I happened to be watching the Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada while milling about more or less aimlessly in a “live” game thread on the Pension Plan Puppets site. Basically, I hung out in a virtual basement (I don’t know if it was Chemmy’s or P3’s house) with a bunch of my fellow Leaf fans and we watched the game together. None of us knew what was about to unfold: after a spirited but unlucky opening two stanzas, and trailing 2-0 going in to the third, Toronto seemed more or less resigned to their fate throughout the first ten minutes of the period. Then, boosted by a terrific performance by rookie John Mitchell, they scored five goals in five minutes and twenty-two seconds to win the game 5-2.
Folks in the virtual rec room were pretty excited, and I could see on TV that the fans at the Air Canada Centre were stoked too; they gave the Leafs an enthusiastic standing ovation in the final minute of play. It was great to see the folks in the building – which is often a monument to corporate reserve, especially in the platinum seating area close to the ice surface – get up and wave their arms, pound their hands together, and generally scream their fool heads off because they were excited by their team’s performance.
The events of last night, along with the official commencement of the Revolution of the Barilkosphere earlier this week, have gotten me thinking a little bit about the nature of fan-dom. The Revolution was provoked by the most recent cut-and-paste, written-with-a-crayon-and-little-or-no-forethought, blame-the-fans for the hockey team’s problems article. Here’s a sampling of Berger’s most recent instantiation of this “argument”:
Arguably the worst team in the National Hockey League since the lockout continues to be the most lucrative commodity on skates. Even the tall foreheads at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment have seemingly thrown in the towel on their annual dissing of Forbes Magazines’ NHL value rankings. Normally, by the evening of the announcement, CEO Richard Peddie is on record suggesting that no person outside the hallowed halls of the Air Canada Centre could possibly have a line on the Leafs’ monetary worth. This is either an effort to keep the tax people at bay, or to avoid laughing out loud at the sheep that form the lifeblood of the company.
Yes, that is YOU, Leafs Nation.
An insatiable willingness to accept whatever garbage is tossed your way each year lines the pockets of the executives you purportedly “hate” [I see that word a lot in my e-mails]. No form of indignity is powerful enough to dissuade you from the uncontrollable love of your Blue & White. You bitch… and moan… and go insane over the always-accurate appraisals of the team in the media. Depending on the hour of day, you either castigate or lionize members of the hockey club — often the same player. The familiar disappointment of missing the playoffs on April 8th is washed away with delusional fantasies by April 9th. And, always, you are there to buy every ticket; purchase every jersey; watch every game on TV; lose your mind over every word written and spoken about the team [the part I like best], and generally cradle the habit you have no power to temper, let alone break. You are, by any measure, the most easily placated fans in all of sport — rivaled only by the zombie-like baseball fanatics on the north side of Chicago.
This line of thinking (is there such a thing as a “line of ranting”? That seems to me a more apt comparison) suffers from a fundamentally flawed premise in terms of its economic reasoning – as Sean at Down Goes Brown has ably pointed out. It also attributes certain behaviours to Leaf fans that don’t bear any resemblance to reality; to say that anybody who follows the team this year is having “delusional fantasies” is itself (ironically) a delusional fantasy; to say that expectations for this year’s team are low even among Leaf fans is a massive understatement. Heck, even the Leaf-o-centric media gadflys at Cox Bloc picked them to finish “at or near the bottom” of the entire league. I haven’t heard a single person of any persuasion opine that the Leafs would challenge for the Cup. I can’t even think of anyone I personally know who’s been willing to wager that they’d make the playoffs. Quite the contrary, I think the general perception – at least around the Barilkosphere – was that the Leafs would lose a LOT of games this year; this would happen because the team was thought not to have much talent, and what talent it possessed was believed to be trade bait for prospects and draft picks as part of a quest to rebuild, and maybe to draft John Tavares next June.
It seems to me, though, that the Howard’s reasoning – or more properly, the reasoning he apes for the umpteenth time – is even more deeply flawed than that. He suggests that the correct course of action for any fan, in the face of losing, is to withdraw his or her support for the team. More simply, the argument might be stated as follows: one should only follow a team that wins. By this “logic”, there ought to be 29 buildings in the NHL that remain empty all season. If you’re a fan of any team in any sport, you know that this reasoning is specious; it just feels wrong.
But why? What is it that makes a person a “fan”? In short, what are the ethics of fandom?
The connection between fan and team is not transactional: fans do not give their support to a team as a currency in the expectation of receiving – like goods and services – satisfaction in the form of wins. There is no quid pro being exchanged for quo. It is neither a bargain nor a barter.
