Have you ever heard of sportsball?
Spending most of my time among nerds and academics, the general attitude towards all varieties of competitive professional sporting competitions is the sarcastic and deriding tone of “sportsball”. While I grew up watching hockey and football (and a little baseball with my dad and grandmother), once I found my geekdom I embraced the Noam Chomsky school of sports criticism.
I still don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of what Chomsky says in the above clip; but at the same time, I’ve rediscovered the intense love of hockey that began for me in 2002 with Jarome Iginla in the Olympics. For years I said I was a Flames fan because of Iginla and because the Leafs sucked following the disappointing end to their 2002 playoff run against the Hurricanes. But eventually, hockey just began to wane in my interest as first professional wrestling then football became more interesting. Wrestling was exciting and melodramatic and football brought in the chess-like strategy and slow buildup of tension that makes so many Superbowls so fun to watch.
Then two things happened as I went to university: the NFL’s concussion and domestic abuse scandals, and my first season of fantasy hockey. I had just joined the campus safewalk service and when the lockout ended I joined the service fantasy hockey league. In the draft I got nothing particularly interesting in the first couple rounds, but then I got a young Nazem Kadri in the 4th and picked up a bunch of Leafs thereafter.
For those who were watching, 2013 was an exciting year to be a Leafs fan. After years of utter crap, the leafs were surprising most nights and earned a playoff berth. My player, Nazem Kadri, was the breakout star of the season along with James Van Riemsdyk and of course Phil Kessel. It was a joy to watch them play as it seemed the curse of the choking Leafs might finally be over.
Then that night happened.
(I wasn’t watching Steve Dangle at the time, but he was a big part in bringing me back to actually enjoy watching the game so I want to cite him here.)
The Leafs had this amazing comeback story going into game 7 and then did the exact thing every Leafs fan dreaded – they choked. It was just of the story of Toronto sports teams at that point. The Leafs haven’t won since 67, the Jays since 93, and the Raptors since… well ever (though they haven’t been around as long). Just in terms of the playoffs the droughts had been 8 years for the Leafs, 20 for the Jays, and 5 for the Raptors. This could have been the start of the era that we are now living in, but, as we all know, the crash just continued from there. The era of sustained quality in Toronto sports really started with the Raptors in the playoffs in 2014, the Jays in 2015, and now finally the Leafs in 2017.
Tonight the Leafs made it to the playoffs for the first time in 10 full 82-game seasons. And what’s more, they did it because they won rather than someone else losing. They played a long difficult game tonight. Their goalie got injured; they suffered an embarrassing own goal tipped off a defenceman’s skate; they got the lead back and held it with an amazing performance by their backup goalie and a team full of rookies. I was with people while the game was on. Close friends of the “sportsball” variety that were a little stunned at how immersed I was in the game. I remember being surprised myself when I first realized I was enjoying hockey again, but the more I watch the more I realize that it’s not an intellectual thing at all, it’s a feeling.
I watched the Leafs-Lightning game on Thursday night and the Leafs-Penguins game Saturday night and I’ll tell ya, the reason I watch hockey is because it is narratively and aesthetically beautiful. When the Leafs are playing at the same level as their opponents you have 12 titans skating with all their might in a battle that seems to carry more importance than it actually does. And when the Leafs are not playing on that level, you can see it on the screen and from interviews you know they can feel it on the ice. I don’t know how exactly to describe it; but, even though there are two teams at full strength on the ice, it just feels like one side has more people. It’s not an intellectual experience at work here. This isn’t a logical flow of events that I synthesize in an evaluation of quality. Just like the way you feel a film is working or not working, you feel the flow of a hockey game on an aesthetic level.
So on Saturday when the Penguins had a delayed penalty call in the third period and the Leafs pulled their goalie, the immediate shift in momentum was felt. Despite the players just bouncing around the screen, faces and identities obscured by speed and size, you knew that they saw this as an opportunity. That the feeling of exhilaration, excitement, and energy was being felt simultaneously on the ice, on the bench, in the stands, and across the viewing public. This is why I watch hockey. It is an act of community with millions of people. And aside from all the high-minded waxing poetic, damn it’s fun.