Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Soul of Nowhere

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

An erg is just a gigantic pile of sand. But by gigantic, I mean really hugely unimaginably gigantic, miles and miles of waves of sand, hundreds of feet high. Most desert is flat, crackly mud and rocks, but the erg is the strange, terrifying kind of desert you see in movies, that golden sea of light and shadow.

People do not try to live in an erg, because that would be catastrophically stupid. The erg is not really land in any normal sense of the word. Although it looks stable enough, you can certainly walk on it and sit on it and pitch a tent on it if you wanted to, it is constantly in motion. The people who live on the solid ground in the vicinity watch it move over the course of the year, and they will tell you that it changes a little bit every day, but sometimes, a couple of times in any year, a true storm will sweep through and in the morning, the erg will be completely different. It is nothing but sand, after all. It has no real shape.

Trade deadline day is the massive sandstorm that reminds us- those of us who never knew or dared to forget- that hockey teams, too, have no real shape. We’re apt to gloss over this irritating fact. We give them names, after all, and try to believe that those names mean something, but everything that comprises the team is arbitrary- the name, the city, the symbols, and especially, the players. Fans are constantly in the process of trying to convince themselves that a dune is really a mountain, that all these shifting bits and pieces, or at least some of them, have are real distinct shape and a real distinct meaning. We try to define the boundaries of our personal dune, but then the winds pick up and suddenly part of our dune is over in someone else’s and somebody else’s sand is piling up on the far east side, and where the hell did that pile of grey pebbles come from? That was not here yesterday. You try to select the particular people or attitudes or styles of play or management or whatever that are characteristically your team’s, and when that fails, you say, fine, I guess I’m just a fan of the laundry, until one morning you wake up and find that someone has put a big yellow slug logo on all the laundry, and then you say, fine, well, whoever they are, whatever they wear, this is the team of my city. And then they move the team to Kansas.

As I said, nothing can live in an erg, nothing grows. It is exciting and dramatic, the constant change, the spectacular views, but it is not solid enough for things like life and growth, which require a more boring environment with stable land and regular rainfall. Which is why they say that the erg is not a real place, it has no landmarks, it has no identity. Nothing in the erg can be mapped or named or defined, it has no real nature, it has no soul.

Hockey teams do not, generally speaking, have souls, nor do they need them. Players, maybe, have souls, but their souls, their hearts, are entirely their own- their passion remains theirs, exclusively, we just get to watch it. For the players, for the management, and especially for the fans, it is sufficient that the team be comprised of talented, committed individuals who can play an exciting game and win regularly. Those are the only real functions of a hockey team: to play, to entertain, and to win, and they can be accomplished easily with a revolving-door roster and some cagey managing.

Nevertheless, sometimes, something happens to take root in the erg, and sometimes, equally rarely, some hockey teams develop a soul. There is no consistent pattern or predictability or process to how it happens. It is sheer luck, or fate, if you believe in that sort of thing. Some patch of sand stays solid enough, long enough, the right seed lands there at the right point in the season, and eventually there’s a tree where there absolutely shouldn’t be. And it hangs on in that spot, spreads out its roots, stabilizes the surrounding sand, and it becomes a place. People notice it, remember it, travelers use it to navigate, playing children use it as a meeting spot, tourists take pictures of it. It is only a tree, nothing very remarkable in the wide world, but in the context of the erg it’s an attraction, an object of fascination and interest. It is the only place that is actually a place, that was there yesterday and will be there tomorrow.

And so it is with the player who really roots himself in a given team. It doesn’t happen often or easily, and the circumstances are as individual as the people involved. The guys can be gregarious or obnoxious or sweet or even sometimes downright shy, they can play any position or style, they can be from anywhere, the only thing they have in common is that they stay. Everything else gets blown around from year to year, and sometimes even from day to day, but they find something so compelling in their city, their team, that they stay. It is no small achievement to do that in hockey, it requires patience and tenacity and considerable talent, but more than that, it requires a uniquely expansive passion for the game, one that sprawls out and finds its way into other people. Some players have the ability to draw you into the game as they see it, so that their vision becomes their teammates' vision becomes the fans' vision becomes the city’s vision and suddenly…

The team has a soul. It has a character. It has a personality. It has a face.

