Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Someday, Baby

Chicago is not an especially parade-happy city. Sure, Chicagoans like floats and chicks with batons, but not nearly so much as we like open streets upon which cars can be driven during all daylight hours. I can remember, vaguely, going to a couple of marching-intensive events as a child, but those might have been in the suburbs. Or in Iowa, for all I know. But I cannot remember seeing one single parade in downtown Chicago as an adult. I don’t think people would stand for that sort of thing, especially not on Michigan Avenue, especially not when we have shopping to do.

But last week, two million people came out to see the Blackhawks bring home the Stanley Cup. No floats or batons or elephants or anything extra, just a bunch of guys on a double-decker bus with their shiny new hardware, a few speeches and a little ceremony.

Two million people.

Not so very long ago the Hawks were lucky to get ten thousand Chicagoans to come out for them. Most nights, it was more like five thousand — 25 % the cavernous United Center’s capacity. People who are not from Chicago do not understand how bad it was for hockey there, even a few years ago. The rest of the hockey world looks at the city and thinks, “Hey, Original Six franchise, big sports town, can’t be all that bad.” Some people seem to have this idea that the Hawks were, like the Cubs, beloved losers.


When I lived in Chicago, the Blackhawks were not beloved, or liked, or hated, or publically acknowledged in any way. They were beneath love or loathing; they were beneath notice. For probably 7.5 million of the 8 million people in the Greater Chicagoland Area, there was no hockey in town. The Hawks were so invisible they might as well have played their games in a secret underground bunker three miles below the lake. Bad in every possible way, banned from television, ignored by the press, virtually unadvertised, the team was as close to dead and buried as a team can get without getting sold off for parts to, I don’t know, Kansas City. They were the skating undead, a zombie squad good for little more than devouring the brains, hearts, and career aspirations of the poor players who ended up there. Why aren’t I a Hawks fan, people sometimes ask? Because when I grew up in Chicago, the Hawks didn’t exist.

Chicago, that long-lost Chicago of four years ago, just the most egregious example of a universal principle: loss is a huge part of the hockey experience. If you’re gonna play (even vicariously) this game in the NHL, you’re gonna lose a lot, and you’re gonna lose hard. You’re gonna lose epic — crazy, awful losing, over and over again. You’re going to lose way, way, way more than you win, and you can lose more than games. You can lose money and fans and television coverage and respect and hope. You can lose your memory and maybe even your mind. You can lose so much that it feels like you’ve lost everything.

But then, someday, you win.

You struggle for decades to win for a summer. But when you do win, you get a moment of revelation: that it’s not really the winning that matters, it’s the struggling. It’s the living. It’s all those hard seasons of up and down and back and forth and will-they-won’t-they?, it’s all the cursing and the cheering, the hope and the despair, the motherfucking saga that a team writes as it “almosts” and “maybes” its way through those losing years. The greater part of the glory isn’t the winning itself, it’s all the years of playing it takes to get there.

Imagine you are the Stanley Cup. What do you want? (Yes, I know, the Stanley Cup is an inanimate object that, as far as modern science can determine, lacks the neural tissue necessary to form wishes and desires. Just roll with me a moment.) If you are the Stanley Cup, what is your raison d’ĂȘtre? Why do you exist? People, they got complicated motives, they might be in it out of greed or pride or pure lust for competition. But as the Cup, you got no use for money and ain’t nothin’ gonna make you prettier or more loved than you already are, so what do you want for? Is it enough for you to hold champagne and be the only known entity to have bedded Sidney Crosby? Or is there a grander purpose?

Here’s my hypothesis: The Cup exists to justify the struggle. To promote it, validate it, redeem it. The playing nominally exists in pursuit of the prize, but in actuality, the prize exists to validate the playing. The Stanley Cup, in its own tiny, silvery mind, is the most pure-hearted and charitable creature in this whole bloody mess of a game — a joy for the victorious, a hope for the rest. The Cup exists not only to reward the winners, but to keep us all on the ice, despite all the losing.

There is something of a debate in hockey theory — a debate engaged only glancingly and irregularly, but a debate still — as to whether parity is a good thing. Totally free market hockey — hockey without the salary cap or the inverted draft or contract limitations — would be a very unequal business. The smart and talented and wealthy would rise to the top quickly and stay there long. That’s how it used to be, back in the dynasty days, and in some way it is the more just system. A raw competition, a pure meritocracy, would produce better and more honest hockey at the top end than the levelled playing field we have now.

