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There’s No Sense Pretending This Is Just Another Hockey Game

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The Winter Classic is pageantry, and it’s okay to lean into it

2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic - Legacy Project Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

So this is the new year

And I have no resolutions

For self-assigned penance

For problems with easy solutions

***

Radek Faksa is still breaking in his gear for the Winter Classic. It feels good, he says, but still a little stiff. Like with most hockey gear, it probably won’t feel really “right” until a couple rounds of sweat goes through it, until the game action takes over.

It makes me think of driving a new car. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly a car stops being “my new car” and becomes “my car.” Usually that moment is hidden within a thousand smaller moments, when everything else in life reclaimed your attention from the carnauba wax gleam from your driveway, one little bit at a time.

This hockey game, for the entire Dallas Stars team, is special. Many players have family in town for the week—Alexander Radulov’s brother and nephew were hanging out on the ice with Anton Khudobin before practice yesterday, for instance. It’s a chance to celebrate hockey, to take it somewhere new, even as it brings back the oldest memories.

Rick Bowness talked to the media for nearly 10 minutes after practice yesterday, and he didn’t seem to mind it one bit. After saying for a couple weeks now that the team was just focused on the next game, you could see him relax a little as he finally opened up about just how cool this game is.

Yes, the Stars will have to remain focused. Two points are important, absolutely. But even though no one employed by the team would (or even should) say so, this game really does mean a lot more than just two points. For one day, for nearly everyone on both teams, the game is going to mean something more than just doing their jobs.

***

Sports bring us to together under the pretense of dividing us into our particular camps. It might seem a paradox, but as I’ve been reminded amid the great pleasure of meeting many hockeyfolk this week (and many more tomorrow, surely), sports can do no more or less than reflect what is already wonderful about life, and about us.

There’s this weird appetite you develop for getting to know the real person behind the player, the coach, the official, or whomever. You get inundated with so many clichés that even the smallest spark of individuality feels like a feast of intimacy. Perhaps that’s why most players guard themselves so carefully. If the real “you” is put out there for everyone, then how much harder would it be to console yourself when you aren’t playing well, when all your Twitter mentions are filled with insults not just about that turnover you made last night, but about how your stupid hobbies and your stupid family are things you don’t deserve? We all have lurking insecurities, and players are no different. Some of them develop thick skins and the ability to retain a strong sense of self-worth even when the chips are down. But a lot of them have been playing hockey at a world-class level since before they were shaving, and yet we ask them to be great speakers, to know themselves at least as well as we all crave to know about them.

This game is a chance for every single player to just sit back a bit and say, “Yeah, that’s pretty awesome.” Players get to take their families out for a skate, to share a bit of their world without risk of having it turned back on them by idiotic, insecure fans at some later date. They get to geek out a bit over their gear (especially the goalies), to let down their façade of professionalism just for a little bit, in order to marvel at the great privileges that hockey has afforded them. And to us, really.

I’ve gotten to meet a few of our wonderful commenters over the past couple of days, and it’s been an absolute delight, full stop. Writing about sports is also a great privilege, too. That people would want to talk to me about the Dallas Stars (or anything else, for that matter) just because I’ve been talking about hockey for a little while on this platform is cool. Being a hockey fan in the home of the most popular team in the most popular sport in the country is at once a struggle and a secret joy. I’m not sure what other town you could really compare it to.

In Dallas, meeting other Stars fans feels kind of like being at a concert where you really only care about the opening act, and suddenly you meet other people who also only care about that small, less polished band. Except this week, you’re reminded that the opening act is actually kind of a big deal, when you’re not standing in the headliner’s shadow. And also you get to meet fans of theirs who are flying into the country this weekend from Belgium, Mexico, Australia, Canada, and so many other places. Many, many hockey teams have less buzz in their towns than the Stars, but it’s easy to forget that when Jerry Jones can preempt your team’s coverage just by sneezing in a way that sounds kind of like “urbanmeyer.”

This game is a privilege for all of us, and it’s okay to have a blast. The players are going to be professional, even with all the joy. But it’s not going to be any other game, because hockey isn’t like any other game. Sports are a means to channel the joy or the despair lurking at the edges of our existence into one definite contest, and hockey has the blinding speed and visceral force to push and pull more than some of our grief and elation into it.

The Winter Classic is cool. It’s not perfect, the Stars aren’t perfect, and hockey is just a distraction from bigger problems, sometimes. But joy is as big or small as you choose to make it. I guess all of us could choose to stay aloof, to hoard our own fandom for fear that other people might not think we’re all-knowing, might not deduce from our dispassionate scorn that we are the real fans. But you know what? As much as I love digging into metrics, trying to figure out exactly what’s wrong or what’s right with this team, I still don’t think I can top the feeling of high-fiving a couple other Stars fans Sunday night after that Alex Radulov goal to tie the game. Knowing that someone else is really, really into the thing that I am into is just, well, cool. Part of me feels a little less ridiculous, a little more in tune with our common humanity. Or maybe I’m just trying to embroider my ridiculous love of hockey with all these words in order to justify the time I spend on this game. Hopefully it’s the former, but I am becoming more and more okay with people finding out that I am really into hockey and reacting however they choose to react. They don’t have those high-fives, those conversations about Val Nichushkin’s rookie season, those quiet confessions of what talking about hockey can mean to us when the rest of life is costing us so much more than it ought to. Sports are always a means to an end, but so is driving. Both are worth enjoying, even if we know there’s always something more important down the road.

Players are just human beings, and fans are just people who are into this one weird sport that is both different and exactly as weird as all other sports. And on January 1st, 2020, we all get to celebrate the drop of something a whole lot more interesting than an absurd, glittery ball in Times Square. If this game is half as cool as some of you have been this week, then that’s twice as much as any of us deserves.