We All Come Back

The torch business was a bit silly. Even the players seemed skeptical. Plekanec, who has been in Montreal a long while and has had to perform a great many ceremonial duties, frowned apologetically, as if he was already rehearsing his post-game mea culpas. Budaj chewed gum with the bland just-another-day-at-the-office expression which is so becoming on a backup goalie. Armstrong looked petrified; Bouillon looked teary; Pacioretty tried to stifle a smirk, with only moderate success. Erik Cole seemed to briefly consider swinging the torch round the bowl and screaming ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!?!? Perhaps the only player who got it exactly right was Galchenyuk, who held that fuckin’ thing high like the Statue of Liberty, his features set in a mask of fierce determination, with the total lack of irony common to overachieving teenagers and Habs fans in the throes of history.

It’s said that Montreal does ceremony well, but that depends on what you like in your ceremonies. Certainly no one in the NHL does it quite like the Habs. Other teams pump themselves up for the season with highlight reels and Nickelback. The Canadiens do it with old men, black and white photos, and live reenactments of poetry from the Great War. Such sepia sincerity would look ridiculous on any other franchise. Truth be told, sometimes it looks a little ridiculous on us.

Leafs-Habs games are overburdened with a history that is not entirely earned. In fact, the historical grounds for the rivalry are surprisingly insubstantial. In ninety-five seasons of shared history, the two teams have directly fought each other for the Cup only five times. Even in the Original Six era, when there were only four other options and often barely even two, the Leafs had more climactic confrontations with the Red Wings than the Habs, who themselves have far more grounds for bad blood with Boston than they’ve ever had with Toronto. It’s always more about the first part of the names than the last, the long-standing cultural divide and economic competition between Canada’s two biggest cities and two most populous provinces, but in this dilute 30 team league, even that is getting stale. The meaning has worn thin. I can hear them snickering at us in San Jose.

That strength that in ancient times moved earth and heaven and got its name on the Cup 17 times? Yeah, that ain’t us. We’re not heroes, or even villains. We’re fourth-liners with concussion problems and centermen who are too short, journeymen here for a season and a paycheck and gone, and fans now held more in thrall to a corporate logo than a winning tradition. The ceremony, the history, the rivalry- it all looks great on Jean Beliveau, but it’s a heck of a lot of weight to put on Brian Gionta.

I wonder why it is that we all come back, and come back not with the dull resignation of addicts feeding a merciless hunger, but with a whooping enthusiasm all out of proportion to the actual significance of the game. Nobody on either side of this rivalry is blind to its silliness; you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in either city with delusions of hockey grandeur for the season ahead. For at least two decades now Habs and Leafs have been accustomed to fighting tedious battles over the difference between shitty and mediocre. We know as well as everyone else in the League that this torch-wielding spectacle is overkill, and that when an announcer says “It doesn’t get better than this”, he’s lying, because yes, modern hockey gets way better than anything you’re going to see in a Montreal-Toronto game.

And yet, we’re not resigned to it. Despite the dilution of the League and the nearly perpetual irrelevance of both franchises, we keep coming back, with barely even a show of resistance. We have been told, a hundred times for a hundred different reasons, that it would be better for us to stay away. The lockout isn’t the only thing that brings out the “vote with your wallet” crowd. I’ve heard people threaten to swear off the Habs for every reason from Cup drought to lack of Francophone players to displeasure with particular trades. It’s a fundamentally sound principle: the only power fans have is money, so if you’re not happy with the way things are, hold back your funds until things change.

If we were actually committed to using our fanaticism to make our teams better, the whole notion of boycotting would get a lot more cultural traction. But the fact that the vast majority of passionate fans in established markets have no interest in such things suggests that they’re not really in it for practical purposes like “winning” and “playing good hockey”. However much anger we might have at our players, our owners, and our League, the notion of abandoning it still seems ridiculous. Some people interpret this as weakness. I think it’s a form of strength.

The torch ceremony is a symbol, but the game itself is a ritual. Mircea Eliade said: a ritual is a time machine. Whether it’s the Catholic communion or the sheep-sacrifice at Eid al-Adha, rituals serve not just as reenactments of a historical moment but as ways of collapsing history altogether, bringing this moment now into a contemporaneous alignment with the same moment the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that, all the way back to the beginning. For everyone in the Bell Centre and no small portion of those watching at home, this Leafs-Habs game is redolent of a hundred previous matches and all their memories, personal and shared, wonderful and terrible.

