Saturday, October 30, 2010

Game 6: It Is What It Is

It was inevitable that there would be a new 11. Some numbers are just inordinately popular. The single digits, where they aren’t retired, have the charm of the classic, and the round numbers and the +1s are always highly favored. But nothing is more beloved than the double number. 99 and 66 are taboo, of course, but consider the others: twenty-one NHL teams are carrying a 22 this season, fifteen have a 33, another fifteen have a 44. And, of course, still another fifteen are have an 11- including (sigh) my Montreal Canadiens. And every time I see the current number 11 breaking out across the neutral zone, it stings a little.

I have two jerseys that say 11 and neither of them say Gomez. And, frankly, no jersey of mine will ever say Gomez because Gomez is a snarky Alaskan who looks like the Afghani villain from the first Ironman movie and earns about 30-40% more than he is worth, and although he undoubtedly has nice skatespeed and a highly admirable creativity with the puck, he is nothing to get sentimental about. For me, he will always be more employee than idol.

But not for everyone. Gomez, he used to be a Devil. They drafted him and they raised him up and he gave them the best years of his career and two Stanley Cups in the process, and somewhere in New Jersey there are still people who feel a kind of misty yearning when they hear his name. I feel a kinship with those distant Trentonians. The objects are different, but we share a variety of loss that pervades nearly every franchise. As lovers go, the NHL is like a particularly unethical whore. It will play on your feelings and take your money and break your heart without mercy or regret, and mock you afterwards saying, oh baby, it’s just business.

I still miss my 11. It’s ridiculous, but I do, almost like the dude died rather than moving to California. He was a good and useful player, and a once-in-a-generation story, and the first and only (NHL-level) hockey player I ever loved. I loved him the first moment I saw him, with a bright eager passion that I eventually learned was for the game itself rather than the man, but nevertheless, no other player has ever been able to inspire me with quite the same uncritical joy in the beauty of playing. Losing him was like losing my second childhood.

I fully intended to walk away when they let him go. I was going to be that one ridiculous hockey fan who stands on principle and gives up on the franchise when it cuts out its heart in some pointless ritual of expiating sacrifice. And I almost did it. For a year I hardly gave the Canadiens two thoughts in a week, and when that remarkable, serendipitous playoff run came by, I was impressed but nevertheless cold. I did not see anything of my team in that surging creature, for the very simple reason that hardly anything of my team was left in it. There was nothing to love in those Canadiens except the sweater and the speed and a certain approximation of workmanlike discipline, which are poor substitutes for the warm flush of first love.

You learn a lot of things from being a fan and most of them are useless, too specific or too maudlin for real life, peculiar features of the frozen world. You learn the left-wing lock and cycling the puck and how a 2-on-1 ought be covered, you learn how to track line changes and judge a breakout pass. You learn a thousand colorful euphemisms for thwacking the crap out of some poor dude and a whole different application of the term ‘cerebral’. You learn that Mark Messier is the epitome of manly leadership and that Alexandre Daigle is the epitome of poor decisions and that there’s no substitute for a big body and a bigger heart. Over the course of a normal day, this kind of knowledge is on par with the ability to decipher hieroglyphics. It’s either wrong or futile.

But one true and practical thing you learn from this least reciprocal of love affairs: it is what it is.

It is what it is. No simpler, harder wisdom in this whole tired world. A kid cries so hard at snacktime that he makes himself vomit all over my shoes. It is what it is. The Canadiens power play is running at 6%. It is what it is. I have more student loan debt than I will ever be able to pay. It is what it is. The Oilers have every intention of sucking for draft picks while simultaneously wasting those draft picks on years of suckage. It is what it is. I am never going to be a great scholar, the United States is never going to reach a productive political equilibrium, and my Saku will never play again in Montreal. It is what it is.

These things come and you can rant and rave in frustration, or tear your hair and rend your clothes in despair. You can lament for everything lost and wrong and unfair, but no matter how profound your grief or anger, they will not change, and all you will have achieved is a sore throat, a bald spot, and a torn shirt. The universe will not yield to your feelings. Neither will your GM. It is what it is. The only choice you have is how to bear it.

