Thursday, March 04, 2010

Apocryphal Chronicles of Trivial Hockey Events #1

Wherein Jordan Eberle confronts the possibility of perpetual failure.

‘Pats’ is one of those meaningless old-timey hockey names, like Maroons or Thistles or Arenas. It’s an odd non-sequitor of a word that’s lost whatever deeper logic it once had, and now serves only as a kind of etymological radiocarbon date- a team called the Pats must have formed before the Second Word War, just as a team called the Crunch cannot possibly have existed before 1990. One imagines it might have once stood for the Patricians or the St. Patricks or the Patterson’s Patent Spats. The truth is even worse: it stands for Patricias. The Regina Pats have the singular distinction of being a hockey team named for a Victorian princess, in a city named for a queen’s honorific that also happens to rhyme with a distinctive part of the female anatomy. They are undoubtedly the most effeminate team in all of Canada, a fact which in a less enlightened country might have lead to a most horrific preponderance of ass-beatings against their frailer skaters. As it is, though, it is merely a matter for giggling, and perhaps the source of the persistent rumor that their rookie hazing ritual involves a corset, an expensive but tasteful tiara, and a Costco-sized tub of cod liver oil.

The Patricias have not been a particularly successful team. In eighty-some campaigns in at least four different leagues spanning nearly a century, they have won only five titles, and three of those in an era your grandfather couldn’t even properly recall. Like Victoria herself, they are remarkable for their longevity, but they cannot lay claim to her dominance. They struggle on, these days, in a persistent state of blithe mediocrity, season after season barely missing the playoffs or flaming out in the quarterfinals. Win some, lose some. And so it goes.

For the NHL, the Pats produce goons and grinders; serviceable, functional players who might fill out the low-wattage forward lines on an ideologically Canadian team. But on occasion, like every team, they come up with something remarkable- most recently, an undersized, laconic 2005 low-round draft choice who turned out to be Jordan Eberle.

If you live in Canada, or among a significant population of Canadian males anywhere, you’ve probably heard of Jordan Eberle, even though he is only 19 and still playing in Regina. He is Canada’s Vasily Zaitsev, sharpshooting hero of a pair of World Junior Hockey Championships, hope of the Oilers, beloved of Pierre Maguire, font of goals in human shape. He’s unfinished, of course, not nearly the biggest thing on the NHL’s horizon, but one of the notable landmarks. He is a player one might dream on.

Anyway, the events of which we wish to speak took place in the 93rd year of the Regina Pats, on or about the 57th game of the season, when these Princesses of Saskatchewan confronted the mighty Wheat Kings of Manitoba, a name which oozes both rustic nobility and testosterone. They were imperiled princesses indeed, had they been real princesses they would have been dangled out of high tower windows by nefarious counts with sharp goatees. Through February they had been losing at a thrilling rate- close losses, shootout losses, bad mojo losses- and had brought themselves to the very cusp of elimination, only a few more Ls from the mathematical variety. The game against Brandon was essential to whatever desperate postseason hope the poor Reginans might have had.

By the end of the first, they were down 3-0. By the middle of the second, it was 5-0. And when Jordan Eberle scored an entirely characteristic down-to-the-wire drama goal in the final minute of the middle frame, he did nothing more than break the shutout at 7-1. The same kind of play, the same timing, the same wicked shot in a different period of a different game had made him famous. Here all it did was make him the least shitty player on a shitty team.

The Pats finished the night 10-2, behind their opponents in every countable category, and almost conclusively out of the playoffs. Eberle finished the night +2, with a goal and an assist, the leading scorer on his team, in his conference, and across his league. At 19, Eberle is too old for this scene, in age and in experience. He’s played this gig for too long and the performance is both finely honed and a little stale, and Regina’s fate has been utterly separate from his own for virtually all of this late, unlamented season. He has something to prove yet, but it can’t be proven on this ice, and certainly not with this team.

He’s already been a national hero and very nearly a household name, he’s already been bigger hockey sensation than half the working men in the NHL will ever be. What he has to prove is not so much talent as durability: that his skills are substantive enough to survive against opponents ten years stronger and smarter than himself. There is a high attrition rate for small teenage snipers in the NHL- they tend to flower early and run to seed.

But suppose, for the moment, that there’s nothing illusory in Eberle’s talent, that it is exactly what it looks to be, in the WHL or the AHL or the NHL or whatsoever HL he happens to shoot in. Suppose he is the genuine article. He might still end up a failure.

In the post-game conference, the coach will call out his teammates, not Eberle of course, but unspecified sixteen and seventeen year old grinders. “I have no interest,” he will say, “in guys who don’t put on the jersey with a sense of pride.” But that, exactly, is the crux of Eberle’s predicament: one is always supposed to have pride, in the Pats and the next team and the one after that, in every jersey, in every name, no matter how rough the season or futile the dream. Beyond this cold western town is another cold western town, another struggling team, another sweater demanding another allegiance and whatever blood he has yet to give, another GM looking for validation, more fans in search of a savior. The price of being a talented child in the hockey world is hard labor in the gulag of the failing.

