Buddhism for Hockey People

Speaking as a hockey person, what I want more than anything right now is a little tranquillity. What with the Bettman and the Fehr and the Jacobs and the Hamrlik and the decertification and disclaimer and on and on and on, there’s no peace to be had anywhere in the public hockey conversation anymore. Everything is stress, worry, hate, and resentment, over and over and over again, and no matter how often the grievances are aired, they’re never let go. They just come back a week later, louder and sadder than before. Trying to think and write and talk about hockey has turned into a wheel of suffering, and man, I wish I could just get the hell off it.

You know who was tranquil? Buddha. Now there was a serene guy. Look at him, all excellent posture and meditative expression and being made of solid gold. That guy, he could be at peace with anything. It’s like his superpower. Could we, down here in lockout hell, borrow a little tranquillity from Buddhism? Could we maybe use it to get ourselves a little bit of room for deep breaths and calm acceptance? Let’s hang a Leafs jersey* and a whole lot of simplification on Siddhartha Gautama and find out.

The First Noble Truth: Hockey is suffering.

Wait wait wait wait, don’t go! Or do, if you’ve got somewhere to be, but don’t walk out on hockey Buddhism just because the First Noble Truth seems a little batshit. I get it: “Hockey is suffering” sounds like the sort of thing that can’t possibly be true. It’s a sport! It’s entertainment! It all about health and fun and happy happy happy, yes? If you had hockey right now, you’d be so happy, amiright?

Well… maybe not. Think about all the kinds of suffering there are in hockey. Obviously the lockout is suffering, but when the NHL is on it still generates a massive unhappiness. The neutral zone trap is suffering. Bad trades are suffering. Missing out on sexy UFAs is suffering. Concussions are suffering. Dirty hits are suffering. Missing the playoffs is suffering. Getting eliminated from the playoffs is suffering. Losing is suffering, and losing is far more of hockey than winning is. Every year, twenty-nine teams eventually lose for each one that gets to win, and if you think that elimination is any less painful when it happens in the SCF than when it happens in March, then you’ve never lost an SCF.

Hockey hurts more often than it doesn’t, but it’s not just the preponderance of hockey-suffering that’s important, it’s that hockey suffering is sustainable in a way that hockey-happiness isn’t. The happiness that follows a great goal, a big win, or even a Stanley Cup lasts for a few minutes, a few weeks, or a few months, but it always lapses back into anxiety and dissatisfaction with the next loss. Other than the most recent Stanley Cup winners, there is no team in the NHL so good that its fans are not spending much of their time worrying, complaining, lamenting, or regretting. Show me a juggernaut franchise and I will show you a fan base with a problem. Bruins? Greedy, lockout-perpetuating owner. Penguins? Superstar with concussion issues. Red Wings? Aging. Blackhawks? No goalie. Flyers? Overpaid, unpredictable, frequently crazy goalie. Canucks? Oh Lordy, there are not enough words on the internet to encompass the all the self-pity, resentment, and woebegone fatalism Canucks fans are prone to. In fact, I’m not even sure there’s much evidence that the fans of usually-good teams are all that much happier or content, on average, than those of usually-bad ones. Regression in hockey stats pulls toward the mean. Regression in hockey emotions pulls toward suffering.

The Second Noble Truth: The origin of hockey suffering is attachment and desire

But it isn’t hockey that causes suffering. Hockey, in itself, is just a bunch of stuff that happens. It’s neither good nor bad. It simply is. The only thing that makes it good or bad is it’s complicity with or divergence from our desires, and, as it turns out, our hockey desires are legion.

There’s the desire for sensory pleasure, not just for the existence of the game but also for an ideal version of the game that is seldom realized, something fast and hard and wild, yet also safe, disciplined, and organized. We long for a game played at the highest possible speed with lots of big hits, yet no serious injuries, for lots of goals and also lots of great saves, for endless winning on top of winning. The game we want, the ideal pinnacle of hockey that would require no more reforms and no more rule changes is likely impossible, but we cannot accept that impossibility, and in the gap between the game we have and the game we desire, suffering arises.

There’s the desire to become something other than what are. There’s the constant yearning after stars that belong to other teams and a Cup that can go to only one franchise in 30, the dream of becoming a dynasty in a parity universe where such things are no longer possible. There’s the frenetic worry before UFA day and the disappointment after, when the desired player didn’t come, or came at a price so ludicrous you can’t help but wonder if it was worth it. Despite copious evidence that no fan base is ever satisfied for long, we’re always looking at the grass on the other side, thinking if we had that player/coach/GM/draft pick, all our problems would be solved. And, conversely, there’s the pervasive devaluing of what we do have.  It’s shocking how often in hockey a desire fulfilled turns into a buyer’s remorse, and the star you wanted becomes the albatross you only want to be rid of.

