By now – not now, as in “when you’re reading this” but now, as in “while I’m mashing the keys with my sausage fingers”, the nervous anticipation is starting to settle in among Caps fans. I remember it well from 1993 in particular, this anxious thrill that comes over a fan when “his” (or “her” – my Canada includes loser domi too) team is competing in the playoffs and there is an undeniable feeling that something very memorable is about to happen.
I have read what Sean has to say about the fan-tourism of the Adopt-a-team project over at Pension Plan Puppets, and I respect the singularity of his dedication to his chosen team – my chosen team. I can’t help but think, though, that he’s missing the boat on this one and is feeling his principles unnecessarily under attack with the invitation to join us in cheering on the Capitals. After offering a anecdote involving Kerry Fraser-related catharsis in D.C. (well, okay, it would have been Landover, Md at the time) Sean confesses to a soft spot for the Caps but says:
…I can’t do it, PPP. I can’t jump on another team’s bandwagon, even temporarily. I’ll watch. Maybe even cheer. But I won’t call the Caps my team. I’m a Leafs fan and a Leafs fan only until the day I die (which will be this summer, by the way, of self-inflicted head wounds when we don’t get Brian Burke.
In this, I think Sean implicitly confesses to a slight misunderstanding about the nature of our project. I too am a Leafs fan. I’m not rooting for a “second favourite” team as we go along in to the playoffs; what I’m doing is choosing to support a particular team now that my team has been eliminated from competition, simply to enhance my enjoyment of playoffs as a hockey fan.
Let me explain: It happens (almost) every year anyway. As I follow the playoffs and watch the Stanley Cup final, once the Leafs have been eliminated, I find myself preferring one club over the other; in this series, I want the Red Wings to lose (old Norris division rivalries die hard) so I cheer the Predators or Sharks; in the next, the Senators must lose to please my sense of sporting justice, so I hope – at least for the moment – that Malkin’s aim is true and Marc-Andre Fleury can channel the spirit of Tom Barrasso out of the rafters of the Igloo (and yes, I know none of that is going to make me any friends among the Washington faithful). This year, what I have done – in the absence of a Maple Leaf entry in the tournament – is cast my overall rooting sympathies into the corner of a team with which the Leafs have no particular grudge, and for whose fans the average Leaf supporter can feel some empathy.
Make no mistake, though: I am a Leafs fan.
I have loved the Leafs since the early 70’s; I remember being bummed out in 1972 that more Leafs had not made the Summit Series team – whither Jim McKenney and Mike Pelyk, for example – look, I was six. You can forgive me my lack of talent evaluation skills in kindergarten, can’t you? The point is I loved that team so much that I felt the sting of silent rebuke even at that young age – the league was telling my team that not very many of the league’s best players had occasion to don the blue and white, and this was my major concern as the Series approached and I pondered the coin set we got from Shell with pictures of all the players; poor, lonely Brian Glennie and Paul Henderson – among all those other players from all those other teams. I was a Leaf fan.
I remember dancing up and down in the living room of my family’s home when Lanny McDonald scored that goal in a seventh game overtime to improbably upset the Islanders, and my father and I hugged each other and kept jumping up and down, not because it was an excuse for us to express our repressed masculine love for one another in some grand metaphorical way, but because we were really freaking happy and we couldn’t think of any other way to survive with all that giddiness inside us. I was a Leaf fan.
I actually stopped watching hockey – at all – in the late 70’s/early 80’s for a year or two. Leaf fans know these years as the “Jiri Crha” era. It was bad, worse even than the last three (non-playoff) years: the team was some kind of perverse circus, run by the chief Clown, and to boot one of our greatest heroes, King Clancy, had been reduced to a macabre sidekick to the lunatic Ballard. The saga at 60 Carlton was certainly not, and obviously so, about the performance of the team on the ice; rather, it had become a soap-opera like list of indignities inflicted upon a great and historic institution that I had loved dearly since my earliest childhood. My point is that rather than switching my allegiance to another team (hi Senators fans, take a good long look in the mirror), I chose not to watch the game at all. It was too difficult to endure, so I chose not to watch. Nevetheless, I was a Leaf fan.