You’ll all come back, the pundits say, some of them with resignation and others with a sneer. Of course we will. That’s what we do. We come back. Because part of it is business, caps and floors and HRR and escrow and all the rest, but the rest of it is ritual. Our parents did this- maybe not our literal parents but our ancestors in fanaticism, whoever we learned the lore from- and our grandparents, and our great-grandparents, back to the days of fedoras and furs. It connects us to the things before and the things to come, but more importantly, it connects us to who we are. We are a hockey culture, and preserving that is far, far more important to us than sending any sort of symbolic or economic message to the NHL.

Will the fans come back? the headlines ask, as if this half a year of lockout was some kind of ultimate indignity the likes of which we never saw before. Fuck, man, have they thought about all the things we’ve already come back despite? A hundred years is a long time in hockey. You can suffer a lot in that time. Between the pair of us, these two teams have lost more games, seasons, and Cups than anyone else in the rest of the League. We’ve seen our arenas burned and ruined and turned into supermarkets, we’ve seen our teams betrayed by grasping owners and self-centered stars, we’ve seen our heroes in the grave before their time.  The Leafs have suffered forty years without a Cup and seven years without playoffs- the lockout might have been bad, but certainly no harder to endure than that.

Yes, there will be some attrition, but there always is. Every year there are some teenagers who decide they love their rock band more than hockey and some old men who decide it isn’t worth their time anymore. There’s never any shortage of coots in either of these markets willing to ditch the team over all manner of grievances, valid or not. Maybe this year there will be more.  But it doesn’t matter. There are always more souls being initiated.  For every middle-aged fan who stomps away to take a stand against Bettman, there’s a dozen more who look at their kids and think, corruption or no, lockout or no, I cannot wait to take them to a Habs-Leafs game someday. 

Maybe there are some markets where people won’t come back, but that won’t be because they’re passionate fans fatally offended by this latest enormous turd atop the NHL’s great pile of bullshit. It’ll be because they never cared that much in the first place, because they never had a ritual. The people who won’t come back are the ones who occasionally filled seats in largely empty arenas. This is not to say that fans of young teams feel any less passion than those of the old; only that it takes time for that passion to solidify into something more. It’s the difference between falling in love for the first time and being married for fifty years.

Around the League, teams are building their rituals. In Pennsylvania, the Penguins and the Flyers play out a fresh, hot rivalry, a communion that still tastes like blood and flesh. In LA, the Hawks and the Kings experiment with the non-geographical hatred that only one elite can have for another . Every season, everywhere, teams are trying to figure out which games, which opponents, which traditions will sustain them through the inevitable indignities of time and business. In Montreal, though, in Toronto… we’re set, man. Our rite is ancient and our faith is firm, and every season, we all come back, a little bit proud and a little bit ridiculous, a million weak-willed satellites orbiting twin suns.

That which we are, we are.

Comments (13)

  1. Good write up, totally agree. Pretty sure that’s Bouillon holding the torch, eh?

  2. A friend of mine is in full boycott mode. She’s so chapped over it that she’s refusing to watch any games. Not that at this point I can really say she’s missing much because my team is injury ridden right now. Heck, even if they weren’t so badly hurt, they’re still not looking very good on paper anyway. I said to her the other day as she was mocking me over watching every televised game on opening day, “We are weak in the face of goals”. And of course it’s not just goals, it’s everything and on opening day I was like a hungry lion staring down a fat zebra.
    The thing I liked most here in what you’ve said is that while you’re being specific to two teams with huge history, I think you can apply this idea, this feeling to anyone who’s a genuine fan of the sport. Heck, my brother who is the person who got me into hockey, is even boycotting? What? Oh, there are so many other things to do besides hockey? Right. Okay. Go on and do them. I know what’s important to me and if it’s a silly hockey game that no one else in my immediate world gives a rat’s ass about, then that’s just fine with me, because I love it. And each new season is like falling in love all over again; even this season, when I lost the Winter Classic, one of my all-time favorite players retired and I strongly dislike several guys on the roster. None of that ultimately matters to me, because what I lost in the lockout was so much more than just some bad giveaways in the defensive end, and Sidney Crosby and Sidney Crosby and Sidney Crosby. I was missing a part of me; that part of me that shares everything I love about hockey with everyone I know, whether they care or not. I was short on that part of me that draws concerned looks from co-workers when I cackle over a brilliant blog post in the middle of my dead silent office. I was without that which in a way, is uniquely mine. The majority of my friends aren’t hockey fans and have never so much as watched a game. And while sometimes that can be kind of a drag, for me it’s also kind of awesome.
    Now that I have hockey back the planets are properly aligned. I can shut out the rest of the crazy world and for 2 ½ hours every other day, or even every day. My problems aren’t so big and my anxieties fall away because I’m focused and I am home. And just like the saying goes, there’s no place like it.