The number and depth of attachments makes them impossible to satisfy. It’s common to see arguments that the lockout is the worst pain ever, but when hockey comes back, whatever inevitable negative shit goes down will also get treated like the worst pain ever. We’re unhappy when we don’t have hockey and we’re unhappy when we do. An example from my own team: if I aggregated the opinions of Habs fans on the internet at this time last year, were they noticeably happier because they had hockey? Hell no. They were freaking the fuck out, engaging in the same self-flagellating deconstructions, making the same empty threats. Does it matter that they were deconstructing a failing roster rather than failing CBA negotiations? Does it matter that they were threatening to quit on the Canadiens rather than on the NHL? From the point of view of the individual experience, no, it really doesn’t matter that much. Whatever blessings the hockey gods give us short of the Cup, our eyes are always focused on the ones they’ve withheld.

The Third Noble Truth: The end of hockey suffering is possible.

Logically, then, if the cause of suffering is desire and attachment, than freedom from suffering comes from shedding desires and attachments and learning to accept what is. Give up the expectation of the second coming of Roy, and you won’t be disappointed with Price. Give up the obsession with landing Parise and you might see all the good uses for Semin. Know that the probability is high that your team will never win the Cup in your lifetime, that players you love will have their careers ended prematurely, and that so long as there is an NHL it will be full of greedy motherfuckers who will happily forsake the game, the fans, and their own grandmothers for money. Embrace that hockey is an endless cycle without any particular fulfilment at the end, a rainbow with no pot of gold, a spiral of reincarnation. Accept it calmly, and let it go.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Eightfold Path

But how do we do this? The Eightfold Path (right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration) is where Buddhism and hockey conclusively part ways. Hockey is full of wrong intention and wrong action and wrong effort- if it weren’t, it’d be Zen. Right speech? What self-respecting hockey fan hasn’t spent hours trying to think up new and better ways to taunt their rivals? Right livelihood? Most of us dream of having jobs in the game where we can directly contribute to the ongoing attachment of our compatriots and the continued suffering of our opponents. Buddhist ethics demand a level of gentleness, compassion, restraint, and self-discipline that, were it applied to hockey, would destroy nearly everything awesome and exciting about the game. Hockey is about sweat and screaming and blood and hugs, not decorous courtesy and gentle contemplation.

But the incompatibility goes beyond that. See, even without an Eightfold Path, no one is condemned to suffer on the wheel always and forever. Hockey pain still isn’t inevitable. It can be mitigated, if not eliminated. During the lockout, some fans have alleviated their suffering through transferring energy to other sports or other varieties of hockey. When the NHL is playing, some fans avoid suffering by dividing their love between several different teams or allowing their attention to drift among the most interesting or thrilling moments, as the journalists do. But neither of these practices of hockey detachment, which obviously lead to less excruciating experiences of the game, are the main trend among hockey people. They are very much minority positions.

I think hockey fans like suffering. We like existing in a world of constantly suspended hopes, deferred dreams, and frustrated desires. We like the thrill that comes with waiting on the razor-edge of anxiety and the commiseration that comes with sharing tales of pain and frustration. Otherwise why would we tell the stories of our own team’s bad goals, terrible calls, decades-long droughts, and falls from grace with nearly the same relish as we tell their stories of triumph? The worst things ever are recounted and dissected as much and, depending on exactly how self-flagellating your team culture is, sometimes more than the best.

Is there any greater evidence of our collective love of suffering than this lockout? The NHL rejects us and we respond with fits of mad, desperate, obsessive longing for the NHL. Like a cruel lover or a snooty university, the more it treats us like shit, the more we crave it. In fact, far from being driven away by the obvious suffering that results from attachment to such a clusterfuck of a League, a large proportion of hockey fans seem to resent those who preach methods of detachment. In SBNation’s “Airing of Grievances” series about the lockout, advocates of shifting love away from the NHL were emphatically condemned along with the owners and the players and everyone else. For an in-season example, consider the most common reactions to bandwagon, promiscuous, and polyamorous fans whose allegiances change with the seasons and tides: far from admiring their ability to get the most pleasure and the least pain out of hockey, we’re apt to look down on them as lesser than us, exactly because they’ve endured less pain.

Hockey fans don’t want to be happy. They want to suffer every step of a long, exhausting path lit with faint glimmers of happiness that vanish almost as soon as they arise, or constantly skip just a little further into the distance. They want the perverse pleasure of contemplating past moments of long-faded joy and anticipating moments of future rapture from a well of misery. Maybe we get off on the contrast, playing up our unhappiness with now- whatever “now”is- so that our pleasure in the past or the future will seem stronger. Maybe we just get off on struggle more than success.

Hockey isn’t just suffering, kittens. Hockey is masochism.


*Of course Buddha would be into the Leafs, or as I sometimes think of them, The Fanbase Most Preoccupied with Analyzing Their Own Misery.