The old adage that you don’t pick your team as much as your team picks you is nonsense. There is a reason why you chose to become a Calgary Flames fan, or a Denver Broncos fan or, a Los Angeles Clippers fan, or, god forbid, a Chicago Cubs fan. It’s just not easily comprehended. To paraphrase Canadian writer Hugh MacLennan in a fashion for which he no doubt never intended: There is no simple explanation for the team you chose to support, the sports fan’s irony consists in the necessity of a decision made under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.
I have no idea why I loved the Boston Bruins as a child. The typical motivations don’t exist. My dad didn’t love the Boston Bruins. He didn’t hate the Boston Bruins, either. I didn’t get to watch a whole lot of Boston Bruins games. I didn’t know anyone else who supported the Boston Bruins. However, they were my favorite hockey team from an early age, and I loved their best player dearly.
When kids in the neighborhood played shinny or street hockey, most would pretend to be their favorite player, informing teammates that they were Ed Olczyk or Shayne Corson; Vincent Damphousse or Stephan Richer. I could never do this. I was never Ray Bourque because I wasn’t as remarkable as him, and any mistake that I made might reflect badly on my hero. An unforgivable infraction of my idolization. Instead, I’d play the role of a lesser member on the team, a Craig Janney or a Cam Neely.
My relationship with Boston began with heartbreak. The Bruins lost two Stanley Cup Finals in three seasons before my tenth birthday. It occurred at an age in which I was inexperienced enough for this to be the most traumatic event of my life. The thing that I hoped for most, above anything else, didn’t come to fruition, and from there it was all downhill. For the next several seasons, Boston remained on the outside of serious contention, and as I entered my later teens, it got even worse.
After being familiarized with early exits from the playoffs, the Bruins missed out on the postseason in 1997 for the first time in 29 years. Even though the team returned in each of the next two seasons, and even won their first playoff series in five years in 1999, the only worthwhile reason for following the team was Ray Bourque. Through the team’s struggles, Bourque remained the only successful constant. He was a steady hand, skating 30 minutes a night, creating scoring chances like few defencemen before or since, all while defending better than anyone else in the league.
After any hope for the 1999/2000 season was eliminated by a plague of injuries and Marty McSorely’s assault on Donald Brashear with a hockey stick, Bourque requested a trade from the team so that he might have a chance to win the Stanley Cup before his career came to an end. Then, on March 6th, 2000, Bourque was traded to Colorado with Dave Andreychuk for Brian Rolston, Martin Grenier, Sammy Pahlsson and a first round draft pick.
I didn’t really know it then, but the way in which I consumed sports changed that day. I’m sure there were other factors at play. I was nineteen-years-old at the time. I could legally hang out in bars. I no longer lived under the purview of my parents. And I could meet young women who had no idea of all my embarrassing moments from high school. However, these other factors were merely the elements that were intermingling. Ray Bourque’s trade from the Boston Bruins was the catalyst for no longer being a team-focused sports fan.
A year and a half later, watching Bourque hoist the Stanley Cup on a television in a dingy, but convivial apartment in downtown Toronto, I was happy. And I would’ve been just as happy if the moment took place with any team. I couldn’t feel the same way about the Bruins as I had in my younger days, and I couldn’t feel the same way about my beloved teams in other sports. Almost ten years after Bourque was traded, another favorite player on a favorite team was traded away in a similar scenario to Bourque’s, when Roy Halladay was moved from the Toronto Blue Jays with cash to the Philadelphia Phillies for Travis d’Arnaud , Kyle Drabek and Michael Taylor. It happened, and I couldn’t identify at all with the outpouring of sadness from other Blue Jays supporters.
This is just something that happens in professional sports. There’s a cost to being a sports fan. And that cost wears on you.
I thought of all this last night, when it seemed certain that the Bruins had switched roles from the team that they were thirteen years ago. By acquiring Jarome Iginla from the Calgary Flames, they were doing to Flames fans what the Avalance had done to Bruins fans so long ago in giving us our freedom from team obsession. Of course, it didn’t work out so poetically – it rarely does in sports – as most of us woke up on Thursday morning to find out it was the Pittsburgh Penguins who emerged with the grand prize.
Nonetheless, my feelings for Flames fans remain the same. If your process for dealing with a star’s exit is anything like mine, you’ll see Iginla in another uniform, and you’ll cheer for him, and then you’ll think of the current team in Calgary, and it will never be the same. Obviously, such a drastic reaction won’t take place for everyone, at least not to the exact same degree, but there are few players in all of professional sports that are as easily identified to their team as Iginla was to the Flames, just like Bourque was to the Bruins. At some point during the team’s struggles, the vicarious experience of cheering on a hockey team became more about cheering on a player that you associated with the team, and now that association has been broken.
If there isn’t a simple explanation for the team we choose to support, there only exists a more complicated compulsion making us sports fans at all. Go Iggy, go.