The Bitter End

Goodbye.

It is a hard thing knowing when the end will come. Sudden endings can be painful, shocking even, but at least they’re swift and one-sided, chased with grief but blessedly free of dread. Every year that I’ve been a hockey fan, the Canadiens’ season has ended abruptly, either with a playoff elimination or a last-gasp-of-the-regular-season defeat. Every end came in a big game, with the spectre of hope still dangling right there, somewhere just beyond the end of regulation. Previous Habs ends have made me wish for 65, 70, 80 minute hockey games- if they’d only had more time, they might have been able to scrape through.

I’d never known when the end would come before, not until it came. This year I did. And it’s enough to make one wish that games could be ended in twenty minutes. Or forfeited, even. Anything to shorten the long, grey trudge to certain failure.

I’m not the only one. My life passes in the rocky borderlands between Habistan, Leafs Nation, and Oil Country. Everyone I know, everyone I talk to, everyone I share hockey with is depressed, enraged, or sunk in a kind of apathetic catatonia, enough hockey maladjustment to warrant new section of the DSM-V: sports-induced emotional disorders. My RSS feed is a catalog of elegies and lamentations, my Twitter feed a contest in hate-concision. I don’t even chat up strangers at parties about hockey anymore, because I already know what they’ll say, so many different phrases for the same thing: oh the pain, oh the disappointment.

So I was surprised when, out for drinks with a group of friends, an extremely hockey-savvy acquaintance leaned back in her chair, stared speculatively at the ceiling, and quoth: “I think I’m going to cheer for the Penguins this year.”

“You’re a Pens fan?”

“Nope. Not really. But I like them right now. With Crosby back they’re gonna be great.”

“So you’re rooting for them… just because you think they’ll win?”

“I think they’ve got a chance, sure, but mostly I just like the way they play these days. Good team, fun to watch.”

“And next year? If they’re not fun to watch anymore?”

“I’ll start following someone else. What’s the point of watching hockey if it isn’t fun?”

Now THAT is a good question.

I have been watching hockey that isn’t fun for, oh, two months now? Three? Do the math- about three hours a game, three or four games a week, over perhaps ten weeks- that’s over a hundred hours of not-fun hockey-watching. Which is insane. Who does that? Who, voluntarily and with no financial or practical incentive, wastes a hundred hours of their life on something they’re patently not enjoying? What, I ask you, is the point of such an exercise?

The only possible answer is loyalty. For some obscure reason, fans are deeply committed to the idea that a team relationship must be a singular devotion, absolute hockey-monogamy. As in relationships, there is a cultural tendency to look askance at people who are polyamorous in their team affections- a hard-core fan might, in a tactless moment, accuse my serially-monogamous hockey acquaintance of bandwagon-jumping, or even not really caring. Being a loyal fan- a die-hard, an obsessive, a true-blue (or red or black or orange or whatever) follower- is a mark of honor among one’s fellows. It’s a display of moral courage.

To other fans, anyway. Fan loyalty is perhaps the most differentially-viewed commodity in sport. To other fans, the length and strength of your obsession with a particular team is a mark of status, and people love to allude to stories that demonstrate as much- the family traditions they inherited, the formative childhood experiences. The things that show how close they’ve cleaved to their franchise since forever.

But to the media, fan loyalty is a bit of a joke. They play on it for their ratings and their page-views- look at how many utterly fictive Leafs and Habs trade rumors get made up around every deadline day- but they also laugh at it. In television, the fan base is invariably represented by the most drunk and theatrical of it’s members, the guys with bags on their heads or body paint streaked over enormous bellies, children with noisemakers and wigs, women pressing sexual desperation in posterboard form against the glass. In writing, journalists seem to routinely dredge social media- message boards, comment threads, Twitter- for the most emotionally extreme and intellectually ridiculous notions in order to characterize the thoughts of the fan base. The media out of Montreal is forever telling me what Habs fans think and want and believe, often in a chastising tone, as though I personally was offending them with my crazy ideas. Their interpretation of fan sentiment is selective, chosen more or less deliberately in order to drive the narrative they want, and in doing so, they create a caricature that casts all ‘fans’ as naïve, irrational, and hopelessly biased.