Much of his looming career will be beyond his control. He may do his best, and he may succeed. He may indeed become a great player and do great things, and it may not matter. It didn’t matter in this game, just as it hasn’t really mattered to the hapless Pats lo these three long years. Just as it didn’t really matter in the last WJHC. Just as Kovalchuk didn’t really matter to the Thrashers nor Luongo to the Panthers, just as Nash hasn’t to the struggling Jackets. The system is designed to create parity, but half the time it creates an ironic purgatory. Our dear Jordan might play a dozen years of solid, even stirring, NHL hockey and never again touch the likes of what he had at the World Juniors, until the long string of failures start to cling and become, in the end, not just things that happened to him, but part of him, like mud on the tires, like rust on his name: Eberle? What did he ever win? Sitting on the bench towards the end of the third, watching the refs huddle in their crease, lips to the glass, slowly meting out an hour of penalty minutes to his bruised team; watching the unremarkable death of his last junior season, Jordan Eberle is sitting on the cusp of a future that might be brighter or bleaker than we can rightly imagine.

To the victor, give the spoils, the wealth and adulation, and all the honor that success deserves. But save, if you can, a little mercy for the disappointments. It’s not always their fault.

13 comments:

Bruce said...

Having discovered your blog during the dormancy that preceded this post, I can only say what a delight to read a new item on a player of particular interest. Outstanding writing and insights.

kevlinefm said...
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Anonymous said...

they recognized you on CBC. Good read! :)

Anonymous said...

You do realize that the "Pats" name is only in part contributed to a Princess. The actual name came about because of the proximity of the early rinks in Regina and the amouries which in those days were the base for the Princess Paticia's Canadian Light Infantry. The P.P.C.L.I. Which are still in battle today in Afghanistan. The logo on the shoulder of the Pats jerseys is on one side the PPCLI logo and on the other (and the main logo of the third jersey) a bulldog, which was the dog of choice and mascot for the PPCLI and its soldiers.

Good on Ebs, a Regina boy for his 50 goals, on a bad team. He will be a star in the NHL.

Dan

Shayne said...

I came here when Ron MacLean mentioned you tonight on Hockey Night in Canada in regards to your Eberle article. That is awesome to be mentioned on national TV like that, well done! Great article as well.

The difference between Eberle and the three players you mentioned (Kovalchuk, Luongo and Nash) is he isn't a top 4 draft pick. Not even close at 22st overall. I hope he performs as well as any of those three, but if he turns into a perennial 25-25-50 point guy I think that would be a reasonable expectation based on his draft position. In fact, that could be considered a bit of a steal. Hopefully he'll have a lot more help than they did though.

Hall, Eberle and Gagner would make a very nice line for (hopefully) many years to come wouldn't you say?

E said...

wait wait wait...

ron mclean?

hockey night in canada?

what madness is this? somebody please explain.

Baroque said...

You need to write more, E.

Yes, it was in the late game on HNIC, just a brief mention, but it caught my ear because I recognized the name of the blog.

Ron Maclean said (paraphrasing) "You know we love the blogs, so check out Theory of Ice. E has a great piece on Jordan Eberle."

That was it, but it alerted me that you had something new up, so I'm glad I caught it. :)

Baroque said...

Oh, and regarding the article - I have always cringed when people talk about what an athlete, especially in a team sport, has ever won for just that reason - even despite a player's best efforts, his team may be crap and be crap for his entire career.

He can't do everything and it can be easy to forget that sometimes.

mc79hockey said...

Congrats on the shoutout. Funny thing - I was talking about great writing with a friend recently and mentioned how I liked this: "...just as a team called the Crunch cannot possibly have existed before 1990."

We're watching HNIC last night and lo and behold Ron MacLean clearly shares my taste in writing.

E said...

wow... ron mclean... now i'm really going to have to maintain a standard, huh?

thanks muchly for all the compliments. i know i should write more, but life tends to intervene. when i started this blog, i was a lonesome graduate student in montreal with long, empty afternoons to fill. now i live literally half a world away from the nhl and i have a day job, and i find it painfully difficult to hold to anything approaching a sensible blogging schedule. plus, i tend to hold myself to a high standard.

regarding the points about eberle, my main goal here was to try to reverse the standard narrative. looking backwards on the career of a guy who's 'never won anything', we tend to find justifications that make it seem like destiny: he's cowardly, or fragile, or a choker, or lazy, or what-have-you. but look at it going forward, from the point of view of a player who has all the opportunities in the world ahead of him, and you can see how slim the chances are- even with a fantastic start- of being as wildly successful as people hope. and the structure of the league is, at the start, almost stacked against eberle's success.

planetalker said...

I would like to add to the comment earlier on the origin of the name "Pat's". It is indeed a tribute to the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. You may view this as a feminine like name but I would think the North Korean and Chinese soldiers who faced the P.P.C.L.I. in Kapyong, Korea may beg to differ. The "Pat's" were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for that action, one of a very select few foreign units to be so honoured. The Croats involved in the skirmish at the Medak Pocket (former Yugoslavia) might also disagree. Mr. McLeans counterpart, Don Cherry, might have some choice thoughts on this as well.

As far as "having never won anything" Eberle's World Junior Hockey Championship win is not an insignificant achievement. Very few Canadian Junior players are even selected to play for Canada in the tournament and Eberle was a big contributor when Canada won the event in 2009.

You are definitely on the money as far as the future prospects for Eberle. Provided he even makes it to the NHL he has the misfortune of starting his career with probably one of the worst teams in NHL history. His chances of experiencing future glory lie in the hope that the Edmonton Oilers can turn their fortunes around before the end of Eberle's career, a not insignificant task. Here's to hoping that he has a very successful career and that he contributes to the future successes of his new team.

A Z R said...

THREADJACK

Man I am stupid and could not find your email. I run Domebeers.com, and would love it if you put me on your blogroll (Northwest Frontier Province, as we are a Calgary Flame blog). We update everyday.

Anonymous said...

http://www.puckworlds.com/2010/10/8/1738865/first-nhl-goal-jordan-eberle