I woke up late on Sunday morning, and the first thing I did- before even the shower, the coffee, the slow migration to the couch for a day of under-18s and the very last game of the regular season- was put on my talisman. It’s not much, as talismans go, a single silver charm in the shape of a C with an H inside, but it won’t leave my wrist until the Canadiens leave the postseason. A small, feminine token, maybe, but it’s the only one I have. None of my attempts to grow a playoff beard have ever succeeded.
Around the NHL, Sunday and Monday and yesterday and today, fans are commencing their little rituals. Lucky socks are being dug out of drawers and lucky underwear pulled on, to be worn every day for weeks, or at least until the luck goes bad. Jerseys are being customized to read STANLEY 13 and posters are being painted LEAFS SUCK. Thousands of mock Cups are being made, out of duct tape and tin foil, cake and yarn. Thousands of patches of stubble are being tended. Somewhere out there, a man has a sacrificial octopus in his freezer.
The media will interpret all these rites as indicators of excitement. They’ll film themselves standing in front of screaming hordes painted blue and say, “Bob, spirits are high today in _______ as hockey fans get geared up for the Stanley Cup Playoffs,” and the horde will wave their foam idols high until the final “Back to you” sends the broadcast away to the studio. There will be articles written about how very happy all the fans are that the halcyon days of real hockey competition have at long last arrived.
Bullshit. The rituals and talismans aren’t about excitement. They’re not effusions of pure happiness made flesh and facial hair. They’re wards and protections and sacrifices, and they don’t come from joy. They come from fear.
You know that completely fictional Polynesian tribe, the one that only exists to cook hapless pith-helmeted explorers in immense pots in one-panel newspaper cartoons? Well, ask yourself this: when they throw their completely fictional nubile young virgins into their completely fictional volcanoes, are they doing it because they like volcanoes? Because they’re just that passionate about geophysical phenomena? Hell no. They’re doing it out of dread, because they know that volcano might at any second destroy them and everything they hold dear. They’re not enjoying f*#k-all. They’re just trying to stave off a disaster the coming of which they cannot possibly predict or control.
That, my friends and nemeses, is what the playoffs are really all about: dread. Sure, if you’re a fan of no playing team, you can just sit back and enjoy the postseason. If you’re spiritually golfing already, or never took any particular side to begin with, then there’s nothing but good in the hockey playoffs. It’s all exciting, and may the best or worst or most interesting men win so long as the narrative goes down easy. But so long as you have a horse in the race, most playoffs are long stretches of excruciating anxiety, broken only rarely and briefly by flashes of orgasmic, cathartic relief.
It is possible to enumerate all the terrors that haunt the mind of the playoff-bound fan? Probably not, but let’s try. First, there’s the horror of the quick first-round exit, which is in some ways worse than missing out altogether. If you miss the playoffs completely, especially if you do it in an early and definitive fashion, well, at least you get something for your failures- a high pick for sure, and perhaps your GM’s head on a plate. But there is no consolation for those who scrape into the postseason only to get easily trounced in four or five games. It doesn’t matter how bad the team was through the regular season, you comfort yourself with that mantra: anything can happen in the playoffs anything can happen in the playoffs anything can happen in… and then before you even get to the fourth recitation- BOOM- elimination. Shot dead by some vastly superior squad, like a crippled dog being put down. Except nobody makes fun of fatally injured dogs, whereas there are great masses of people just waiting to dance and/or spit on your franchise’s grave.
Then there’s inescapable coming of the filthy dirty hit. Oh, there’s your star, carrying it over the blue line, doing some lovely little deke, and then some large body flies in from halfway across the ice and here comes the blood and spinal board, and so much for this run. And if it’s not your guy getting laid out, maybe it’s your guy doing the hitting and being held up before all and sundry as EVERYTHING THAT’S WRONG WITH HOCKEY before getting Shannabanned for critical games. And even if neither of the guys were yours, well, you still have to go through the miserable custom of arguing about it for a week, as the entire hockey community flagellates itself in before the judgments of the larger non-hockey world.
Beyond that, there’s the whole ugly question of who will destroy your team. The essence of the playoffs is death- of sixteen teams, only one will make it out of this in triumph. The rest of us, we all going down at someone’s hands, and unless that someone is the Penguins or the Hawks, some team so expectedly and undeniably great as to be a consensus favorite, it’s going to be a humiliating end. As a Habs fan, am I going to feel okay about being shattered by the hapless, paranoid Senators? Only in comparison, perhaps, to the prospect of being shat on by the even more hapless and vastly more irritating Leafs. A nothing franchise or a hated rival, a buncha goons or a buncha pansies, it doesn’t matter: whoever they are, they are by definition a terrible awful no-good very bad team, and they’re going to take your heroes out. Sooner or later, this round or the next, unless you’re very good and even more lucky, the bad guys will win.
Heaven forbid your series goes long. A long series means a stretch of elimination games, and surviving one elimination game only to face another tomorrow is like finally getting over strep throat only to come down with explosive diarrhea. Two or three elimination games in a row will give you insomnia, as you lie awake praying that the team that shows isn’t the one that dropped three games in a row but the one that held on through the last two. Meanwhile, the fans of the opposing team, the one that should have closed this shit out twice, are getting ulcers wondering where oh where their snipers have gone, and will they come back before the beautiful beginning melts into a bad end?
And the worst thing about the playoffs, the very worst, the part that makes them simultaneously so compelling and so terrifying, is that no matter what you expect to happen, it will not happen. The seasons you think your team is primed to go deep, they’ll get bounced in six. The times you try to resign yourself to inevitable failure, they’ll go to the Conference Final before they collapse into the inchoate heap of cracked plastic and torn ACLs you always knew them for. High hopes will be crushed, low expectations will be raised… and then those will be crushed too.
This is why we have our rituals, because having a team in the playoffs is like having a volcano in the middle of your village: sooner or later it’s going to blow, and you have absolutely no control over when that will happen, nor even any idea when. So we search for propitiating sacrifices or at least comforting rituals, charms and effigies and symbolic garb that will make the outcome seem less uncertain, or make us look more confident than we are, or at least make us identifiable to each other. So that at least, when we face down this long, cruel spring, we don’t have to do it alone.