Saturday, January 07, 2012

Hunger Games

They are a series of books for teenagers, and although they sound much like many other series of books for teenagers of the dystopian sci-fi variety, I am assured that they are exceptionally well-written and worthy of my time. Unfortunately, I will never read them, because they suffer from the one great failing of all YA lit, that is, the assumption that teenagers are as interesting to everyone else as they are to themselves. See, the plot of The Hunger Games trilogy involves some warped future society where, for what are probably wholly stupid reasons, assorted adolescents are forced to fight to the death annually for the entertainment of the populace. Now, when I was 16, the idea that the adult world might want to make a bloodsport out of my high school would have seemed, if not exactly probable, certainly naturalistic. But then I got older, and I learned that the general adult attitude towards teenagers with whom they share neither genes nor household is one of complete not-giving-a-fuck, which is the way it should be. The idea that grown-up people with jobs and hobbies and kids of their own are going to get all worked up into a lather about anything done by 17-year-olds is, frankly, silly.

But then again, there is junior hockey.

There are, I am told, certain pockets of the United States where high school football is a matter of intense local pride, endowed with the weight of life and death, but I’ve never been to those parts of the country and can’t speak to that fervor. I have, however, been to certain places in Canada where the attitude towards the junior hockey team seemed, to put it delicately, perverse. I have distinct memories of sitting next to a little old Bellevillian lady in a fluffy sweater with kittens on it screaming so loudly in support of a fight between two lanky, pimply kids that she was literally spraying spittle with her fricatives. A middle-aged man in the low seats in Ottawa who did nothing but shout profanity at a particular baby-faced defenseman every time he sat on the bench. A thin, sarcastic guy in Kingston who knew, or made up, far more about the less savory recreational habits of the squad than anyone should rightly speak of. Taxi drivers who remembered every beardless captain for the past 20 years and every playoff failure for the past 30.

I like junior hockey. It’s fun and fast and its strategic deficiencies make for a lot of drama, and there is a certain divinatory pleasure in searching its swoops and arcs for glimpses of future players both more sane and more sensational. But fact is there are a lot of folk in Canada way too invested in it. The examples above are, of course, egregious and extreme cases, but they’re not the only ones I’ve had occasion to observe first-hand. And frankly, the whole phenomenon of the World Junior Hockey Championships rather undermines any stretched claim Canadians might try to make that they have a sense of proportion about teenagers and their games.

Now, I’m not saying the hockey at the WJHC isn’t fun to watch. I’m not even saying it shouldn’t be a nationally televised event. But somewhere along the line it became the repository for far too much national ego and far too much adult emotional investment. The tournament that should be, at the very most, a sort of novelty and a marking point along a continuum of development has instead become an end in itself, endowed with a significance that far outstrips its substance. The WJHC-national-event has become a grotesque distortion of WJHC hockey, to the detriment of almost everyone involved.

Any tournament- any level of hockey for that matter- which is still defined primarily by an age bracket is by definition development level. The fact that the U-20s are the penultimate development level doesn’t change that. Yes, some very few of the teenagers participating in the WJHC are barely NHL players, and a great many more are nearly NHL players, but the italics on those words represent a critical emphasis. Just like there is a huge gulf between a nineteen-year-old guy who is technically an adult and an actual adult male, there is also a huge gulf between a teenager who has technically played a few games in the NHL and an actual NHL player. They’re not there yet. The teams at the WJHC could be decisively whomped by a team of good AHLers and utterly destroyed by even a mediocre NHL squad. At the stage we see them at every Christmas, they’re still- especially the goalies and defensemen- faint suggestions of the men they will become. They’re still, in most cases, 3-4 years from being ready for prime time. People are pleased to call this tournament ‘best on best’, but given that the players are themselves far from the best, this is some extremely selective reasoning.

