Of Grace and Savagery

by rsbakker

Definition of the Day – Leaf Fan: a convenient way for the rest of the world to feel better about themselves (as in, “It could be worse, you could be a Leaf Fan,” or, “You may have lost the Cup, but at least you’re not a Leaf Fan,” or, “Your penis fell off, rolled through spilled acid and broken glass before dropping into a storm sewer, but at least…” You get the picture).

Like so many others, I watch The Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night I can manage. I typically suffer through the first game–the Leaf game, the one that matters–and then relax for the second, which more often than not, features the Vancouver Canucks. I almost feel West Coast watching it. No calculating the standings. No fretting over the Kessel trade, or whether Reimer is truly the ‘real deal’ (as I think he is). And best of all, no Don Cherry peddling the obvious as hockey insight and wisdom. Just a cast of players that I’ve watched grow into the game over the years, playing hard and brilliant hockey in front of a goal-tending giant.

For as long as I can remember, the Vancouver Canucks have been my ‘number two team.’ The great thing about watching your number two team is–paradoxically enough–the absence of passion. It allows you to see the game through all your hopes and gripes and worries. These are the games where you can turn the volume down and actually communicate with your friends: ponder the fate of Phoenix, argue about the way risk-management mania is slowly locking down the world, and even, on rare, awkward occasions, ask how the wife and kids are doing…

Only to shout, “Did you see that? Did you see that play?” when the Sedins do something remarkable and unprecedented. “Ohmigod! How? How is that possible?”

Every once in awhile my wife heckles me for some of the harsher things I say about Ottawa and Montreal, and I have to remind her that the great thing about sports–the great gift–is the ability to love and hate without reasons. I hate them and they hate me–so be it. Game on, motherfucker. Sports are tribal. They predate history and civilization. They speak with an uncluttered voice. And in this country, at least, that voice is singular. With the NFL all the loyalties are imported, which makes it a happy coincidence when you and your buddies are rooting for the same team. Not so with the NHL, where the entire country can become a home ice arena.

Set aside all the hokey analysis, all the corporate banners and the brainwashing parade of commercials, and you will see that hockey is about finding community in simplicity. Consummate grace wedded to abject savagery. Sheer will pitted against shit luck–and at times even fate. Men on knives riding lines of impact and injury.

And in a special sport, the Vancouver Canucks are most definitely a special team, one unlike any the game has seen. Ryan Kesler is a beast. The Sedin twins are artistes. And Roberto Luongo is stone-cold obstruction. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited by a playoff run: I had such high hopes I even dared use the ‘destiny’ word on occasion!

But as the playoffs progressed, I became more and more worried (and mystified) that every single goal that Vancouver scored came off of their sticks: not one garbage goal scored the entire playoffs (at least that I could remember).  And precious few softies–gifts from the opposing goaltender. And in this final series, it seemed they couldn’t even buy a lucky bounce! Almost all their goals (with the exception of the San Jose series) came as the result Herculean, and at times Sisyphian, efforts. They would finally find a way to solve Rinne, only to have a puck break-dance into their own net.

At every turn they had to rely on skill and effort–and I think it’s a testament to the team that they made it as far as they did.

But you had the feeling that they were skating with their pockets turned inside out against Boston. Luck. Luck was the only way they were going to slip pucks by Tim Thomas, especially once Coach Claude Julian took their skill out of the equation. Boston ripped a page out of Chicago’s playbook, even going so far as to turn Marchand into a Boland clone. They made attitude–contempt and intimidation–the centerpiece of their game plan, and the Canucks made the mistake of obliging them. The series got nasty–it’s one of the ugliest Cup Finals I can remember in a long time.

In terms of the mechanics of the game on the ice, it was like watching replays from the old clutch-and-grab days–back when the Sedins never seemed anything special. The only exception was the San Jose series, where the referees decided to officiate according to the rulebook after the nastiness of the opening. It’s no coincidence the twins shined that series.

The Canucks almost did it, came close enough to break a million hearts. But I can’t help but feel that Vancouver is still a team built to win regular seasons, and to wilt when the whistles hang dry. And it’s a crying shame–truly. All the commentators go on and on about ‘letting them play,’ and I can’t help but wonder whether we’re watching the same brawl. The Canucks are capable of producing wonders when the rules are enforced (and I mean this seriously: they have done things I’ve never before seen on the ice), playing with a level of skill and speed that I’m starting to think Lord Stanley will never have a chance to see.

The Grinders won this one. Good for Recchi. Good for Kaberle. Otherwise, man, I hate the Bruins!