On sports partisanship, or, why I bleed bleu-blanc-rouge

I have been derelict in my blogging duties these last few weeks. I could claim that the exigencies of the end of the academic year, with its grading and travelling to academic conferences, have been responsible for my silence. I could also claim post-election fatigue. But those would only be half-truths. The fact is that all that I have been thinking about these last few weeks – all anyone has been thinking about in Montreal – has been hockey. At time of writing, our city’s much-beloved Canadiens are three rounds deep into the NHL playoffs. The rhythms of the city have over the course of the last month-and-a-half or so been those of more or less thrice-weekly hockey games, followed by off-days during which the city attempts to recover a normal heart rate and breathing pattern, before being plunged again into collective hyperventilation and cardiac shock.

Here are some of the things that I have done these last few weeks in order not to have to miss any games: during a recent trip to the UK for academic talks, I stayed up by myself in my hotel room in Southampton until 3AM watching the Canadiens clinch their second-round series against the dastardly Boston Bruins on a choppy CBC feed (which for some reason was in Punjabi!). A few days later, in Sheffield, I walked into a sports bar with a few Canadian colleagues and demanded (well, asked politely) that one of their many television screens be tuned to the first game of the third-round series between the Canadiens and the New York Rangers. I prevailed. This might not seem like that much of an accomplishment, so I should probably specify that the final of the FA Cup was going on at the same time, and that the bar was packed to the rafters with English soccer fans occupying what at first glance seemed like every square inch of the place.

Now, I think of myself as a pretty rational guy. After all, I’m a philosopher. I have no truck with nationalism, and find the orgies of patriotic fervor that accompany the Olympics to be quite distasteful. Sure, I am pleased when the Canadian national hockey teams win gold (after all, someone has to win gold medals, so it might as well be us), but I do not watch games pitting our national team against the national teams of the US or Sweden as if my very life depended on it. Indeed, if an evil genie were to propose that she could ensure a Stanley Cup victory for the Habs, but that it would require denying the Canadian national team success in international competitions, I would jump at the opportunity.

So how can I explain and/or justify my zealous, and at this point in the season, downright fanatical allegiance for the Montreal Canadiens? What is it about city-based sports teams that drives seemingly rational people to frenzy?

One explanation might be that city-based allegiances are safer to indulge in than are national ones. Nations, after all, fight wars with one another, and there may be the concern that when we root for our nation’s sports teams to beat another nations, we are dipping our toes into an emotional well that we had best steer clear of. Cities, on the other hand, engage in good-natured rivalries that, at least in the modern era, never lead to the taking up of arms. It’s fun to be a partisan, and being a civic, rather than a national partisan allows us to engage in some fun without inviting the dangers that are never far away when national passions are stirred up.

That explanation has the ring of plausibility, but on further inspection, it just doesn’t stand up. On the one hand, Canadian nationalism has historically been a rather benign force. It‘s not as if rooting for the Canadians to beat the Swedes will somehow lead us to harbor militaristic thoughts against our Nordic friends. And on the other, it must be admitted that there isn’t anything particularly Montreal-ish about the Montreal Canadiens’ team. Rooting for the Canadiens at this stage involves cheering a goalie from BC, a power forward from Connecticut, a defenseman from Toronto (Toronto!), and a bunch of Danes, Russians, Austrians, Czechs and Americans. Sure, there are a few of Quebeckers on the team, but I am not certain that any of them actually hail for Montreal. So it’s hard to see them as instantiating any Montreal-specific properties, other than that of wearing the Holy Flannel. And as Jerry Seinfeld once said in one of his stand-up routines, it’s pretty silly to be rooting for laundry.

So here’s another explanation. It actually came to me, strangely enough, as I was listening to a talk by my friend Marc Zaffran (also known under his novelistic nom de plume Martin Winckler) at a three-day conference on TV series that was recently held at my old University, the Université de Montréal. Anyone who watches TV series loyally knows that one develops an attachment to characters, especially characters in series that develop over several years. The fate of the characters that I encountered in the series Breaking Bad mattered to me, because I had been inviting them into my TV room every week for a number of years.

If you follow a team over the course of a season, and indeed if you follow certain players over the course of several seasons, you care about them in ways that are not dissimilar. There they are, every week, in your home, overcoming obstacles of various kinds, trying to face up to their own personal Achilles heels, succeeding sometimes, failing others.

There are some pretty interesting characters on the Habs team this year, as there are on just about any sports team. We have the enigmatic René Bourque, a power forward with the complete package of attributes, who seems to suffer from the hockey equivalent of a bipolar disorder. He can take over a game all by himself, as he did last night in game 5 of the Habs-Rangers series, and he can appear sullen and uninterested the next night. We have Carey Price, of course, the franchise goaltender who has not quite lived up to his potential in the first years of his career, but who this year has seemed to exorcise the demons that at times prevented him from making routine stops reliably. We have André Markov, the wise old man, who has overcome potentially career-ending knee surgeries to play some of the most inspired hockey of his career. And we have PK Subban, who every year grows into his other-worldly talent a bit more.

