2011-04-11

He Shoots...

So the Vancouver Canucks were apparently the best team in the NHL this year and are making some sort of run for the Stanley Cup. If you live anywhere north of the 49th parallel and within a thousand miles of Vancouver, this will be news. I, at the risk of potentially undermining my quintessential Canadianness, could care less, but that makes me a very silent minority in these parts. I ignore hockey as easily as i ignore all professional sports. (Not having any manner of broadcast television coming into my house helps in that regard. I’d recommend it.) However it wasn’t always that way.

Way back in the day (which is several years before the period that i generally refer to when i say “back in the day”, which i realize i say a lot), i was a fan of the Montreal Canadiens. I followed the Habs with a devotion that, while it paled in comparison to the friends of mine who could recite the lineups and statistics of entire teams from memory, seems pretty geeky in retrospect. I watched Hockey Night in Canada if the Canadiens played; i ignored it the rest of the time. I collected the Canadiens hockey cards but had no interest in any other teams, which meant i usually scored said cards for free from my even geekier friends, who would discard their duplicates as they sought the complete  league set. Forget Led Zeppelin; I had a poster of Ken Dryden on the back of my bedroom door.

The Canadiens were the dominant team in the NHL for much of the last half of the ’70s, but even when they weren’t leading the league, they were playing what i still consider to be the style of hockey that best exemplified the game of that day. The Canadiens were about speed and finesse, about balancing offense and defense, and about winning games on the basis of the ability to skate circles around the opposition rather than simply bludgeoning them into submission, as was the style of play in much of the rest of the league. I was watching on New Years’ Eve 1975 when the Canadiens played the Soviet Red Army to a 3–3 draw in what a lot of people (me included) still consider one of the best games of hockey ever played. Clean, fast, precise, nerve-wracking, and hauntingly beautiful.

The Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup more than other team in NHL history, including a four-year run from ’76 to ’79 that coincided with the feverish height of my fandom. I suffered what can only be described as a mild breakdown when the Canadiens were eliminated in the 1980 playoffs by the lowly Minnesota North Stars. I hated North Star goalie Gilles Meloche for a long time. (Sorry, Gilles.) The cup drought continued even as i kept following the team over the next half-decade or so, out of high school and into the university years. But then a funny thing happened, which has defined my relationship to pro sports ever since.

In 1986, the Canadiens were fielding a fairly awesome playoff team after a fairly lackluster season, and were gunning for the championship. I was watching with all the enthusiasm of the old days, feeling myself getting into the game like i used to. And then i noticed something. Of the thirty-odd players who put on a Canadiens uniform that year, i realized i was seeing something like fewer than a half-dozen who had played for the team that i first fell in love with. (I don’t want to look them up, but i remember Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson, Guy Carbonneau, and Mario Tremblay. I’m sure there were a few more.) Lafleur was gone. Cournoyer was gone, Steve Shutt, Lemaire, Lapointe, Serge Savard, Rej Houle, Pierre Mondou, Mark Napier. Ken Dryden had retired from the game to become a lawyer, and i had a different bedroom door and his poster was long gone.

And it occurred to me (if i recall correctly, about halfway through the second-round division finals) that what had made me fall in love with the Canadiens of 1975 was the specific roster of players and the game they played. And by continuing to follow the team even as those players retired, were traded, or otherwise disappeared from it, i was effectively not following a team — i was following a uniform. And in that moment, i recalled not so much the memory of loving the Canadiens but of too often hating the teams they played against. I remembered hating the Soviet Red Army with the exception of Tretiak, because i liked goalies and Tretiak was god. I remembered hating Gilles Meloche even though he was a goalie, because even though he was a great goalie, he wore the wrong uniform so i had to hate him. And a weird kind of vaguely fascistic feeling twisted through me, and i decided right then, right there, that i was going to watch the Canadiens through to the end of that playoff series, and then that would be that.

And i did, and it was.

I’ve watched hockey since then from time to time, as i’ve watched other sports, and i truly enjoy watching a good game well played. But i don’t have any interest in the team mentality anymore, because loving one team at the cost of hating all other teams seems kind of weird and dangerous to me.

The Canadiens won the cup in ’86, beating Calgary. If you have to end a decade-long love affair for the sake of your psychological health, it’s nice to go out on a high note.