What Do We Have without Sports?
This is new, although not quite as new for hockey fans as we might wish
There’s an art in seclusion
Production in repression
If a stranger turns up missing
This song is my confession
Tell the tales of the trail of dead
Lovers learned from slower hands
Losing self in myself
And my demons make demands
In one sense, we’ve been here before. The 2004-05 lockout was an egregious, miserable year where hockey got punched in the face, and took a full year to recover. I had just moved down to Los Angeles for college, and I had been so excited, as an adult, to finally be able to go to NHL games on the regular.
Instead, I spent that year flitting around campus, seeing Shrek 2 on a comically awkward date at a discount theater, and more or less throwing my adulthood and its attempts at making friends against the wall to see what stuck. It was a hard year made more difficult by the lack of hockey, and more painful by the tantalizing thought that hockey could still return—remember the Wayne Gretzky rumors?—right up until February 16th, when things finally got axed for good.
This time, hockey’s cancellation (or suspension, if you prefer—I’m not quite that optimistic right now) comes almost as an afterthought. Of course it was going to happen once Rudy Gobert happened, because what else could any semblance of responsibility look like? Our brains are terrible at understanding abstract threats, but when you get that phone call from a friend, coworker, or family member, suddenly things get real, really quickly. It’s amazing how quickly we went from joking about it to canceling everything there is to be canceled, except that it’s not amazing at all. When your hand gets burned, you stop joking about the stove.
The last two weeks have been extremely tough for me, on a personal level, and that has made hockey something of a Gileadean balm, when I’ve been able to devote the time it demands. The whole #keepcalm thing is rooted in this idea, that routines are our strongest evidence of solidarity. Normalcy is the flag we fly highest, showing our resilience.
Now, of course, we have no more normal. While tons of people still refuse to act like anything has changed, every single person who has studied pandemics will tell you that the most essential thing we can do right now is to play it safe, right now. Don’t wait until you know everything, because we do know that this virus spreads too quickly for this government to keep up with it. That means that yes, you should not go to that thing. Yes, you should cancel that other thing. I’m sorry. That stinks. But what’s the downside of, ahem, “over” reacting? I genuinely don’t think there is one, not in the face of this. Distance yourselves for now, and I promise you that in another two weeks, when we’re finally starting to get an idea of truly how bad this thing might be, you will not regret having done so.
Hockey is about connection. It’s about experiencing something together, whether happy or sad. I think about Stephane Robidas to Steve Ott in overtime to this day, not because it’s some pivotal moment or anything—that combination being on the ice in overtime should tell you just how few such moments there were, at that time—but because it’s something that someone, somewhere will also remember. In fact, I think the rough times forge stronger bonds between fans than anything else. Someone who will suffer with you is a far greater friend that someone who congratulates you on your new car.
This game against the Kings didn’t go so well. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but my brother and I were at this game, and it felt like watching your friend act in a play where he starts forgetting his lines in the most dramatic scene. Up 4-0 with under eight minutes to play in the third, Dallas surrendered an impossible five goals in five minutes. And yet, Mike Modano. With the Stars licking their wounds, Mo stepped into the slot and blasted a slapshot I can still hear. A slapshot that would remind the Staples Center crowd that, whatever else would happen that night, the Dallas Stars knew how to bounce back.
The Stars would lose in overtime, because the comeback was always going to be completed. That’s how fate works. But these Stars would eventually go to Game 6 against the Detroit Red Wings. It was the last playoff season for Sergei Zubov and Jere Lehtinen, though we didn’t know it. And games like this are what still make me marvel at how deeply fandom can connect us.
Why remember something this painful, even shameful? Blowing a lead like that is embarrassing, echoing what nearly happened against Minnesota nine years later, when the Stars clinched a series in the least convincing manner of all time. Kari Lehtonen’s most important save that series came against Jason Demers. These are the things I think about, when I think about the Dallas Stars.
And those things are why I keep watching, why I care about meaningless games. Not because I Want Them to Win, necessarily. It’s more fun, of course, but winning at sports is classically ephemeral. The olive wreaths will dry and wither along with our muscles. But the oddities, the improbable goals—who remembers Nicklas Grossmann’s first?—those are what help me stick with it, when I don’t want to. It’s like they say about any relationship, right? Over time, it’s not really the big moments, but the little things that mean so much. It was nice to know that I could watch certain players do their certain things. There was something genuinely enlivening about seeing Rick Bowness put Blake Comeau, then Andrew Cogliano out as the extra attacker in the last few games. You remember things like that, give a wry smile, and shake your head. This team, sometimes.
Right now, we can’t even suffer together. We are divided in order that we might continue to do things together, someday. I don’t want to think too far ahead, because again, we just don’t know enough about what’s coming next. Things are still changing, faster than we know. They always are, I suppose.
But the bonds that hold this community together, right here, are not going anywhere. We didn’t watch this team shamble on top of an ice floe of false hope through another shortened season in 2013 just to stop getting together because we’re stuck at home for a while. In a certain sense, hockey fans have been preparing their entire lives for just this scenario. You still remember Jussi Jokinen’s particular way of wearing his sweater, and exactly how he looked swinging in from the goalie’s left before trying his A move, again and again. You still know how meaningful that All-Star Game selection was for Philippe Boucher. You remember how Jamie Langenbrunner embarrassed Chris Osgood, and you remember why Neal Broten and even Russ Courtnall are just as worth remembering, and perhaps even moreso, for their own selections. This team is littered with the little things, and the occasional big one.
Everything is moving so fast right now, but some things will never change. For better or for worse, this hockey team will occupy real estate in our hearts and minds for the foreseeable future. We’d be remiss if we acted otherwise.
Without sports, we still have sports, because they are never ends in and of themselves. Sports are the connective tissue we’ve chosen among ourselves, and you don’t just undo that connection with one delayed or canceled season. Sports remind us of how good it is to be together, even when the hard times drive us apart from our team, for a while. This is one of those times. We may not be together, but neither are we separated, either. While we wait for more clarity, some reassurance, and any hope of better times, we continue to have the same things that brought us here in the first place. For better or for worse.