So here is a suggestion: we care about the teams that we follow on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis, because we become interested in the stories that these players taken individually and collectively embody, and we hope that their narrative arcs will propel them (and us) to a happy ending. The players on the Canadian national team are, comparatively speaking, strangers. We get to know them a bit over the course of a few games, but not enough to become interested in their stories, the way we do with city-based teams.

That, at least, is my working hypothesis for right now for why I drive myself crazy watching the Habs and their Perils-of-Pauline-like ascent toward hockey glory.

Go Habs Go! And if you happen to know of any evil genies, send them my way.


On sports partisanship, or, why I bleed bleu-blanc-rouge — 2 Comments

  1. Daniel,

    I’ve got another hypothesis for what you call your “zealous” and “downright fanatical” allegiance to the Canadiens…you are still in the same frame of mind you were as a child.

    I remember decades ago in grade school at Petit College Stanislas in Outremont you were a devoted sports fan. Many of us at the time were fans of the Canadiens. And why not? The NHL was different back then. It was smaller. There were fewer teams and players and they seemed to come around more regularly. The players did not wear helmets so you could actually tell who was who on the ice. You actually felt like you knew who the players were and they might even have come from your neighbourhood. When we played in the school yard we each pretended to be one of our heroes.

    On top of that, the Canadiens had an unbelievable decade in the 1970s and every member of the team was a superstar. The team could have been the NHL All-Star team, or the Canadian National Team, easy. And it was composed of Canadians, with plenty of Quebeckers. My own hero was Yvan Cournoyer…the road runner. Who could forget the great hockey and rivalry when Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and the rest of the Bruins dropped by the Forum? And the heroes in the 1972 hockey Summit with the Soviets took the game to a whole new level. Who could imagine that out of an eight game series the Canadians would be awarded more than an entire game of penalties more than the Soviets, and still come from behind to win in Moscow? But then again, when you have Yvan Cournoyer, Pete and Frank Mahovlich, Ken Dryden, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe on the team, what do you expect? A loss? I don’t think so.

    We all collected hockey cards like crazy. I remember once (around 1972) on my way home after school that I was walking down the street (Van Horne) near our school. You just emerged from the corner store with a pack of hockey cards and you yelled at me over the noise of the traffic “Hey André!” When you got my attention, you held up a card for me to see at a distance and yelled “Ken Dryden!” That was a big deal. The card makers seemed to distribute a short supply of some key players to keep kids like us buying the packs day after day, in a vain attempt to collect the whole team. Few of us got the Ken Dryden card, and we tried to justify the exchange of our allowance money for multiple cards of Brad Park by suggesting that at least the stick of gum that came with each pack was worth it.

    But we were ten years old and in grade four at the time.

    Around that time my mother got a little cranky with me one day as my excitement during the playoffs got the better of my judgment in terms of time management and the completion of homework, and she said something to me that I’ll never forget. It’s just a bunch of grown men putting a piece of rubber in a net. Put it in perspective. It is a huge entertainment racket that has become obscene over the years in terms of the money involved. $120 million over 10 years for Ovechkin because he can skate, stickhandle, shoot, bodycheck….and put the little rubber biscuit in the net?

    Every NHL game these days involves about 35 multimillionaires playing a game to entertain the bored and restless masses. If you are making two million bucks a year playing 90 games, what difference does winning the cup actually mean? You’ll be retiring with more comfort and wealth than the average Canadian will ever achieve, and at a young age, regardless of whether you win or lose. I went to a Senators game a few years ago (I was given free tickets – I refuse to pay the ridiculous ticket prices for NHL hockey) and the crowd was disappointed that the team was losing. I leaned over to the person next to me and said I had a theory about why they were playing so poorly – “We don’t pay them enough.”

    My teenage son has been playing minor hockey since he was seven years old and I attend and watch as many of his games as I can. They are fun and educational. All kids in team sports learn more life lessons than they realize, from teamwork and interpersonal skills, to discipline and dealing with emotions.

    But I have not watched a full NHL game on TV since the 1987 Canada Cup. Life is way too short to sacrifice several hours several evenings a week to watch multimillionaires play a game. And what if the Canadiens lose? Will there be another riot over entertainment like the ones in Vancouver in 2011 or 1994? Could that happen in Montreal? Maybe, but in Montreal they also riot if they win. The victory over the Penguins in 2010 in the second round resulted in looting on Ste. Catherine Street. In 2008, cars were burned and downtown stores were trashed after the Habs beat the Bruins in the first round. And of course the last big victory in 1993 resulted in millions in damage with police cars being set on fire. You may not remember, but fans “celebrating” the previous Canadiens’ Stanley Cup win in 1986 also rioted in the streets. Officials were so poorly prepared that Quebec courts ruled police criminally negligent.

    If you are going to bleed blue, blanc et rouge, why not do it over something more meaningful and important than entertainment?

  2. My condolences. When you feel strong enough to blog again, we are here for you.