Parity is an incarnation of charity. It makes concessions to the incompetent and the struggling and the suffering. In pursuit of parity, the League institutes principles that make it easier to rise fast, and harder to keep a stranglehold on success. The Stanley Cup champion Hawks are a product of this magnanimity, for with their years of past suffering they bought their current stars.

Is that fair? Probably not, but I think it’s what the Cup would want, if it were capable of wanting something. The Stanley Cup, I think, has a wanderlust soul, elsewise it wouldn’t be taking off for Sweden and Russia so damn often. It doesn’t want to settle down for a generation in Detroit or Pittsburgh, just like it won’t settle down in Chicago. A summer by the lake and the process resets. It’ll be off again, for BC or California or parts unknown. And that’s as it should be, because the Cup doesn’t exist for the thirty guys a season who literally win it. It exists for the two million in the streets who can’t play and who could never truly win, but suffer the losses anyway. The Cup isn’t only their prize, it’s ours, and in this best of all possible worlds, it should get to us all eventually. The victory of the Hawks is the victory of Eventually. It is the triumph of Someday, at long last, over Today.

Someday, ahbabi, we all gonna get our chance. Every year there’s a new entry draft, a new trade deadline, a new UFA day, every year there’s new bodies and minds coming into this league and old ones passing away. You can lose for a long time, but nobody loses forever.

We all gonna get a parade, someday. You get a parade and you get a parade and you get a parade, and hey, yo, St. Louis, someday baby, you gonna get a parade. Toronto, darlin’, it hurts me to say it, but you gonna get your parade, some season coming, and yes, I know that shit is gonna be off the hook, you’ve told me before. In the fullness of time, those of us who can hang on, we all got our day coming.

Someday, St. Catharine Street, you gonna get (another) parade. It was a good run, 2010, but it was wildly improbable, and it ain’t no big revelation to say it just wasn’t our year. That’s why the Good Lord made next season. We’ve gotten our chances. We’ll get them again. Our time will come, because we have more somedays ahead than we can count. In the meantime, if anybody deserves this catharsis, if anybody deserves to cash their chance, if anybody deserves a motherfucking parade after the longest, darkest, stupidest run of losses and depredations yet suffered by any existing team, it is Chicago.

The Chicago of my memory was not a hockey town. It had been, once, and now, finally, it is again. I close my eyes and picture it, as it looks on a June afternoon, the roar of the El, the green of the parks, the soaring shimmer of vintage skyscrapers overhead, the concrete planters laden with blossoms, the slow roll of the river, the flags in the wind against a big blue Midwestern sky, and then I imagine it filled with red jerseys and alive with screams, and I think, if I were the Cup, I could hardly imagine a more beautiful sight.


Anonymous said...

As I read this, I have on in the background today's installment in the ESPN 30 in 30 documentary series. It's called June 17, 1994, and is about the interweaving events in sports on that day. These included the OJ white bronco chase, the opening game of the 1994 World Cup, Arnold Palmer's last competitive round of golf (on the PGA tour), game 5 of the NBA playoffs and, oh yes, the Rangers' Stanley Cup parade, for this generation. When they won the Cup, the cameras cut to a sign in the crowd "Now I can die in peace", and one of the announcers (Sam Rosen?) said "This one will last a lifetime". Little did we know that it would have to.

Anonymous said...

We do call it the hockey grail cause we love the quest as much as the prize.

Anonymous said...

It does lower a hockey fan's stress level to embrace the idea of the Stanley Grail screwed atop one Great NHL Lava Lamp. "Now why is my favorite blob hardly ever migrating way up nor way down?"

E said...

an addendum:

an unsentimental gentleman of my acquaintance read this and pointed out to me that, given that there are thirty teams now, it seems entirely possible that a team might go a hundred or two hundred years without winning, by which time the nhl would almost certainly be defunct anyway. so maybe not everyone is going to get a chance.

but i figure that as long as there's hockey being played on this continent, someone is going to be giving the stanley cup to the winner of something, and that could last until the plague/ice age/alien invasion/rapture overtakes us, and it's not really worth worrying about that eventuality until it's closer in view.

the shaky franchises, on the other hand, may have cause for concern.

alice- sixteen years is a long way from a lifetime. unless you're in a nursing home already.

anonymi- you know, the reason people always quote you is because y'all so good with a metaphor