Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Lovelovelove

It’s good to be right, but it’s better to be in love.

November 2006

I do not remember so much about my first hockey game. It was the season of ice storms, cold and snowless. I remember the bright red whirl of the crowd against the grey streets. I remember the darkness in the upper tiers, and the people in front of me who told us to sit down during the American anthem, and the dead silence of the first period. I remember that they won, and that Sergei Samsonov scored two goals.

Mostly, though, I remember the screaming. I remember leaning over the rail, body bent halfway between sitting and standing as though I might be planning a suicide dive into the netting, and screaming and not even hearing my own screams because everyone was screaming, and whether it was happiness or rage you couldn’t quite say, but either way it was love.

I am not a screamer by nature. I am the Princess of Anthropological Distance. I am big eyes and dead silence and scribblings in notebooks. But that year, that first season, was different. I was different. It passed in a riot of heat and noise and love such as I have never experienced before or since. How could it be otherwise? I defy anyone, no matter how sane rational smart or pragmatic, to discover hockey, Montreal, and the Canadiens all in one winter and not go a bit mad in the process.

Fans don’t like to use the word love, maybe because most sports fans are men and men are culturally discouraged from the use of excessively emotional terminology. Or maybe because we just don’t have the language for it. There is no word in English for the love of a team. Not even a technical term, and we have technical terms for everything, from achluophilia (the love of darkness) to xyrophilia (love of razors). We have terms for love of monkeys (pithikosophilia), and love of beer bottles (laleorphilia), and love of snowdrops (galanthophilia). Just as there is a word for every fear, there is apparently a word for almost every love. But there is no word for the love of a sports team, although there are probably far more of us who experience that then there are xyrophiles and galanthophiles in this wide world. So instead of calling it love, we call it fanaticism, because inexplicably we’d rather associate ourselves with religious folk of the bomby variety than something as gooey as affection.

But make no mistake: all fanaticism begins with love. The best, worst kind of love, love without sense or comprehension, love without reason. Posters on the wall love. Screaming in the dark love. Love that occasionally veers into fits of rage and melodrama, but for the most part passes from hope to hope and thrill to thrill with little thought and less understanding. That is how it begins for all of us; the only difference is for me it happened at 24 rather than 8. For some fans, it is always like that.

For some of us, though, it changes.

***

September, 2008

It’s the same candle he uses to wax his sticks, one of those thick heavy decorative ones inherited from a previous expatriate girl with more interior decorating sense than me. In the heat of the tropical nights, it’s sweating a little around the edges, so when it bounces off the wall with a dull thunk, it leaves a streak of red behind like clotted blood. I don’t look back as I stomp theatrically out the door, but I swear I can hear him rolling his eyes in exasperation.

In my defense, I didn’t throw it at him.

Some people tell me, oh, it must be so nice to have a girlfriend/boyfriend as into hockey as you are. Those are people who don’t understand hockey very well. They assume that being obsessive about hockey is like being obsessive about crocheting- everyone basically does it the same way, and you all just happily enjoy it together. But if you’re hardcore about hockey, you know it ain’t like that. Aside from the whole question of team allegiances, there are different ways of thinking about the game. Some of them are not very friendly with each other.

Imagine the most vicious, nasty, knock-down, drag-out argument you’ve ever heard on talk radio, ever followed on a message board, ever gotten into on a comment thread. Now imagine having that argument at 2 AM, in your underwear, with your significant other. I won’t go into the more horrible details, but in the beginning the hockey part of the relationship was the ugliest part of the thing, the worst fights we’ve ever had. I have slept on the couch over hockey arguments. More than once, in fact.

I have no doubt that Julian had his period of screaming love for hockey, but it was long over by the time I came around. By then, he had mostly given up the hopes and daydreams and passions of traditional fanaticism in favor of something else. He called it objective, I called it inhuman. He called it rational, I called it deterministic. He called it pragmatic, I called it cold. He came at me with links and charts and equations, probability analysis and talent-quantifying algorithms, facts and figures, data. I came at him with mysteries, clichés, observations and speculations, and finally the full force of the hope and rage I had learned in Montreal. It got to the point where we couldn’t even talk about it anymore. For the sake of peace in the household, for the sake of love, we set it aside, and for a long time we didn’t speak of hockey at all. It was better that way.

