Living Vicariously Through Success

Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks ignores one more trophy than anyone in Edmonton got to run around with this season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Hey, did you hear? The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. People are talking about it, I understand. It was pretty big news.

There's also some sort of tournament on in Europe or Africa or one of those places, the sort of thing where people run around and kick a ball instead of using curved sticks like the gods intended. Now these two things are, for the most part, completely unconnected (not withstanding the noble efforts of some unfortunate writers to try and weave hockey and soccer into an article that people actually want to read). But they have one important point in common for most of those reading this blog who are likely, for obvious reasons, fans of the Edmonton Oilers and therefore more likely than average to be Canadian.

You see, the Edmonton Oilers did not qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs because they were terrible. And the Canadian national soccer team did not quality for the World Cup because, in a feat of impressive decrepitude, they were even worse than the Edmonton Oilers. So those of us who are Canadian Edmonton Oilers' fans spent the entire Stanley Cup playoffs without a team to cheer for, and for those of us with interest in soccer, we are about to repeat the experience. Sounds ghastly, I know.

Each fan, of course, has his own personal method of dealing with this sort of situation. It could be considered a powerful incentive to move to Los Angeles, grow a beard, and pretend that you were always a Kings' fan and you were just "finding yourself" under an overpass for a few years. You could sit back with a beer in your hand, declare that, if anything, it's a relief to enjoy a great sport as a neutral observer, wax philosophical about the beauty of competition when it is shorn from all pretense of rivalry or patriotism, and go to bed at 9:30 in the evening crying yourself to sleep. You could snark on the underdogs in the midst of a fantastic upset, talk about how unsustainable it is, and when you are inevitably proven right you could smirk with the smug expression of a man who is surgically excising all joy from the world. You could refuse to admit that the competition is even on, glance up when a coworker mentions it to say "the Stanley Cup, is that still on?" and secretly take the newspaper to the bathroom so you can devour the sports section with the ferocity of the addict.

Or you could adopt the Ben Massey method and hop on a bandwagon. Well, sort of. You're not so much in the bandwagon as clinging for dear life to the running boards and falling off at the first bump. You're not so much a fan as a well-wisher, picking a team and sticking with it through thick but not so much thin. You don't so much exult in your team's success as take a sort of neutral, placid pleasure in it. "Hey, they're a good bunch of guys and if my Oilers couldn't win it, I'm glad they could."

And you still cry yourself to sleep. But at least the tears are warmer.

Perhaps this is not the most effective sales pitch of my life. In the tradition of a desperate writer gunning to pad the word count, I will resort to a personal anecdote. I spent some time in Montreal last month for reasons hardly germane to this article. I had booked my trip there during the regular season when the only thing we knew for sure was that the Oilers wouldn't get any further than that, and as the Canadiens ran on their well-timed playoff surge it occurred to me that I'd actually arrive in Montreal in time for a potential Game Six of the Eastern Conference final at the Bell Centre.

From that moment on, I wanted the Habs to win. I made enquiries to Quebec hospitals asking how much a kidney would get me and whether I could just trade it straight up for Game Six tickets (no, but I was working on a big deal that would move a kidney, all my blood, and most of my liver). I was attracted by their 2006 Oilers-esque lack of pretention, their 2006 Oilers-esque team of effective role players anchored by a few stars, their 2006 Oilers-esque goaltending, and their 2006 Oilers-esque Marc-Andre Bergeron. I was attracted by the fact that they're one of the only Canadian NHL teams I have somehow managed to not hate. So I arrived in Montreal on the day of Game Five in Philadelphia, made my way to a soccer bar in their entertainment district (why a soccer bar? Because I knew one bar in Montreal by reputation and that was it), and settled in to watch.

Well, you don't need me to tell you what happened there. The Canadiens suffered a wrenching, heart-breaking series loss. My notebook from that day is full of statements like "Montreal is sad" and "I've never seen an entire city want to commit suicide before". It was the sort of loss that could break a guy's spirit and lead to an unfortunate life of writing rambling nonsense on a hockey blog and having to work with Derek Zona.

And here's the lovely thing about playoff bandwagon-hopping. It affected me not a whit! For no sooner had the final buzzer gone and the Philadelphia Flyers congregated to celebrate what would surely be an utterly triumphant rampage through the Stanley Cup Finals than I was swapping my metaphysical Canadiens' sweater for a Chicago Blackhawks' one. A young, attractive team full of young, attractive players! They had Cristobal Huet getting paid the entire Greek national defecit to open the door on the bench, which gave hope to employers of Nikolai Khabibulin everywhere. They were built on the brilliant system of finishing last every season for a decade and picking in lottery territory until the law of averages dictated they'd get a few good players out of it. There was a lot to like for an Oilers' fan. A lot to like for anyone, unless you're a cab driver.

I hadn't started with the Canadiens either. No, when the playoffs began I had been on the Los Angeles Kings' side. What with Ryan Smyth and Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene, they were jammed with Oilers who had infuriated me while they were here but were suddenly icons now that they were gone. I had also watched their eliminating game in a bar, this time in Vancouver where the place was absolutely filled with Canucks' fans and I had been nervous to proclaim my allegiance, save with pints of Smyth-wicks. In any event, I had little enough to cheer about.

You see the beauty of this system. You get knocked down and you get back up again. No matter what happens you'll always be happy at the end. Oh, it's a hollow sort of happiness, certainly. You'll be like the shell of a man with a cracked grin plastered to your face showing no real emotion: inside my heart is breaking, my makeup may be flaking, but my smile still stays on. And after your fifth or sixth team wins it all you'll slink home, bang out a few words of enthusiastic congratulation, and hang your head in shame at the prostitution of your sporting fandom, sobbing at the waking nightmare that is the team which truly holds your heart in thrall, and resolving to take up a more emotionally healthy hobby like laying land mines outside orphanages.

And all of this is a huge improvement on normally being an Oilers' fan.

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