The ascent of Gretzky and all the other countless charms of the game brought me inexorably back, and though the teams were not much better in the mid and late 80s, I took solace in what little joys the team offered, principally the play of Wendel Clark. The determined abandon with which the young lad from Kelvington threw himself around the ice at much larger opponents made it easier to be a Leaf fan – and a Leaf fan I still was. At first, I just watched and secretly hoped for the day Ballard would die and wished earnestly that some sort of rejuvenation would occur on Carlton street. In the meantime, I hung around the Gardens when I could, bought single tickets from scalpers and sat in the end blues, bemoaning the ineptitude of my team but never wavering in my dedication to them. I was a Leaf fan.
My wish was, of course, granted in 1990. In April of that year, Ballard the Tormentor died. The soap opera and circus surrounding his estate and the future of the team would continue for a number of years, but in the meantime, something marvellous was happening. Slowly, the rejuvenation of the hockey team began.l At first the committee of executors, and latterly Mr. Stavro alone (along with Brian Bellmore, his trusty advisor) began restoring some honour and dignity to the organization; there were organizational nods to the forgotten and disrespected heroes of the past; formerly disparaged by the egomaniacal tyrant as scene-stealers who outrageously would draw the focus from the nightly pantomime played out in the corner bunker, those who had once worn the sweater with honour and determination were welcomed again to the scene of their victories. Even if there weren’t grand triumphs in the Carlton St. cashbox, there was at least a sense of pride and reverence for Leaf history; we were a people emerging from exile in a wilderness into an oasis of comfort. The team as an institution was being remade for the better, and like all Leaf fans, I could sense it.
That brings us to 1992-1993, when all that pent-up frustration and dedicated fandom was released in an orgiastic run towards what, at the time, seemed like it must surely be the long-delayed Leaf Cup victory. I remember how the routine set in, sometime after the improbable first-round upset of the Wings: Cliff Fletcher, Gord Stellick and Mike Kitchen can be seen on that clip jumping around and hugging each other just like my Dad and I had done in 1978. Soon after Borschevsky’s momentous goal, there was a rhythm, a roller-coaster routine to life that set in during that run that became impossibly addictive. That’s the feeling that I sense among Caps fans right now, and it’s the reason I want to walk among them during these playoffs. I remember that by the time the second-round series against St. Louis had begun, my buddy and I had a game-day routine: we would rush out of work, stop for Swiss Chalet on the way home and then settle on the couch across from the TV in my Eglinton Ave. apartment with the phone off the hook and my Sabres-loving roommates either banished entirely or sworn to silence while the drama – everything that felt really important in my life at the time (such a joy to live an uncomplicated and trouble-free existence for even a short period of time to permit the sporting endeavours of others to fulfill such a function in one’s life) – unfolded on the screen. After the game, win or lose, there followed the minute dissection of the various successes and setbacks, the strengths and weaknesses of the team as a whole and of all its component parts. Next came sleep, either the nervous sleep that followed failure or the anxious and excited slumber filled with anticipation for the next game following victory. The next day – off day – would dawn with a hurried breakfast, barely tasted, though the morning newspaper was devoured and examined from every possible angle so that out of it might be teased every last relevant piece of information, like so many entrails to be sifted and studied to see what future they might portend. That evening would be spent in a hurried attempt to achieve whatever domestic or work-related tasks were necessary to ensure a distraction free environment in which to watch the next evening’s game. Finally, to sleep again – always a little nervous the night before a game – then up again in the morning with one’s entire focus on 7:35 p.m. – game time. Again, the paper must be dissected and examined for whatever augury might lie within. Going about my work with a singularity of purpose, if not a unity of focus, the day would pass by at a crawl until quitting time approached and my buddy and I made our exits and headed – again – for Swiss Chalet. I lived in 48 hour cycles, because the games came with astonishing regularity every other day that year; I was at all times, and in all ways, a Leaf fan.