***

The terrible thing was that he was right. You can quibble about methods and terminology, but there was no denying the rightness. Julian made predictions and they came to pass. He made bets and he won. I was neither the first person nor the last in the fairly traditional culture of the Chinese Taipei Ice Hockey League’s Canadian contingent to come at him with the customary clichés and, although he won few converts, he never lost an argument he chose to join. I could talk the boy closer to a standstill than anybody else ever got, but that was only by pulling the fight so far into the realm of deconstructive cultural analysis that he lost his footing in the jargon. Ultimately, though, he was still right.

The wonderful and terrible thing about learning is that it is irreversible. You can hate a lesson, you can regret it, but once the realization has come it never goes away. I did my homework, I fought it every step of the way but I did it. The things Julian threw at me, even after he gave up trying to make the case for them, stuck. I followed the debates and the blogs. I puzzled over the charts and the equations. I read the comments thread battles in stone silence. I let my own writing die off unlamented, because if this was the world of rightness, than there was no place for me in it, and nothing left for me to say. Maybe it was not perfect hockey truth, but here was more hockey truth than I had ever yet found anywhere else, and rather than being thrilled with it, I mourned.

When somebody comes for your team to puncture your hopes with facts and mock your love for the delusional narratives it latches onto, they will tell you it’s no big deal, that passion is not incompatible with truth. They’ll tell you that you’re overreacting. They will tell you it doesn’t have to hurt.

They’re lying. It hurts like hell.

2010, May

It is the playoffs. Cinderella run. How often does this happen? How often does this come along, that your boys will sneak in as an 8th seed and knock off the two most famous teams in the League in consecutive rounds to get to the Conference final? Once. That’s how often. It is a singular life moment; one will never be able to speak of it in plurals. I will never get something like this again.

Back in Montreal, people are going apeshit with joy. In the newspapers, journalists are spinning all sorts of elaborate explanations about Jacques Martin and his miraculous system, about the Habs astounding ability to keep the powerhouse offensive players to the outside, to force weak, low-percentage shots. It is a very plausible sounding explanation.

But it was wrong. I didn’t want it to be wrong. I spent hours with shot charts and game logs trying to demonstrate that it was more than just a fluke, something other than just the single freak outlier that probability must occasionally throw out in order to prove itself true. But I couldn’t find anything, nothing I could prove, no evidence anywhere to suggest that there was any more substance to this success than one of Halak’s rare spasms of brilliance at the perfect coincidental moment.

I downloaded the games and watched them with a sense of dull obligation. Julian seemed to pity me. You can still enjoy it, he said. You can still get excited.

Excited for what? For a spate of meaningless luck? For the inevitable crushing regression? For a party on the other side of the world? I had my moment and I also had it debunked and deflated every step of the way. Maybe there are times in this world when you can have irrational hope and reasonable expectations at the same time, but this wasn’t one of them. I had given up love to be right, and I was right, and they lost, and rather than heartbreak I felt blankness, the interior equivalent of a noncommittal shrug. Heartbreak would have been far less painful.

***

I do not envy Julian his relationship with his team. It is not a happy one. Granted, no fan of an unsuccessful franchise has an easy time of it, but hope softens all hardships, and Julian’s hockey-worldview does not allow him very much hope. He gets a certain pleasure from being right, and from sharing that rightness with a community of other right people, but it puts him at irreconcilable odds with a franchise that is so often wrong. His team passes from one mistake into another, from bad trades to bad UFA signings to bad coaching decisions and somewhere out there are people who can live under the illusion that these things might possibly turn out well, but he knows better.

The emotional spectrum of his fanaticism ranges, essentially, from despair to snarky bemusement, peaking in the middle at the exact point where sarcasm meets cynicism. Every now and then there’ll be a cute goal he can purely enjoy, or a real gameful of pleasure, but for the most part, he gets nothing positive out of his relationship with his NHL team other than being right about them being wrong. Over time, it breeds a certain detachment. I don’t know if he’ll ever care enough to scream again.

I suppose this is where general NHL fans come from. You know the kind, the ‘students of the game’ who ‘don’t have a horse in this race’. It’s an attractive proposition: no more emotional investment in the winning or losing of particular games, no more commitment to the often inexplicable decisions of any particular GM. A general NHL fan never loses a favorite player or gets eliminated from the playoffs in January. They skip merrily from high to high, studying the most interesting problems, admiring the most impressive achievements, mocking the most ridiculous mistakes. They are often right, and they never suffer.

I wonder if he and I will both end up among them in a few years.

