to move their allegiance to Denver. It makes a ton of sense, in 1995, to just become an Avs fan- after all, they’ve got all ‘your’ players, they’re pretty good, and transferring to the Canadiens must have seemed unthinkable. But now, a decade and change later, it’s ridiculous- the Avalanche are an American team in another conference, covered almost entirely in another language, games generally shown at times you can’t watch on channels you don’t get, retaining not one living connection to the Nordiques you knew. It’s a thin fanaticism to hold, one held more out of hatred for the Canadiens than anything else, and it can’t be passed down without simply segueing into an awkwardly displaced varietal of ordinary Avalanche fanaticism.

Every team will die eventually. It is inconceivable that something so fraught and capitalistic should endure forever. Some of the teams, we can imagine their deaths- think of the Lightning, the Panthers, the Thrashers, the Predators, certainly the Coyotes, possibly the Oilers, and you can see how they might be carried off by the ups and downs of yearly economic cycles or needy, scavenging billionaires. Others are probably bound to the success of the NHL as a league. The California teams, the Northeast American franchises are likely to flourish as long as the League flourishes; come the rise of the KHL and the internationalization of the game, or the abject failure of hockey as a spectator sport, there might be some attrition. Others, though, it’s harder. The Leafs are so resolute a brand that they’ll likely survive, indifferent to winning and losing, unto the complete economic failure of Canada, and my own Canadiens are so valuable an icon that I think they’re likely to survive in some form or another so long as ice and French persist in the world. I can imagine a team of Francophone mutant cockroaches playing in the ruins of Le Centre Belle through a century of nuclear winter, in expansive four-armed jerseys bearing the CH across the thorax.

Yeah, that’s ridiculous. But hidden even in that facetious fantasy is my true answer to the question, which is that the Canadiens will survive as long as Quebec survives, as long as the French-Canadian microculture in North America remains viable. Yes, they may have the reputation of being the Anglo team from Montreal, but they've grown inextricably bound to French-ness, to Francophone media, to French-Canadian ethno-linguistic pride, to the multilingual, multicultural past of their city. As long as that culture and its memory endure, they’ll find ways to keep their Club Du Hockey, in some shape, in some league. Which is why, in a way, I thank God for every fractious Francophone reporter and snarky RDS talking head and every Quebecois parliamentarian who rants periodically in paranoid style about the encroaching danger of Anglo hegemony: because they’re shoring up that delicate ecosystem that my Habs need to perpetuate their species, the culture that supports the economy that supports my team and no other. Certainly not the Avalanche.


Anonymous said...

Memento mori - remember death.

When you are at the peak of your glory, at the end you are just another mortal. So be humble and respectful to others. We need others.

Anonymous said...
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