On waving the flag and enjoying the game

Harry How

If you'll allow me to get personal for a few moments, here's a more general take on our team of choice and the game we love.

I once heard the legendary Bob Cole say "I just love the game so darn much." I feel the same way, Bob, but sometimes it can be more of a love / hate relationship, and mostly (but not always) in relation to some of the 29 other teams in the NHL.

Or, more specifically, it's a lot like that line from the Sloan song ... "It's not the band I hate, it's their fans."

So as a new NHL season begins, I've been thinking about what it means to wave the flag of one specific team while enjoying the game for what it is. You know, just a game, a form of entertainment.

Here's what I came up with.

The Ties That Bind

I’ll be honest: last season's playoff series between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs was … an interesting experience.

As a fan of the black and gold living in the belly of the beast that is Maple Leafs country (ie: Southern Ontario), the fact that my favorite team was pitted against the beloved blue and white of many friends and family members made for a few awkward conversations and tense moments both during and especially after the series was over. It made me think about why things have to be this way, why we hold on so tightly to our hockey allegiances and why we allow them to cause us so much angst and even, at times, to get in the way of our personal relationships.

Why can't we just be a fans of a team and still being able to enjoy the game for what it is, no matter what happens?

First, let’s talk about why things are the way they are. Last spring, Jeff Marek made an interesting point on the MvsW podcast that speaks to the divisive nature of sports fandom. His basic premise was that sports marketing and culture is set up to create and "us vs them" mentality, and that this is expressed most clearly in the use of "(Blank) Nation" or "(Blank) Army" or "(Blank)Fam" *barf* to describe a fan base. What this does is establish a mobilization of the fans wherein we feel as though we are actually part of the battle, so to speak. We follow and support the cause of our favorite teams, and feel intimately linked to the outcomes that befall them. If they win, we take to the streets to celebrate; if they lose, we feel like our home and native land has been invaded and pillaged, leaving us wander aimlessly until the battle picks up again.

The fallacy here, of course, is that what will be will be, regardless of how we personally feel about the team in question. Our attachments to our teams are mostly peripheral, in the sense that we likely have no personal knowledge of or attachment to the actual people who are playing the game. We pay money for tickets, jerseys and cable packages, investing in war bonds if you will, but we don’t affect the outcomes of the games, Bartman notwithstanding.

Again, regardless of what happens, it’s not a reflection of who we are personally; if they win, we cheer but the accolades are not ours, and if we lose, it stinks but the failure is also not really ours. Another thing that this mobilization does is create a black and white way of looking at the world. We get so drawn in to the cause that the lines between right and wrong or good and bad are blurred.

For example, if Player X on Team Y commits an act that we deem to be egregious, we demand that he be suspended and label the player and the team a certain way. BUT, if Player Z on my favorite team commits a similar act, well then we spin it any which way to make it out to be not so bad, that the world is just out to get us.

Or, to take it another way, I heard from several people after that series who believed the Bruins didn't "deserve" their comeback against the Leafs because their team features a guy like Brad Marchand, a veritable scourge on the face of the NHL. What most fail to admit is that if a guy like Marchand was in their team’s lineup, he would be embraced and loved by that fan base for the way that he is able to stir things up in effective ways and straight up deliver for his team. He’s widely hated as a Bruin, but most Canadians loved him when he was winning gold medals at the World Juniors.

In short, mobilized fan bases creates "us vs them" & "black and white" thinking, often allowing emotion to trump logic and decency.

So how do we get around this?

'Tis The Season For Logic and Reason

I can only speak about my own situation, but here are two ways in which I’ve been able to balance being a fan and enjoying the game, no matter what happens.

First, over the past year couple of years, I’ve dipped my toes into the hockey writer pool. While whether or not I’m any good at it is very much up for debate, what I’ve learned through the process is the importance of trying to maintain a level head, to look at situations from all sorts of angles, and to remain as reasonable and logical as possible when watching games. Obviously that’s easier said than done, especially for a guy who’s approaching that task and the craft as one who had been conditioned to wear a loyal fan hat in all circumstances, reason be damned.

But the reality is that approaching the game from a position of responsibility and with a view to building credibility lends itself to being more honest, more realistic, less attached, less emotionally engaged in the success or failure of the team. An old boss of mine used to say to me "it’s not whether or you not you disagree, but how." There’s no question that I will, at times, see things through black and gold lenses, as any fan of any team will. It’s OK to disagree about incidents on the ice, the merits of roster composition and fancy stats or which team won a trade, but if one is not prepared to step aside and admit that their biases and preconceived notions might be off, then it’s game over and there’s no point in continuing the conversation.

The second big part of it for me is my current stage of life. I’m 32, married, and have 2 boys age 3 and under. I want my boys to appreciate and love the game the way I do, and I also want them to be good people, to respect others, to think and care about the things in life that really matter. What kind of example would I be setting if they saw me getting worked up about a hockey game to the point where I can’t speak to friends and family, or started cursing out guys on TV or Twitter, or losing sleep over the outcome of a game or playoff series?

Look, I struggle with all of the above to a certain degree, and I’m not going to pretend like it doesn't matter to me, because it does. I was distraught when the Bruins gave up those goals in Game 6, and was bothered by the Tyler Seguin trade. I can get sucked into stupid Twitter exchanges, and annoyed when people start pumping their own team's tires a little too much. But what I’m trying to learn and subsequently demonstrate to my boys is that you can be a loyal fan, and still enjoy the game for what it is supposed to be – FUN! Even more than that, your team can lose and you can be happy for the fans of the OTHER team because you know they care as much as you do.

At the end of the day, out team of choice is currently achieving a level of sustained success that I haven't witnessed SINCE I WAS 10, and witnessing an actual Cup victory was a first for pretty much all of us. That's not something to be taken for granted; nobody knows how long it will last, and how long the eventual downswing will be.

There will certainly be events and people that piss me off along the way, but I want to be known as someone who enjoys being a fan of this team, who enjoys watching the game I love, and who's able to allow others to do so in relation to their team in any way they see fit.

All this to say, man I love hockey, but it's only hockey.

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