***

December, 2011

Chicago hockey has changed so much in the past five years I hardly recognize it. The first time I went to a game at the United Center, it was a cavernous place with a funereal atmosphere, right down to the organ music and the heavy smack of individual footsteps on the great wide stairs. Now it is sold out and bustling and booming, everyone fat and merry and drunk and wearing red. It’s like the after-party at a Santa convention.

The Santa-fans are patently in love, the screaming kind of love, the singing kind of love. They are laughing and joking and rocking out to their obnoxious goal music and trashing-talking me with the casual amiability of those who think such things are all in good fun. The score cranks steadily up from 1-0 to 1-1, then proceeds almost instantly to 1-2, and then 1-3, then 1-4 with the empty netter, and then 1-5 after that, and at that moment I can’t think of anything in regular season hockey more provocative of disgust than your goalie getting scored on after the empty netter. Around me is a riotous elation, and I am sitting silent, feeling that all-too-familiar sensation of disappointment slowly starting to turn into indifference.

It is all very wrong. The ridiculous power play unluck was wrong, and the injuries are wrong, and taking Kaberle was wrong, and firing Martin was wrong, and hiring Cunneyworth was really, really wrong, and now he’s giving the wrong minutes to some guys and the wrong punishments to others and just generally being egregiously, terribly, miserably wrong about everything. This whole season is turning into one huge object lesson in all the different ways, human and inhuman, that hockey can go wrong. I am getting sick of the wrongness.

Eventually there comes a moment when you have to ask yourself: what is hockey for? Actually, there come a lot of moments when you should be asking yourself that, but in some way they’re all the same moment happening at different times. You know the one, the one where every muscle fiber and every neuron is whispering fuck this shit, this is not worth it and you start to wonder vaguely if crocheting might not be more fun than it looks. I don’t care how lightly you claim to take this game, if you are reading this sentence, you have experienced this moment.

And you probably have your own answers, but here’s my working theory: hockey is for learning things. It is, like all games, a kind of targeted trial run for life. Sports are simplified, bounded areas in the liminal space between reality and fiction, and in these spaces we put various of our capacities, needs, and perceptions to the test. Different games push different buttons, different sets of physical, intellectional, and social abilities, but all involve the developing and honing of the skills we need in order to live. Hockey is the proving ground for many things, not just speed and strength and agility, but also creativity and vision, courage and endurance, competition and cooperation. There is a lot to be learned from playing.

There’s a lot to be learned from watching too, but the lessons are different. Some of them are intellectual- the being right part- but the more important ones are emotional. Spend enough time as a fan and you will get more than your due of lessons in exhilaration and frustration, affection and alienation, hope and despair. If nothing else, it will put you through a tremendously dramatic range of the common emotional experiences.

The conflict between being right and being in love, though, is a tricky one. On the one hand it is natural, and in some cases even obligatory, to hate that which is wrong. Certainly it is natural to love being right. But when being right puts you at odds with your team and sometimes even your sport, then you’re approaching a torturous self-contradiction, because without love, there’s no point. Hockey without love is nothing but sweat and ice and numbers, nothing but a game and maybe not even that. It’s not enough to understand it, you have to feel it too, or none of the lessons will ever really stick, and worse yet, you’ll have lost one of the few occasions in life when you might, possibly, if you’re really lucky, scream your bloody heart out and mean it.

There’s this thing, the Buddhists call it karuna and Paul called it agape, but I generally think of it as unconditional love. This is not the love you feel for things that make you happy or fill your needs, this is not pleasure. It’s the other kind, the one that flows without illusion or delusion, without reciprocity or compensation, without expectation, without even hope; the kind that’s unfazed by disappointment and never feels shame. I am told that this kind of love is an extraordinarily difficult feeling to feel, which is probably why it’s so popular with religious ascetics, but I think, if you’re going to really understand the workings of any game and still preserve your capacity for screaming passion, eventually, you need to start cultivating a little bit of that unconditional love. At the very least, it’s a more useful life skill than impotent rage.

So that’s something I learned from hockey. Or, more accurately, something I’m trying very hard to learn from hockey.

Because fuck, that was a terrible goal.

11 comments:

Mihaela said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wychwood said...

For me, sometimes the tension between the fanaticism and the Being Right can be a pleasure in itself; of course, I'm not a Habs fan, so I wasn't as personally invested in it, but that Cinderella run - half the joy of it was seeing how far they could go, against the odds and against the numbers but with the eternal fannish hopes and dreams. The bubble of joy every morning when I woke up and they'd won another improbable victory - an expected, anticipated win can't bring as much pleasure. At least for me.