Just as the particular patch of sand was nowhere until the tree grew and made it a place, so the team is just arbitrary objects until a player comes along and gives it a soul. But in both cases, the effect is fragile. Just as it cannot be planned, neither can it be transferred. If a particularly terrible storm comes along and blows away the tree, it is not simply going to grow somewhere else, and that particular patch of sand isn’t just going to grow another plant. The place is gone. Similarly, a player who has been the soul of one team does not, when traded, become the soul of the new team. He may continue to be a good player and a good teammate, he may develop an affection for his new location, but that is not the same thing. The relationship that makes a player ‘the heart and soul of his team’ is not because of his nature or the nature of the franchise he plays for, but the combination of the two. It is utterly unique, and once broken, cannot be repaired.

A player who is willing to give so much of himself, who is willing to let his soul become the team’s soul, is always a little bit crazy. There is no place for that kind of devotion in hockey. That extra measure they give will not make them more money, it won’t make them a better player or get them more ice time, and dare I say it, it won’t even get them more love or respect from the fans. Hockey fans love their game, but like anyone who has chosen to live in an erg, they are adaptable. They know their teams will change and though they may rant and rave and whine, in the end most of them will stick with their franchise no matter what, largely indifferent to the 'heart and soul'- or lack thereof- on the roster. Moreover, a fan is generally speaking more attracted to talent than anything else, and a player who is great enough on the ice will be respected, admired, and loved no matter how selfish, mercenary, or vicious his personality, while even the most passionate and sincere and hard-working guy will be much criticized and even vilified if he slumps. Fans love many things, but nothing so much as winning.

A player who becomes the soul of his team moves us not because he is necessary, but because he is entirely unnecessary, because he is a curiosity, an aberration. Because his is a quixotic generosity and an ultimately unrequited love that serves no real purpose. It captures us as only things which are rare and unexpected and undeserved can.

Trade deadline day came and all kinds of news and rumors and confusion swirled everywhere, and I mostly just wrapped myself in a sheet and kept my head down and hoped for the best, and when it was over I dug myself out, wiped the sand out of my eyes, and was deeply relieved to find my own little dune not so very much different from the way I had left it. My Habs lost one much-loved fixture and gained a couple of new faces, but for the most part, we are going to go as far as we can with the team that we have, with our amazing special teams and our weak five-on-five, our disappointingly unproductive Russian wingers and surprisingly productive Czech centers, with our hard-working 4th line darari and our total lack of superstars, complete with (almost) the whole spectrum of blessings and curses that have defined our season thus far, from Souray to Niinimaa and everything in between. And most importantly, with our overpaid, undersized, injury-prone heart-and-soul, who I will never take for granted again. Because I know now how rare and fortunate it is to have a team with a soul, how fragile that bond is, how easily it is broken, and how little it means in the end. Which, ironically, makes me appreciate it all the more right now.

The mantra of trade deadline day is hockey is a business. Everyone repeats it, on TV and on the internet and in the papers, in every discussion. This is the existential statement that helps us make sense of what happens at the deadline, the belief that is most comforting, the idea that helps us weather the storm and find our bearings in the new terrain it leaves behind.

It’s not entirely true. It is only one of many existential statements we make about hockey through the year, depending on the circumstances. We say it now because it is appropriate to the occasion, and on different occasions we will say different things, all of which will seem equally true in their proper moments and equally ridiculous out of context. We do not say hockey is a business on jersey retirement nights, we do not say it when we speak of our favorite players and most memorable playoff series. The team that wins the Cup will not say, we are victorious due to our vastly superior business sense! We will not say such things on Hockey Day in Canada, we will not say it in the debate that follows a particularly nasty brawl, nor when a gorgeous goal makes us gasp. In the fleeting final seconds of a tied game, we do not think, what a business this is. No, for these occasions, we will define hockey in different ways. We will speak of speed, excitement, and joy, of passion and skill and grace, of heart and grit and determination, of leadership, and cruelty, and honor. We will say hockey is a war or hockey is a tradition, we will make of hockey a metonym for nations and cities and every virtue or vice humanly possible.

