A thousand monkeys poking at a thousand typewriters might, given enough time, compose the complete works of Shakespeare, but not even such a diligent menagerie could ever script a crueler heartbreak than the one which befell the Toronto Maple Leafs this past Monday night. It was not exactly a tragedy and not exactly a comedy, but more of a vicious joke, as black as humor ever gets. The set-up: seven seasons outside the playoffs, an unexpected run of luck, a shocking comeback from a 3-1 series deficit, a 4-1 lead in the third period of game seven, a scrappy underdog team poised to do the unthinkable and make the second round over the bent backs of a feared League power. It was the beginning of a great, classic sports tale of the sort that could win over even the hardest haters. It was the opening to the story that might have made the Leafs, once more and against all odds, Canada’s team. The punch line: three Bruins goals in the last ten minutes, two of them at 6-on-5 in the final heated two, topped off with the overtime winner.
Such a comeback is virtually unheard of in hockey, which despite the speed of its pucks and players tends to be a low-scoring, defensive sport. A three-goal lead with ten minutes remaining is as close to insurmountable as a lead gets; according to one analyst’s calculations, one might expect to see a team in such a position lose a game seven once every 159 years- which makes sense, since it’s never happened even once before in the entire near-hundred years of the NHL. The Bruins victory, then, is not merely unexpected. It is the realization of something so improbable that it would have been considered functionally impossible, like the sun coming up in the West* or the seas turning yellow. It was like being kicked in the nuts by a unicorn.
And, as the blessed Bruins skated merrily away from the prone body of James Reimer, thousands of Leafs fans and thousands more charmed bandwagoners all thought the same thing at once: it’s not fair.
The Leafs defied elimination twice in a row. They built up a three-goal lead. They positioned themselves as perfectly as possible to survive into the second round. There is no better place to be in the playoffs than where that team was fifty minutes into game seven. They had earned that victory, and then, although they did not play badly, it was snatched away. Not. Fair.
They’re not alone in this sentiment. It’s not fair is the mantra of the postseason. When Daniel Sedin got called for a chintzy penalty in overtime and San Jose scored on the power play, Canucks fans screamed it’s not fair. When five of their players went down with injuries in the space of four games, Habs fans cried the same thing. In 2010, when the President’s Trophy-winning Capitals fell in the first round despite outscoring, outchancing, and in every way outplaying their opponents, it wasn’t fair. In 2006, when the Oilers lost their starting goaltender at the beginning of the Stanley Cup Final, that wasn’t fair either. The famous uncalled high-stick wasn’t fair. The legendary skate in the crease wasn’t fair. The list of incidents goes back beyond living memory, perhaps even before recorded history. In the beginning, there was hockey, and it wasn’t fair.
Hockey, like most sports, is in fact consistently and stunningly unfair in dozens of different ways. There are structural inequalities, such as the unequally distributed burdens of travel and quality of competition. There are market inequalities, like variations in city size, tax regulations, climate, and ownership. Reffing, which ostensibly exists to make the game as fair as possible, routinely allows some egregious violations to slide while punishing other acts that are barely even against the rules, and the only consistent thing about supplementary discipline is its absurdity. Even though all players theoretically face the same dangers, some will spend half of every year on the IR and others will play four hundred games in a row.
And beneath of of that, there is a persistent and unresolvable cosmic injustice: even with perfect health and perfect officiating, even in equal markets with equivalent schedules, outcomes will not always reflect inputs. Think of all the things you can that define the character of “winning hockey”. Think of shot attempts and scoring chances, slick hands and big bodies, odd man rushes, brilliant saves, heart and grit. Roll them up all together, and know this: teams regularly do exactly that and still lose. It doesn’t even matter, for the present, whether the things you believe contribute to winning actually do, because even the things that we know contribute the very most to winning still only lead to real winning a fraction of the time. Betting on Fenwick as a predictor of victory may be a smarter bet than putting your money on the hit counts, but either way, it still loses a heckuva lot. Whether you define the “fair” reason for winning according to ideological prescription or empirical observation, a great many results are still unfair.
So what? Is that such a big deal? After all, life isn’t fair. We’ve known this since we were children, so much so that the statement “life isn’t fair” is utterly banal. If it weren’t true, it would be the rankest sort of platitude. As it is, it’s merely an annoying one.
But “sports aren’t fair” is no platitude. Life, at least in the absence or uncertainty of God, is one huge f*%k-off mess, full of injustices ancient, systemic, and organic that go all the way back to the beginning of time and all the way down to the bottom of the human soul. There ain’t no way to untangle all those knots. Sports, though, are specifically designed to be fair. In fact, that’s pretty much why they exist: they’re laboratories of fairness. When we make a sport, we take a little piece of the world and a little slice of time and cordon it off from everything else. We cut out virtually every marker of the outside world and reduce the great complicated mass of things to a very few, very basic elements. Everyone wears the same clothes, uses the same tools, plays on the same surface according to the same rules. The same duration, the same aims, the same standards. The entire point of sport is to design a competition and subtract from it all the initial advantages and random noise of the real world, leaving behind only pure ability to determine winners and losers. That’s the ideal. That’s the reason a “level playing field” is our preferred metaphor for the starting point of a true meritocracy.
Yet somehow, despite the strictly controlled environment, constant pursuit of parity, and good intentions of all and sundry, the unfairness persists. Some teams are rich and others poor; some players are healthy and others aren’t. Some teams attract UFAs like moths to a flame, others couldn’t attract flies if they were smeared in shit. Sometimes you get calls you don’t deserve, bounces you haven’t earned, streaks that appear out of nowhere, unexpected and unsustainable. Other times you have all the honor, all the talent, and all the Corsis, and still don’t win, and everyone gets fired for no good reason and there’s nothing to do but curse the hockey gods and drink heavily through the long summer.
What we see in sports isn’t just that life isn’t fair, but that humans, working with the very utmost effort, cannot make so much as one tiny inconsequential speck of life fair. We have this small space, this one area where we’ve done everything we can to eliminate all confounding factors and reduce existence to a very simple set of strict rules and simple procedures under the constant surveillance of a host of officials and governors, and it’s still not fair. “Fair” is just about the only thing we’re trying to make sports be, and we’re routinely failing at it.
Hockey, then, might be the best proof you will ever find that not only is life not fair, but that it is impossible for life to be fair. Even with the best of intentions and the most perfect control, even with power to design every aspect of the environment and every regulation in it, even with literally hundreds of people working around the clock to enforce a perfect homogeneity of conditions and justice of outcomes, we achieve neither of those things. Most of the time, we can’t even begin to agree on what they would even look like.
Perhaps this is the reason that people take instances of egregious unfairness in the game so hard, reliving the games determined by bad calls and terrible accidents over and over and over again for decades, long after the memories of hundreds of just and right results have faded; fighting, month in and month out, over every inconsistent suspension; pretending that the advanced stats don’t mean what they say or don’t say what they do. Anything that showcases the core unfairness of the game immediately provokes a level of distress and resistance that no expected and reasonable outcome, no matter how painful, ever achieves. We don’t just want hockey and other sports to be fair; we need them to be fair. Because if we cannot create fairness in a laboratory setting, what hope can we possibly have for it in the real world?
*This post originally posited the sun coming up in the East as a counterfactual, which is of course wrong, and made the simile nonsensical. Mea maxima culpa.