PKB said...

Few people know Paul was not talking about the kind of love between man and woman in his letters. Caritas is different. Stick tap, E. Mark Kingwell is an interesting lecture on this subject.

Mihaela said...

beautifully written

dstaples said...

Very well written post about this debate.

You're now convinced that those who focus on shot metrics and shooting percentages are correct.

And they are right about some things, when it comes to applying their findings to teams as a whole.

But when they apply their team Fenwik, Corsi, Scoring Chance plus/minus numbers to individual players -- as they often do -- they are wrong.

They assert that all players deserve a plus mark for a positive chance, all players a minus mark for a chance against. This notion is odd and incorrect and leads to players being assigned all kinds of false minus and plus marks. I've yet to hear one of the stats guys admit this, or take on this problem in any kind of convincing way, no matter how "right" they are on other matters about hockey.

So maybe you weren't so wrong-headed to put up a fight with Julian now and then, at least if you were debating the merits of individual players based on various team plus/minus metrics.

dstaples said...

I've now made the same comment twice on different posts, so I'll shut up about it, other than to say that the hockey stats we have now are inadequate, they are a poor map of the real territory of a hockey game, especially when it comes to breaking out the individual from the other activity on the ice.

As a result, many conclusions drawn about individual players from these current stats -- no matter how you mine the stats and dice the stats, no matter if they are traditional or advanced -- are incorrect.

The real work that needs to be done is developing new stats that provide a better map.

E said...

wych- yeah, i know that this is one of those things that people experience differently, which is part of the reason i chose to frame this post as a personal narrative, even though it weakens the overall argument. i do think that at some point, for some reason, every 'thinking fan' experiences a variation of this tension between supporting your team and the realization that they do not legitimately 'deserve' to win. the hard part for me was not so much accepting the improbability of the victories but the sense that they were somehow unearned, and therefore not 'real'. still something that needs thinking about, for me anyway.

pkb- religious studies major! didn't specialize in christianity, but one of my favorite profs was a catholic priest, so i picked up a bit of biblical exegesis here and there.

mihaela- thanks! see you tomorrow?

dstaples- i agree with you that there's a lot more work that needs to be done, however, i don't think that the people doing the work are quite so blind to the limitations of their efforts as you think. they get into battles with people who try to use the flaws in specific pieces of application to undermine the entire process, and i understand that- there are far too many folk out there who seem to view the imperfections in the work as justification for discrediting it entirely. from my point of view, the state of knowledge in the field is not complete, but it's made a lot of really interesting strides and a lot of the important debates still to come have to do with the weighting of the metrics against each other and the applying them in the correct situation (which is in part what you're getting at, no?). bottom line, i look at the way they approach the game and i see a thoughtful, evolving discourse that's really interested in discovering new things rather than just repeating cliches. no, they're not entirely right, but they're more right than most, and that's what converted me.

Anonymous said...

This too shall pass. Like the back-combed, bemustached evil-eyed squint of Mike Keenan as Peter Zezel directs the play, Pavel Bure refuses to play until traded and Brad May becomes the team's second-most exciting player has faded from memory, this too shall pass. Hope yr not so jaded you won't care when it does.

Mihaela said...

E, see you tonight :)

Jay said...

Just ran across this, and I think it might should be read by every sports fan ever. Fantastic. Also, like the Weakerthans line in the header of your blog.

Olivier said...

@E:

You know that quote from Charlie Brown?

"Nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter quite like unrequited love."

Yeah.

So.

@Dstaples: I wish I had a penny every time I was fed that line, y'know? Not that you are wrong, mind you, but still...

- What are we aiming at? You, like so many others, seems to see stats as a way of understanding and individual's contribution to the game. The better a stat is at this, the better the stat is. Great. I I, for one, am simply looking at a way of getting a better understanding of the underlying structure of all that chaos and fury we call "hockey". Traditional interpretations didn't suited me, so I went the metrics way. Scoring scoring chances helps me focus on this. But I see your point (I think) and it is a very valid one.

- On "developping new stats", well, I believe this is focussing on the wrong end of the problem. We don't "need" new stats, we want new, more accurate and numerous and diverse data points. I look at soccer stats, I look at the NHL's feeds and I'm pretty darn sure we'll get them eventually. In the meantime, we make do with what we got.

That being said, I think you are doing something very important: you reach out to the sport's old-timers and ask them about the way they collected data. My guess is we have a ton of things to learn from people who had to collect and analyse data points without computers.