The WJHC should represent one stage in the process of becoming. It should be about development, and if it were watched and loved primarily as an opportunity to learn about and showcase the development of particular players, it could be a great thing for hockey. But that would involve a very different kind of presentation and a very different kind of analysis from what is provided. If watching the World Juniors meant hearing about the process by which kids get drafted onto junior teams, the way those junior teams use the players, the kind of development trajectories we’ve seen from different sorts of players in the past, the way scouts watch kids and project their futures, and so forth, it’d be terrific. In fact, it’d probably be one of the high points of the year for actually informing and educating fans about the game. But that sort of analysis is never going to happen, because to do that one has to undermine the importance of the WJHC itself. An honest analysis of the tournament would have to incorporate the understanding that it represents a very small sample size of an incomplete group of largely immature players. That truth is not dramatic.

So instead we get a kind of inflated mini-Olympics, with the pressure and spectacle pumped up to 11 and the tournament treated as an entirely self-referential event. The comparisons made between players are not between their previous selves and their future selves but between one thing they did in a game and some other singular thing a different kid did in a game three years ago. It’s all THE GREATEST GOALS and THE BIGGEST COMEBACKS and THE SCRAPPIEST UNDERDOGS. Every storyline that attends the World Juniors treats the World Juniors as if it was its own little self-contained hockey event. Worse yet, what little context is selectively presented invariably serves to make performance at this tournament seem more defining and representative than it actually is. It’s an occasion for the distortion and misreading of player development, for overhyping and underappreciating. There is probably no single thing that does more to fuck up the average hockey fan’s understanding of junior hockey maturation and the evaluation of specific prospects than media coverage of the World Juniors.

Moreover, it’s not necessarily good for the players. Between the kids who feel humiliated by the selection process, the ones who make age-appropriate blunders at critical moments, and the ones whose over-exuberant celebrations make them the subject of snarky approbation by middle-aged columnists, there are a large number who end up seeing their status as prospects fall due to their participation in the WJHC. But even for those who get to be heroes, who make the dramatic OT goal or throw the highlight-reel hit, the valorization is problematic. It is a terrible thing to peak at seventeen, no matter how high the peak, and every year the WJHC gets bigger it further ensures that a few boys involved in it will come to have the best moment they will ever have right then and there. How does it feel, to come to twenty-four and look back and know that you will never achieve anything greater and more glorious than a prize you won five years before? Sure, there are a few guys who participate who will get the opportunity to surpass their achievements at the World Juniors in the Stanley Cup final or the Olympics, but at this point, for Canadians anyway, those are the only two events that outstrip the WJHC in terms of scale and importance. Not only does overhyping this tournament distort the players’ ability to reasonably gauge their development, but it might end up distorting the arc of their whole lives. I’m not sure that’s worth it, no matter how nice the temporary high.

I know there’s a lot of frustrated nationalistic hockey sentiment in Canada. It is the country’s most significant field of world dominance and yet the opportunities to exert that dominance directly are few and far between. For the most part, Canadians have to content themselves with proxy representations of their superiority- their numerical prevalence in the NHL, their massive abundance of rinks and amateur players- but these are poor substitutes for the visceral experience of ass-kicking under the flag. There is a ravening hunger for proofs of hockey-superiority that cannot be satisfied only once in four years, that refuses to accept the compromise some-of-the-best-on-best offered by the Men’s World Championships. It’s a legitimate need and I feel for people who suffer from it. But just because the World Juniors can be used as an outlet for it doesn’t mean they should be. The depth of the need does not automatically make the vessel worthy. Some desires are destined for frustration. The grown-up thing is to live with that fact, not plop your desperation onto the as-yet-unmuscular shoulders of a bunch of teens.

One of the things that the old owe the young is a sense of perspective and proportion, a reasonable reckoning of achievements and failures, and on that count the old people (and by ‘old’ I mean ‘old enough to drink in the US’) who hype and consume the World Juniors are doing a disservice to the adolescents who play in it. It’s crazy-hockey-daddery on a national scale with television sponsorship, and that’s not the kind of hockey-crazy the country should be encouraging. The journey is not the destination, the means are not the ends, the rehearsal is not the show, practice is not perfection. Pick your metaphor, there’s a billion of ‘em, but the point is always the same: there must be a distinction made between the training and the achievement, or both lose their value.


Black Dog said...

Great stuff Ellen. I enjoy the tournament and am old enough to remember when it wasn't that big of a deal.

