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.