And as the final line of defense, when we have tried telling ourselves all these things and yet remain confused or upset or conflicted, we will sometimes shrug and say, Hockey is just a game.

Hockey is just a game.

Hockey is just a game the way ice cream is just glucose, love is just a feeling, and sex is just repetitive motion.

The way an erg is just a pile of sand.

The way Ryan Smyth was just an Oiler.


Doogie2K said...

There are some things you can't apply cold logic to. Some things you can't analyse rationally. Some things you can't "look at the big picture" and just accept, like it'll all be better in the morning. This is one of them.

Thank you, E. Thank you very much.

Julian said...

I just wrote something myself on Smyth, and you went and put me to shame.

This is your best post yet E, just incredible. I'm gonna develop a blog-crush on you if you're not careful.

Ryan Smyth would have been worth an irrational overpay. I'm now this much closer to being a Habs fan.

Showerhead said...

Poetic, quotable, and truly heart wrenching for an Oiler fan like me. Fantastically written, E.

PPP said...

Um, forget gonna develop a blog-crush it's too late.

That was a spectacularly written piece.

Jay said...

I do seem to be playing devil's advocate here, but at the end of the day, no matter how ridiculously attached you might get to them, players are just players. They are means to the ends of winning, of scoring, of lifting the Stanley Cup. You can get as attached as you want - I do, routinely defending Sundin as the best captain playing with the retirement of Yzerman - but like I say, a player is a tool of his team.

If a player plays badly but has a lot of fan support, a general manager who chooses not to trade them or to send them to their minor-league affiliate is a fool. I would hate seeing Sundin leave Toronto because I like the guy, he improves the team as a whole when he's on his game, but if the price was right, I'd expect JFJ to pull the trigger. I'd love to see Sundin end his career as a Leaf only a little less than I'd love to see him end his career as a Leaf with a cup ring, and I can empathise with the grieving Oilers fans, but you can apply logic to this and you must.

Smyth was going to leave Edmonton at the end of the year, and they now have two hot prospects and a decently-ranked pick where, if the negotiations had continued and failed, as they were likely to, they would have had nothing. The opportunity cost (to borrow a term from economics) just wasn't good enough.

I don't know, maybe I'm being too cold, too emotionless. But consider this - Jamal Lewis was cut from the Baltimore Ravens after spending six solid seasons with us. Some say the cut was merely to restructure his contract in order to help the team grow, but the chances are equally good he'll leave us and be playing in another set of colours next year. I'd hate to see him play against us as a member of the Cinncinati Bengals, but only because I know how dangerous a player he is. I'm not mourning his impending loss because there is really no reason to.

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful thing. One of the more beautiful things I've read - about hockey or not.

Thanks for this... it somehow made me feel better and worse at the same time. But it helped, and it's beautiful.


Anonymous said...

I was thinking something similar, but a lot less eloquent. It reminded me of a winter day, with a cold wind and low gray clouds, and then the storms come during the night and when the sun rises, everything is covered with snow and looks completely different. That is one of the things I love about winter, in spite of the long nights, shoveling, blizzards, icy roads, walking carefully so you don't fall on your butt in a snowdrift--the feeling of disorientation in surroundings that seemed so familiar a short time before. It is so easy to think that just because elements of your environment haven't changed lately that they will be the same tomorrow, and that isn't the case in anything in life.

Really nice post. Now I have to keep track of yet another blog. :)

Julian said...

Erik, you completely missed the point of E's post.

She's saying that at some point, players aren't just players, they're more than that. It's incredibly rare, and not many franchises get one. Those players are more than just players.

Jay said...

Oh, no, I understood that, it was hard to miss with the final line. I'm just disagreeing. Where the vibe here is that Smyth and players with this "X-Factor" transcend the team, I say these players are just parts of a machine - while they're undoubtedly special on their own, the finished product, the machine, is the important part.