Which is sad, because sports fanaticism is anything but a uniform practice. It varies dramatically in intensity, sincerity, and tone from person to person. Yes, I’ve met a few hockey fans who were every bit as blinkered and blustery as the media image, but there are plenty who are other things- there are rigorously analytical fans, lyrically meditative fans, casually amiable fans. There are fans who are in it mostly for the social aspects and those who treat it like church doctrine and those who pretty much only do it for their kids. I have hardly met any two fans of the same team who feel the same way about every issue. It is difficult for me to believe, then, when I read in the newspaper that ‘the fans’ hate so-and-so, or demand this or that trade.  Outside of the uniform cheering and booing at actual games, ‘the fans’ do not do or think hardly anything en masse, like some kind of Borgesque collective.  Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

Even within the same person, the mode of fanaticism varies from year to year and age to age. Most of us can remember a time when the team was different and we were different too, some editions of the franchise that inspired a more sincere love or a more direct loathing than the current version. Of all the myths of the fan stereotype, the worst is the notion that fans are uncritical of their team, that being a supporter means it is somehow impossible to be objective. Every fan of more than a few years has had the experience of hating their team, of looking at it and seeing clearly that things were terrible and wrong. There is nothing that a supposedly ‘objective’ member of the general media sees in a franchise that the die-hards haven’t seen a month earlier. The only difference is that the fans feel something about it.

Maybe this is why journalists find it so difficult to respect fans: because fans feel things, and feel them deeply and publicly. Ever since the Enlightenment (I feel like Michael Lewis, invoking the Enlightenment in a sports essay) we’ve had cultural commitment to a binary separation between reason and emotion, that any idea that is rational has no emotional content and any emotion that is felt has no rational basis. Fanaticism, as a social custom, violates this distinction. Because while fans very obviously surf through the seasons on waves of feeling, they also have an extremely deep and systemic knowledge of hockey.

Fans (in the aggregate but many individually as well) know everything about the team. Their analytic skills vary according to the person and the mood, but the knowledge is profound. The general media, who are most likely to tout their lack of bias as an indicator of their wisdom, often express the shallowest thoughts and observations in hockey (there are, of course, some exceptions). They’re like people who only listen to top-40 radio, they’ll go on and on about the greatest hits of decades past but hardly ever mention the whole catalog. Maybe they know it, but their jobs incentivize them to stay on the surface of things- top-line players, great records, first-and-onlys. Good stuff, but hardly the full extent of knowing the game. The fans know the B-sides and the rarities- the third-line wingers and back-up goalies, the AHL call-ups, the rookies who never quite made it. They remember details, of all these players, all these situations, stories of quirky games and funny moments and minor dramas. What fans lack in breadth of general-NHL, up-to-the-minute information they make up for in depth of memory.

Loyalty isn’t just a pointless commitment. It’s how we learn the game, the real game, the whole of the game, from the top to the bottom of the shifting roster across years that mount to decades. For all the local differences between the franchises, in the living one team is much like another. Each one is an archetype of it’s brethren, and by learning the one deeply you learn much about the whole by proxy. If I sit down with a fan of another team and rhapsodize about P.K. Subban or rant about Brad Staubitz, they may not know a ton about these exact players, but they can immediately make an analogy. They know that guy. They’ve had a guy like that, maybe not this year, maybe not for a long time, but at some point. So they tell their story and I tell mine and we talk a while about what is the same and what is different and how the other occasions have worked out, and I come away knowing things I didn’t know before. The best, most useful, and most interesting things I’ve ever learned about hockey I learned from fans.

This is how sport is supposed to be experienced. It is a competition, the essence of it is the struggle of one side against all others, that is it’s design. A season is a story that needs a hero, not just an assortment of equivalent pieces. It is the real way of the game; not a gentle coasting from one highlight to the next but a long, complicated tale, full of sound and fury and nevertheless signifying much. It is the accumulation of a million such narratives, remembered and juxtaposed, told, debated, dissected and criticized, that makes the sport itself. It is all important, the great players and the small, the good seasons and the bad, the waves of love and hate. If you want to know about a game, you have to go through all of it.

Even this trudge to the bitter end.

When I hear someone in the general media get all high and mighty about being ‘objective’, about not having a horse in the race, all I can think is: I hope, for your sake, that you’re lying. I hope you’re just pretending to have no particular loyalties because that’s what they told you to say in J school, because you want to keep your employment options open for a wide range of future local-media jobs. I hope that emotional indifference is just an act you’re professionally obligated to perform. I hope that when the cameras are off and the mics are dead, when you’re all alone and looking at the standings and you see that some particular team racked up a big win, you feel a little extra surge of joy. I hope there is some team that means more to you than the others, someone for whom you have a deeper knowledge and more sensitive feelings, someone you want to win. Because even now, at this bottomest of bottoms, when my horse has broken it’s legs and been shot dead on the track, at least I was in the race. And at least I learned something, even if that something was mostly about misfortune, incompetence, failure and pain. At least my story was about something.

Please, people, readers, be a fan. Have a team. Doesn’t have to be an NHL team- my promiscuously-watching acquaintance is an avid player with gobs of love for an assortment of rec league teams all over Toronto. Have a national team, or an AHL team, or some storied junior franchise out on some cold prairie. Put your heart into hockey, on some side, somewhere. Otherwise you’re going to miss so much, so much pain, so much joy, so much knowledge. There are so many things you’ll never feel and so many others you’ll never learn. If you don’t have a team at all, you’re missing something. Maybe everything.