Its TSN of course. I remember Pierre Maguire a couple of years back claiming that some 18 year old kid (it may have been Paajarvi) should be in the NHL RIGHT NOW and that he would be the BEST PLAYER on the Oilers at that moment.

Seriously. Ridiculous.

Especially as we saw Paajarvi toiling away in the minors just last night.

I don't blame TSN - its huge money for them.

Naw I take it back, I do blame them. ;)

Anonymous said...

If the point here is that Eric Francis should shut up, as I think it might be, then I agree wholeheartedly

Baroque97 said...

I agree. The only youngsters I watch play sports are ones that I have a direct emotional attachment to because they are family, such as my nephew and nieces (when they are older) or their cousins or other kids in my brother-in-law's family, and any other relatives.

This kind of attention to a game really played by kids makes me a bit queasy. I get the same feeling hearing about the rabid devotion to high school football (mostly in areas of the US like Texas and adjoining states) and the fact that the Little League World Series is televised on ESPN every year. At least in that case, friends from the hometowns and home countries of the kids can watch, but there is such a fine line between "isn't this great to see these kids play a game?" and watching to see someone meltdown and possibly cry, because that's what happens to kids when they are under so much pressure.

At that age I would have loved to get a lot of attention for my successes, but been mortified to fail on such a large stage when I felt as though everyone was counting on me. At least if you aren't followed by the highlights the rest of your life you can move beyond it and try to get other high points and successes in your life so you won't be the guy at the 30th high school reunion who talks endlessly about his career as a star quarterback decades ago instead of what he has done since in his career, education, hobbies, travels, or family life.

It's like they get stuck in childhood and aren't allowed to move beyond it because nothing else will ever compare. :/

Julian said...

OK, I know Ellen promised a big response from me on twitter, but after arguing about it too much last night, I'm not really in the mood, and I made my points to the author already.

That said....

There are plenty of reasons I would be wary about any potential kids of mine playing Major Junior, but "they might lose an important game and then be sad on TV" is not one of them. Worry about asshole coaches, or predatory agents, or hazing or concussions, or the kid getting drafted and moving to the big city and getting more money than anyone knows what to do with and making friends with the wrong player on the team. These are all things that happen to 18 and 19 year olds across the continent, and they're all much more potentially harmful than making a mistake during a hockey game watched by millions of people.

Yes, little league and highschool is different, but those are 11 year olds and seventeen year olds. At 18 and 19 (the age of 90% of WJC players) they're considered old enough to play in the big leagues and play in front of millions of people on TV. Speaking of which, more people watch your average Leafs game on Saturday night than watch most Team Canada WJC games. These aren't "kids" like highschoolers, these are adults by most legal definitions already. Cheering for Braden Schenn at the WJCs is creepy, but cheering for Tyler Seguin in the Stanley Cup finals isn't?

And if representing their country at the highest level is the peak of their athletic achievements, well fuck, we should all be so lucky. There's nothing wrong with peaking at that point, there's nothing wrong with something like that being their favourite memory of their hockey career. You think John Slaney regrets what he's best known for? Not everyone can go on to captain Stanley Cup teams. I think it would be amazing to be able to say "yeah, I once played for my country at the sport I love at the highest level possible for my age".

Look, I went over this all with Ellen last night, so I don't really want to get into it again except to say that if the attention paid to the WJCs is a Big Problem, or a Problem or even just a problem, there needs to be some demonstration of the harm it's doing, and I'm just not seeing that. I don't see how it harms the players at the moment or in the future. If I hear of a player who says "yeah, I could have made it to the show except for all that pressure that was on me for that one week when I was 19", then I'll rethink things.

And the word "creepy" gets thrown around a lot, but it's funny, I've never heard it used to describe 18 year olds in the NHL, or March Madness, or the NCAA bowl games. Pierre Maguire talking about Sidney Crosby's legs is creepy. People cheering for 18 and 19 year olds wearing the same flag as themselves playing a sport they all love isn't creepy.

Jake said...

i'm just getting into hockey this year, and as a lover of sports' seedy underbellies, I really enjoyed reading this!