[Caution: Satire ahead]
EDMONTON-- On the surface, the middle-aged man sitting by the bar at O'Connor's appears no different from any other patron, motionlessly watching the golf match on TV while clad in a Connor McDavid jersey and worn Edmonton Oilers baseball cap. But look into Don Carson's weathered eyes and the turmoil that lies beneath quickly becomes apparent, an undercurrent of forlorn desperation coloring an otherwise kind gaze with barely concealed agitation.
"This stuff they're showing on TV, it just doesn't do anything for me," the 36-year old shipping coordinator muttered as he shook his head, his index finger rapidly tapping the table in frustration. "How can anyone watch this golf stuff? They take about six hours between each stroke, and their sweater vests are so awful," he continued, voice rising with emotion.
'It's been a whole 144 days since the last Oilers game. One hundred and forty-four. I'm about to lose it, honestly. Every day is a constant struggle."
A native of Edmonton who has supported the Oilers since "the day before [he] was even conceived," Carson's emotional turmoil is not an isolated case in a city where hockey is the cause of much misery and elation, but mostly misery. Though the regular season brings little in the way of positive results, the offseason is the hardest to get through, with many fans missing the sport so much they have coined a term for it- Hockey Withdrawal Syndrome.
"HWS is very real, and it affects people in a profound way," explains Sean Whyte, organizer of the HWS Support Group, which meets at O'Connor's every Wednesday afternoon. "I started this group so people know that they're not alone, and we have a couple of activities to keep them going in this really awful part of the year. Adult coloring books, lanyards, cross-stitching, we just try to keep each other occupied. Sometimes we rewatch games from last season, and even though we know the result, it really gives everyone a rush. Don sometimes gets a little too excited and starts shrieking, but it comes from a good place."
Similar stories emerged as other members shared their coping methods, most just aiming to get through the 26 days that remain until the Oilers' first preseason game against the Calgary Flames.
"One thing that's worked really well for me is writing fanfiction about the Oilers winning," said Jamie Kaplan, a 28-year-old accountant who now taps into his creative side and active imagination to stem the pain of hockey's long offseason.
'In my latest story, it's Connor McDavid who unexpectedly scores with five seconds left in regulation to take Game Seven to overtime, and Patrick Maroon, playing with two broken legs, dekes past two defenders to score in double overtime to clinch the Cup at home," he described excitedly, eyes turning into crescents as a smile overtook his face. "I love it when tough players grind it out for a come-from-behind win."
When asked how likely it is that his fanfiction becomes reality, Kaplan said nothing and cast a sombre gaze out the window.
Another fan, who asked to remain anonymous, described her experience trying to watch different sports in the summer.
"I tried watching baseball, and I realized the only time I got excited was when it seemed like they were going to brawl. That one game with the Blue Jays and Rangers was great because this guy got clocked right in the face, that was great. But most of the time they seem like those guys at bars saying 'hold me back, hold me back,' with no intention of actually fighting, so I quickly lost interest," she said, adding, "It's kind of like eating a gluten-free vegan cookie when you're used to having the real thing."
None of the fans, however, come close to the level of dedication shown by Don Carson. He insists on wearing his full Oilers gear, long-sleeved polyester and all, on one of the hottest days of the summer, despite his glistening forehead and the damp sweat stains that have formed on his attire.
"Each drop of sweat signifies my love for the team," he proclaimed.
When asked about the less-than-stellar record of his team the past few seasons, and whether optimism is now tinged with more doubt, Carson became visibly emotional. Clutching his half-empty mug of beer so tightly his knuckles became white, Carson exclaimed, "This is the year, I know it! It's going to be different!" receiving pitying glances from the other patrons at the bar. When asked if he had said this statement anytime in the past ten years, Carson became silent and proceeded to finish the rest of his beer in one gulp. In his effort to make a point, he drank way more than he could handle in one gulp, and with beer foam still gushing out of his mouth, pulled out one of his recent artistic creations, an oil pastel portrait of Connor McDavid stylized as Jesus Christ.
"This is the answer right here," he said, slamming his hand on the table in dramatic fashion. "When I meet Leafs fans that make fun of me, I pull out this picture and wave it in their face. They usually give me a look and walk away after that-- 100% effective."
'The saddest thing is when you check blogs like Copper & Blue and there's nothing posted for days because nothing is happening," he added. "All you want is some news, something to prove that hockey still exists, even if it's news that Oscar Klefbom has upgraded his six-pack into an eight-pack. Even if their writers started going crazy and made up a satirical news story, it would be better than this vast nothingness we live in now."