LittleFury said...

I can empathise with the grieving Oilers fans, but you can apply logic to this and you must.

Screw you. You're not the boss of me. You're not even my real dad.

Anonymous said...

This was an absolutely beautiful post.

It should be published elsewhere, frankly.

(sad Smytty fan)

Anonymous said...

If I was still an Oiler fan, this would be like balm. Thankfully, i'm not.

One of your best posts, e.

Anonymous said...

This was an absolutely beautiful post.

It should be published elsewhere, frankly.

Absolutely. I have an utterly forgettable paperback at home that I'm halfway through on the experience of being a fan. So far, I haven't found anything novel or thought-provoking in it, hence the "halfway through". A collection of E on Hockey would be something to treasure and reread.

Jordi said...

Losing a player you never felt would move has become unimaginably painful. I'm sure many fans are reluctant to admit they may have cried a little over the announcement.

Oh and Julian, admit it - you do have a crush.

Julian said...

Fine, I admit it. Hell, I'd probably develop a crush on anyone who wrote this regardless of their gender.

Alice... is the book "Fever Pitch" by Nick Hornby? If not, what's it called?

Anonymous said...

Alice... is the book "Fever Pitch" by Nick Hornby? If not, what's it called?

Nope. It's True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans, by Joe Queenan. It shows up on an Amazon search, but I can't manage to edit the link down to something usable in this tiny window!

Part of the problem I have with the book is his casual assumption that only men are sports fans; I'm actually about 100 pages past the point where he said that the female equivalent of being a sports fan is shopping for shoes.

Jay said...

Oh what the hell Fever Pitch is a fucking great book. How dare you slander the talented Mr. Hornby's name's quite beyond me. I think I may have a huff now.

Yes, there we are. Huff mode activated.

Anonymous said...

If you're talkin' to me Erik, I must not have made myself clear. I'm not talking about Fever Pitch as I've neither read the book nor seen the movie. The author of True Believers is the one who disparages female sports fans.

Julian said...

hey I'm not slandering the book, I like it, I've read it twice. It's sorta an interesting book, cause half the book is completely foreign to me (EPL football and its format, history, players, customs) and the other half feels like something I among very few people in the world would understand.

It's just Fever Pitch is the first book I thought of when Alice said she was reading a book about being a fan.

E said...

okay, i have to intervene here: no huffy literary debates in the comments section! i come to hockey to avoid huffy literary debates. i hereby declare that nobody intended any disrespect to nick hornby and that any author who makes women/shoe shopping references should be immediately dismissed on the grounds of unpardonably lame cliche-use.

i'd been trying to think of ways to thank everyone for all the many nice things they've said, but i can't think of a way to do it classy-like, so i'm just gonna say: thanks. i'm glad i did a decent job of describing something to others that i don't even fully understand myself.

as to publishing elsewhere, i'm open to suggestions. the reason that i have a blog is because i have not the slightest idea how one goes about getting anything creative published anywhere.

erik: my point is not so much that this 'x-factor' (as you call it) transcends the team, but rather that it transforms the team, and the player himself, and sometimes the fans too. i'm not necessarily saying anything about the value of that transformation- that's very subjective, and you're certainly free to value other things more. my only real point was to 'affirm the mystery' of it, to express a little bit of wonder that it can happen at all, and to momentarily mourn the loss of it.

julian: before you take that crush any further, i have a confession: i'm not really a woman, i'm actually a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters. they thought i'd (or i suppose i should say we'd) write shakespeare, but it turns out all we really want to talk about is hockey. go figure.

Red said...

To call the above post a 'post' almost seems to detract from it's poignancy; rather, it should be described as a "social commentary". I don't know how you were able to capture my (and I'm sure many other's) feelings so completely.

I thank-you... thank-you!

Julian said...

Ehn, well, this may mark me as a neaderthal, but I'd rather read about hockey than Shakespeare. Usually.

hambown said...

Lovely extended metaphor

Anonymous said...

Ryan Smyth IS an Oiler.