Time passes, and you get over shit and you grow up a little, and you decide it’s better to love as best you can, through the losing and the winning and the hopelessly quirky process of playing the damn games. Maybe it will never be as sweet and perfect as it was in the beginning, but it is what it is, and it’s better than nothing. Gomez can make a hell of a pass when he wants to.


Doogie2K said...

I still miss Smytty, you know that? This year's Oilers could sure use a guy like him.

Or Marty Sakic.
Or Devo.
Or Stoli.
Or Gator.
Or San Fernando, Patron Saint of Lost Hockey Causes, for eight weeks hero to one and all in the City of Edmonton and other sympathetic households. Whose name is still going on the back of my Cup Run jersey if I ever scrape together $89 to make it happen.

2006 was what re-ignited me to really care about the Oilers again. I mean, I cared because I lived in Calgary, and was therefore The Enemy, but if I'm perfectly honest, I got more excited about the Flames' run in '04 than anything the Oilers had done since Todd Marchant scored The Goal in '97, simply because a) it was actual, real success, not a moral victory, and b) I was at the epicentre of all the losing of shit (and shirts) every time another improbable W went on the board. 2006 changed all that, both for obvious and personal reasons, which I've talked about before and don't care to get into just now. Suffice to say, it was an emotional time and having that run happen when it did had a deeper effect than it would on most.

And now there are but two: Ales Hemsky, who scored both the playoff-clinching goal and the series-clinching goal in Detroit, and Shawn Horcoff, who scored the triple-OT dagger that all but terminated the Sharks' season, despite there still being three games left in the series. That's it. Those are the only ties back to a time when the laundry I root for wasn't draped around a sack of epic fail. Most days, I don't know why I bother. Hell, most days, I don't bother. I go to Hitmen games (and yes, they also suck this year, but at least they have a trophy in the bank and the built-in excuse that is the cycle of junior hockey), I look up at the scoreboard between intermissions, and am often surprised to see the Oilers are playing. They're usually losing (unless they're pounding the friggin' Blackhawks -- go figure), so I don't get too upset about it, but I feel like a bad fan sometimes, especially when I miss something legitimately exciting, like every time Jordan Eberle touches the puck.

I think, deep down, I kind of want to commit more fully to the Habs bandwagon (and, indeed, have for two or three years), but after being burned by the Roy trade and the scorched-Earth approach to the '93 veterans, from the coach on down, I can't do it. I was as betrayed then as you were last year with Koivu: my first love kicked me in the teeth and I haven't been able to fully trust her again since. (It's why I ran to Dad's Oilers in the first place: Mom's Habs weren't my Habs anymore.) Hell, I think I even felt a little bit betrayed when Koivu was let go, despite having less of an investment than I did fifteen years ago, because it was so stupid and unnecessary, because of what he meant to the city, once you tossed out all the Franconazis on the call-in shows, and because he was the one guy I could almost tie back to the teams I loved. They're still fun to watch on Saturdays, and I still root hard during the playoffs, but given an Edmonton-Montreal final, I think I know who I'd pick.

I'm not sure what the point of this little ramble was, but clearly you struck a chord with me.

saskhab said...

I've definitely become a much more cold-hearted fan than I once was. I guess it's the evolution of fandom... you must adapt or it will die. It did die for me once before, in the ways Doogie described. Honestly, by the time they were missing the playoffs in 99-01 I think I knew about 5 players on the Habs, and I didn't know what a fan should know about them. If someone had put a picture of Craig Rivet in front of me in 2000, I would've been dumbfounded.

Irrational ties brought me back: that 2001-02 season was all kinds of magical. By the end of that season I knew every player, several callups, and recent draft picks. I kind of did a quick recap of the shit times I had just missed. I always knew Saku, but really I had forgotten he was their captain even when it hit the newswires that he had cancer. I knew that he was named captain, but I think I was surprised he was still there since they always traded their captains (which bugged me more than anything).

So Koivu, and Theodore, brought me back. So yeah, I have a huge thing for Saku as well. #11 on Gomez looks weird, admittedly, but I fully supported the idea of it being reused. And it may be used by less meaningful players.

I kind of know too much now about the team to quit like I once did. Something spectacular would have to happen to me, probably more personally than anything the Habs did, for my fandom to leave. But I'm less emotionally invested now for sure... I want victory but shrug off defeat.