  3. All we need is to see the Leafs and the Habs actually begin to compete again, and then meet in the playoffs, to test of that part of the thesis.

    All I can say is, for a lot of Canadians I know, it’s the kindof rivalry which reaches the level of nation-vs-nation. The idea that LA vs the Hawks is even in the same league of conversation is, to me, miles off.

    Anyway, might want to reach back to the fact that tonnes of fans bitter about Kerry Fraser in 1993 reference it as “the series where we would have played the Habs.”

    • While I believe in it to a certain extent, I don’t want to overstate the depth of Habs-Leafs exceptionalism. Rivalries- the kind of meaningful match-ups that make games into rituals- can come from all sorts of places and have all sorts of different textures. The Habs-Bruins rivalry, for example, has none of the “nation vs. nation” overtones of the Leafs one. It’s based purely based on a shared history of playing each other, yet I know plenty of Habs fans who feel more intensely about the Bruins than they do about the Leafs. Not everyone has the luxury of hanging their sports rituals on grand sociolinguistic metaphors, but they’re still allowed to have them, and I’d never say they were less ‘real’ for it.

      • It’s true. I could really care less about the so-called rivalry that the Leafs and Habs have. For me, the bigger rivalry is Leafs-Sens, but I’m young enough that I’ve never seen the Leafs and Habs play in the playoffs while I really got into hockey around the time the Leafs and Sens played each other every year.

        Meanwhile, if you ask my dad he’ll say the opposite. He doesn’t care at all about Ottawa, and the bigger rivalry is with the Habs. More history there, for him.

      • Not saying nation vs nation is the ONLY kind of rivalry. As you say, they can come from all sorts of roots. But words like “luxury” add nothing to the argument. It’s just a question of which rivalries run hottest, deepest. I’d argue Leafs-Habs. And if part of that is about their nations, that’s not unfair somehow, it just IS.

        As for Habs-Boston, actually there are lots of historic connections. And for the same reason as most Nova Scotians feel more emotional about Boston teams than, say, Chicago. Namely, that tens of thousands of immigrants went there in the past, and thus there are long-established family links, familiarity, etc. e.g. For a Nova Scotian, for many decades a game against a Boston team meant far more than against an Albertan team. Nowadays, that’s shifting.

        As for passion etc., I think it may be too easy to simply say, fans of young teams don’t feel it any less. It sounds nice, but worse pondering on. For starters, fans today have far more teams – and activities – to connect to. Nor do sports teams correspond to sets of religious, racial, national characteristics in the same way. And players appear to have less longevity with teams, and have a different socio-economic class.

        All of which just says, sports fandom today may not be quite as “life/death” as it was for some in the past. And that may be a good thing, don’t get me wrong. Rangers-Celtic needs to lose that edge, same as the Habs-Leafs thing did. (Or even Lakers-Celtics.)

        But with the shift in the type, style, intensity (perhaps) of fandom, that shift may mean differing results from teams of different ages. For example, a 30% shift in some climactic variable may have very different results if applied to a set of trees of varying ages, right? Same with sports. A team from the Original 6 may have managed to get established in a city’s mind and culture in ways, and with roots, which the latter day fandom can’t easily recreate. I mean, can you imagine the Cubbies becoming the Cubbies with an expansion team? I donno. Maybe the Padres will become that, but I’m not convinced.

        I’m sure there are flip-sides to this argument, like maybe old teams get more easily lost, dependent on the past, tied to old dead rituals, and thus, get wiped out by more innovative youngsters. Could be. Still.

        Shorter: History matters. A tree planted in 1870, a marriage begun in 1930, a team launched in 1970…. these may all have substantive differences from those begun 40 years prior/after. Maybe better. Maybe “worse.” I donno.

        Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful piece, Ellen. We don’t have to agree, I just like that your pieces are – more frequently than anyone else I know – thought-provoking.

  4. Great article, Ellen. Well said.

  5. A little heavy on the jargon at times, but this was a phenomenal article.

  6. Great write-up!

    As a neutral observer though, that Habs ceremony seemed a bit over-done.

  7. Rituali Ritualia Propter (ritual for rituals’ sake) – When employed by two contemporaneously irrelevant teams, in the wake of an NHL lockout (the 4th stoppage in two decades) it comes across as some sort of cargo cult.

    All we’re missing is some form of sacrificial ceremony to “The Hockey Gods”; though, the way it’s being presented, one is sure there’d be no absence of ardent volunteers.

    Have at it.

    • ..Perhaps some kind of “Children of the Corn”, or “The Lottery” adaptation rewritten to accommodate NHL Hockey.

  8. Fantastic article.

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