It’s that nervous anticipation, the excited feeling that would set in during the hour or so before the anthems, that I really remember. It’s a feeling I am sure Caps fans are going through now. The trials and tribulations, historically, of Caps fans are similar to those of Leaf fans, in some ways, though the parallels are not geometric, obvious and precise; rather, they bear a resemblance in somewhat the same way a Picasso mirrors the human face. Here, a nose or an eye may be re-arranged, but the image is unmistakably a human face. Thus, as Leafs fans have suffered through years of on-ice and off-ice indignities, through the Ballard circus and more recent reversals that are (in my opinion) related more to a failure of strategic planning in the pre-lockout period, Caps fans have suffered too, in their own corner of the hockey world. First come all the problems of cheering on a team in a non-traditional hockey market – the team ignored by the local media, struggling financially for short-term viability as a consequence and all the personnel problems these financial facts imply. Further similarity may be found in the historic futility of the organization, and the wide variety of the types of futility with which the franchise has become associated. For example, they were just all around bad in the regular season: eight wins in 1974-1975, just eleven wins and nearly four hundred goals allowed the next year, did not qualify for the playoffs for nearly the first ten years of their existence. When they did make the playoffs, despite a parade of great players (Langway, Green, Gartner, Ciccarelli, Murphy et. al.) and some otherwise successful teams, the franchise was eliminated seven years in a row in either the first or second-round of the playoffs. The team took time out, even amidst this stretch of quick and early disappointment, to destroy their fans’ aspirations in epic fashion – the Easter Epic game in which Pat Lafontaine drove a stake through the heart of every Capitals fan eight minutes in to the fourth overtime. The team then seemed to take up, as a habit of sorts, being eliminated by the Penguins – losing to their Pittsburgh rivals four times in six years from 1991 to 1996. Unlike Leafs fans, Capital supporters had the good fortune of cheering their team on to a Cup Final appearance – in 1998 – but the team never seriously threatened to defeat an obviously superior Detroit club. The team then fell back into old ways, losing early and often to the Penguins and, more recently, Caps fans endured the slow descent into impotence again of a once perennial playoff contender. Superimposed upon all of that recent history was the saga of Jaromir Jagr and, ultimately, a management decision to dismantle the team and sell off talent in an effort to rebuild through a youth movement and the subsequent frustrations of being shut out of the postseason even though the best player in the league was lacing up his skates night after night in home dressing room at Verizon Centre.
In the end, what I’m suggesting is that as a Leaf fan, having been through that incredible spring in 1993, I think I know exactly how Capitals fans are now feeling. I am a hockey fan and will continue to watch the playoffs; as a natural consequence of pulling up a seat to follow the drama unfolding, I’ll cheer on one set of characters. Without the Leafs, it’s only entertainment, so I’ll cheer on those characters in the same way I have cheered on Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones. Sean compares this process to having a “second-favourite wife” and says you can’t do that; of course he’s right, you can’t do that – in reality. You can, however, watch Lost in Translation and have a brief, entirely fictional, fling with Scarlett Johansson.
In the end, I am no more a Caps fan than I am in love with Scarlett Johansson. Neither Mats Sundin nor Spouse has anything to fear (each in their own realm) in relation to my fidelity.
As a Caps supporter at this time, in this year, I am a fan tourist; I have chosen to travel among them, but I am a Leaf fan, no more French than if I lived in France for a year, no more a woodsman than if I went tenting for my summer vacation, and no more a Caps fan for simply wanting to watch Ovechkin succeed.
I will not feel the anticipation for this afternoon’s game the way the Capital faithful will, and I will not feel their pain if the Flyers tie the series and steal away home-ice advantage. I will be excited by the former and disappointed by the latter, because I have decided that I want the Capitals to win, but I won’t and can’t presume to feel these things the way a Caps fan would. No matter what happens in this series, I will never feel happy the way I did when Gilmour scored to beat the Blues or as utterly disconsolate as I was when Game 7 against the Kings had come to a close and Leaf fans – no, screw that, I didn’t care about the rest of Leaf Nation at that point, my focus was my own grief – I had been denied a trip to the Cup Final and a chance to bring home the hardware by (not necessarily in this order) a cruel bounce off Dave Ellett’s skate and the greatest game ever played by some guy named Gretzky. I was fortunate enough to go to that game, and I remember sitting there in the corner reds after it was all over, totally drained and in utter disbelief that the run was over. I could never feel that kind of disappointment as a result of anything the Caps did or didn’t do; I am a Leaf fan, not a Caps fan.
Nevertheless, I will be checking in with the other fan-tourists at PPP on Capitals game days, and I’ll be sitting in my chair with a cold BEvERage and a bowl of popcorn silently putting the whammy on Marty Biron and the Flyer power play and hoping that Ovechkin can keep working his magic so that my fan-tourist vacation doesn’t have to end; I’ve only just gotten here and unpacked, and I’m not yet ready to go home.