This is because the relation between fan and team is not fleeting and ephemeral, as between buyer and seller. It is not a relationship defined by passing circumstance or supply and demand, such as might be true of rational actors in a marketplace of goods. The relationship is instead one that is – at its roots – essentially tribal. To identify oneself as a “fan” is to express continuing membership in a community; one does not say “I have cheered for the Leafs”, but “I [continue to] root for the Leafs”. The reasons that a given individual may find for self-identifying as a member of the community in the first place are many – family tradition, geography, an interest in a particular player – but the initial interest continues to manifest itself in the form of an ongoing emotional or spiritual connection to the team.
I remember going to large family gatherings and sitting in the smoke filled, beer soaked basement at my grandmother’s house watching those 93′ Leafs captivate the male members of my family. I don’t remember much from that year (as I was only 5 at the time) but every memory I do have is centered around one man. Wendel Clark, the man, the legend, the mustache. I remember how excited my uncles would get whenever he was on the ice. Whenever he would drop the gloves we would all cheer and I would imitate my uncles yelling “Give ’em Hell Wendel”, my mother didn’t approve of my language. He quickly became my favourite player. From that moment on I was hooked. I have faithfully watched the Leafs ever since and hope for the day when we see a team (and a player) like in 93′, and though it won’t be anytime soon, i’ll keep watching and cheering just the same.
I have similar memories of my own, from an earlier era: Dave Keon providing a model for me as an undersized aspiring young forward (the failure of that experiment being irrelevant, and related to my own athletic limitations more directly than to Keon’s example); then Sittler, Salming and McDonald gamely battling the brutal Flyers year-in and year-out, my father and I leaping into each others’ arms and dancing for joy when Lanny beat Chico Resch in game 7; Wendel Clark’s phenomenal game 7 against the Kings in ’93, which I was privileged to attend with one of my buddies. Actually, pretty much all of Wendel’s career as a Leaf was fun to follow for me. I remember Wendel punching out Slava Fetisov’s lights on a knee that Fetisov had just rendered gimpy, and I’ll never forget how he attempted to put a six-inch diameter hole in Marty McSorley’s face¹ after McSorley ran Doug Gilmour late in Game 1 of the ’93 semi-finals. Paul Morris announcing the goals in the most wonderfully disinterested monotone at the Gardens. King Clancy. Red Kelly. The Chief. Getting a single ticket from a scalper for a mid-season game and sitting alone in the blues at the south end of the Gardens, marvelling at the fact that you could feel the air mass moving when the players moved into the near zone. Pretending to be Doug Favell when I played net in road hockey. Hating the Red Wings, the Habs, and now the Senators. Staring at the TV screen in disbelief as Allan Bester whiffed on a 75-foot Sergio Momesso slapshot. Writing to Favell, at the age of six, and receiving a manilla envelope with return address stamped on the upper left corner: 60 Carlton St., Toronto, Ontario. Opening the envelope and finding an autographed team photo, with Doug’s best wishes inscribed on it, and the signature of all of my heroes. Clearing an entire shelf in my bedroom to display the revered relic so obtained.
The point is that the connection is one of emotional commitment. It is unconditional and unseverable. I root for the Leafs because I want them to win; more accurately, I want to enjoy the process of wanting them to win. Bill Simmons got it right in his column “20 Rules for being a true fan”
… you can’t start rooting for a team, back off when they’re in a down cycle, then renew the relationship once the team starts winning again. All those Cowboys fans who jumped off the bandwagon in the late-’80s, jumped back on during the Emmitt/Aikman Era, then jumped back off in the late-’90s … you know who you are. You shouldn’t even be allowed out in public.
(There’s nothing worse than a Bandwagon Jumper. If sports were a prison and sports fans made up all the prisoners, the Bandwagon Jumpers would be like the child molesters — everyone else would pick on them, take turns beating them up and force them to toss more salads than Emeril Lagasse.)
Do not argue with me about whether this “should” be the way that things are. True sports fans know that Simmons is right, there is a very Calvinist ethos behind all of this. Being a fan is an ongoing process, and part of earning the right to enjoy the reward – the peaks of success – is slogging faithfully, loyally and honourably through the tough times – the Jiri Crha years, for example. Three years without a playoff game, for another.
Whether this “should” be the case or not is irrelevant. It is the case. That is what it means to be a fan of a particular team. Guys like Howard Berger would do well to read Simmons’ article, because they would do well to understand the people they are purporting to describe – before putting pen to paper.
¹ I say “attempted”, because he did not succeed in creating such an aperture; the hole created was actually eight inches in diameter.