"They don't even know what it is to be a fan. Y'know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts."
--Sapphire, Almost Famous
And hurt it has, around here. To be a fan of a band, of an athlete, of a team, is Agony and Ecstasy. In the 1980’s, Oiler fans knew the Ecstasy as well as any group of fans has ever known it. The lineup was star-studded and packed with enough talent to fill two rosters. Wins were had, and championships were earned. But the Ecstasy came and went, and as any drug-user will tell you, every high is followed by an equally extreme low. The low that is the Agony has been felt in Edmonton throughout the second half of this century’s first decade, and until recently, there was little reason to expect improvement. The peak-to-trough journey for Oiler fans has been an exhausting experience, an emotionally draining dirge for all those who’ve given their soul to the team. Why would anyone endure such hardship for a fleeting shot at success?
Could it be that fandom, the willingness to suffer the Agony while wishing for the Ecstasy, hoping with the sort of force only the naive or the most resolute zealot can muster, is a necessary element of being? Those who know what it is to be a fan know the heartache that comes with their loyalty. It is a natural consequence of their commitment, and their ability to suffer through the lean years while hoping for better times is what defines them.
The hope they display is a necessity. Believing that brighter days lie ahead is as important to life as breathing air or drinking water. To that end, Dostoevsky said that to live without hope is to cease to live. And "cease to live" is something that Oiler fans have not done - Rexall Place has been packed despite the recent losing seasons, and Oiler fans remained optimistic; with the emergence of Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Taylor Hall among others, hope has exploded like the budding Dahlias at Butchart Gardens. Losing seasons have not dampened spirits or lessened enthusiasm; in fact, in other cities, the opposite has been true when the mountain is climbed again. The excitement in Pittsburgh and Chicago after their Stanley Cup victories showed that the greater the hardships, the more rewarding the victory celebrations, that adversity allows fans to savor wins. After all, without the clouds and rain, warm weather and sunshine wouldn’t feel so fantastic.
There exists an intimate and eternal relationship between the Agony and the Ecstasy. It takes the understanding of one to know and appreciate the other. They encapsulate the human experience and they do so because life is nothing more than a compilation of outcomes, causes and effects, deeds, words and thoughts that can be classified as positives or negatives depending on one’s perspective. In short, life is merely a summation of experiences. If this is true, a life lived without experiencing the Agony is necessarily a life lived incompletely. It might be a life lived more comfortably, but surely it is a life lived without ever knowing all that it is to Live. To know the joy of a successful relationship, be it friendship or otherwise, without knowing the sting of a lost companion is to not know relationships at all. Without experiencing the gut-wrenching blow of real loss, one cannot properly appreciate the pleasure of a lasting bond. Those who have known the Agony of an aborted relationship have relied on the same crutch that fans use during a losing a season – they rely on hope. Hope that the pain will pass and hope that better times await. And they’re stronger for the experience, whatever it might have been. As the trite yet true cliché goes, when the clouds part after torrential rains and the sun shines, the grass will be brighter and greener than it ever was. Likewise, the team, someday, will win thanks to the blue-chip prospects selected at the top of the entry draft, and the championships those players bring will be all the more enjoyable.
That sort of hope is a necessity. Suffering would be intolerable without the belief that tomorrow things will be better than they are today. Fans know this. It is at the root of our being. We endure every loss knowing that it can be chalked up to experience. With experience, a young forward learns what angle to take on a backcheck; a rookie defender gains confidence with the puck on a breakout; and, if nothing else, the loss moves the team one game closer to selecting the next Patrick Marleau or Mike Modano. Hope is the link, albeit an irrational one from time to time, between the Agony and the Ecstasy. As intimately related as the suffering and the elation are to one another, so is hope bound to each, bridging the chasm between the two. For that reason hope is an indispensable possession for all fans.
To those who love something so much that every loss hurts, hope is what allows them to move forward. During the darkest times, when the hurt is almost unbearable, hope is all that remains. Without the expectation of better days, it would be senseless to continue. Without hope, one ceases to live. With hope, we can withstand any amount of Agony while holding out for the Ecstasy.