Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dear Caps: On the occasion of your first reality show

Dear Caps,

So far I've been a pretty uncynical fan.  Which is something, considering my demographic profile. And although this year ticket prices at the Verizon Center have become so very steep that I can no longer justify the expense (Hershey, here I come), I still love you.  I still watch your practices sometimes, and I was very excited when, last week, I had the opportunity to hold the door open for rookie prospect (since sent to the AHL Hershey Bears) Jake Hauswirth.  (He said, "thank you."  I said, "you're welcome.") 

And guys, technically I'm probably not qualified to judge on this matter because, although I aspire to reality in my everyday life, I've never actually watched a reality show.  I look forward to the time when a couple of TV writers might get together and write a show about a hockey team and their off-the-ice experiences. It wouldn't claim to be real, but if it was really good, it would show a heightened reality; it would show something of the humanity of the players and of the game.  My father served in the Army in Korea.  We'd always ask him if M*A*S*H was a realistic portrayal.  He'd say, no, M*A*S*H was actually more real than the real thing.  That's because it concerned itself with showing not the things, but the essence of things.  

Okay, sports fans.  If that's too Platonic (with a capital 'P') and, well, weird, for you, consider George Plimpton.  Did he just plant some cameras in those dressing rooms?  Hell, no.  He put something of himself on the line.  You might say, "wow, the ego of that guy!"  And you might say, "that wasn't a real look at the locker room, at the guys, because Plimpton interacted with them; he violated the prime directive!"  But if you really think about it, isn't that at least as natural a scenario as setting up cameras to record people's necessarily self-censored conversations?  After all, people have always interacted with one another.  Cameras - not so much.  We have far less experience deconstructing camera play than word play.  You can read Plimpton's accounts and decide for yourself what was what.  You know it is his perspective, and you know it is subjective.  And from a player's point of view, there was just one guy, and he was accountable.  If you didn't like him, you could fire the puck at him.  Hard.

In this case, I'm not sure what your recourse is, or mine.

Because the camera lens is a filter that is, paradoxically, much less transparent, much harder to explicate than George Plimpton's persona, or the writers of M*A*S*H and their socio-political/humanistic agendas.  The lens filters not only light, but also a bunch of other less tangible things that are tough to enumerate or describe.  In the hands of a master, it might be masterful.  But, last I heard, Ingmar Bergman is not working on this shoot.

And this is me, the uncynical fan speaking again:  Even though, I know, professional sports is a business, and yada yada yada, I like to believe, I want to believe, I have the god-given right to believe that there remains something primal and sacred in that locker room.  I don't know what it is exactly, but I imagine it's partly guys blowing steam and partly reporters asking dumb questions and partly jockstraps hanging from pegs in the wall and partly bloody birthplace of creativity.  What it is I'll probably never know for sure, but I'm pretty sure I prefer my own imagined version to the one on HBO.

But what's done is done and there's nothing you or I can do about it.  The cameras will be on you, boys.  I'm not sure whether I get HBO; if I do, I may be watching - unless actual reality intrudes.  But in any case I will surely be watching the real you - no, I'll be watching the you that's more real than you - the Washington Capitals on the ice.


Your 4-ever uncynical fan

Go Caps!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Playoffs 2010: It's all a fan can do; or, a review of some favorite hockey clichés

So what's up with my home team?  What's up with my Capitals?

It's like this:  On a sunny day you think it'll never rain again.  The sky is the definition of blue from horizon to horizon.  The sun is pulsing with warmth and light, lavishing its love on the lush green earth.   But then the very next day you wake up and the sun is gone. The sky is flat and gray, the rain is hard and drenching, and sogginess permeates every molecule of the material world. 

That's the way it is with those guys.  Some games are ugly.  But I don't want to think about them anymore.

I'm thinking about this instead: They're moving their legs. The ice is tilting and they're skating downhill, they're playing THEIR game, they feel the power. 

Their hard work is being rewarded.  The hits, the grit, the battles, the board-smashing, the net-crashing, the teeth-bashing mingle with the sublime.

This most-creative-of-teams merges into the flowing creative force of the universe.  Now they're rolling!

They're seeing the puck well. They're seizing every chance.  They're at the right place at the right time.  They are CREATING SPACE. 

And it doesn't matter HOW many guys the other team has on the ice!

There's a blind drop pass between the legs, or a nifty one threaded through a pair of defenders, or a chippy one from behind the net, or the long one traveling two-thirds the length of the ice, puck arriving, adhering to the stick of our brave captain on a breakaway, deking, beating the goaltender, going top-shelf…

Visualize, visualize, visualize!

It's all a fan can do.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"What can I do? It's the Olympics!" -Alex Ovechkin, my new viking hero

Alexander Ovechkin, pre-"C." Photo from hfboards.com
Maybe you've been watching some Olympic hockey.  Maybe you've seen Ovie's stupendous hit on Jaromir Jagr in the Russia/Czech Republic game on Sunday. 

In the words of Mike Emrick "talk about dictating the terms!"

In Alexander Ovechkin's words, "I know it was a strong hit, but what can I do?  It's the Olympics."

In my words, "My hero!"  

Okay, I'm not saying that this is the way we should operate in everyday life in the twenty-first century. But in Scandinavia back in the day, life was hard, almost like the winter Olympics. The weather was cold. Winters were long and dark. You could expect famine, disease and/or injury, and it was only a matter of time before you would be attacked by others who were equally as desperate as you. Survival was a pressing issue in a way that isn't these days for most of us who are just watching the games on TV. 

Being a leader meant taking care of business. Your people had to know that, when the chips were down, you would defend them and their interests to the death. And if you wanted to remain a leader, you had to earn their trust again and again. "Turning the other cheek" meant catastrophe for you and yours. Showing mercy to your enemies could result in disaster for your friends or family.  

Your neighbor's sheep are grazing on your side of the fence? Get them out of there by any means necessary! And don't miss the opportunity to teach your neighbor a lesson while you're at it. You literally can not afford to let him think that he can get away with this sort of thing. Your life, your family's lives, the lives of your entire household depend on your sheep getting enough to eat. The other guy's flock is his own problem.

Jagr at a happier moment.  Possibly a viking hero as well.  His comment on the big hit: "Of course I saw [Ovechkin coming]. I wanted to make a play...The hit doesn't hurt. The mistake hurts because they scored a goal on that play...It was a horrible feeling.  I felt like I let the guys down. But that's the sport." Quote from interview by John Dellapina and NHL.com. Photo from Wikipedia Commons. 

If Ovie had let Jagr - five-time NHL leading point scorer, seven-time NHL all-star, winner of two Stanley Cups and various other trophies - waltz uncontested into Russia's defensive zone, to a one-on-one against his goaltender, Jagr might very well have tied the game. Ovie couldn't stand idly by and let that happen. This is the Olympics, for heaven's sake! Instead, he took drastic action and his hit led directly to a fabulous pass by Semin and a goal by Malkin which brought the score to 3-1 in favor of the Russians. The Czechs never recovered.

But it's Ovechkin's comment that says it all. "What can I do?  It's the Olympics!"  
It not only expresses the sense of obligation that he felt but also a necessity, indeed, an inevitability. Yes, the hit was hard, but it had to be. There was nothing else he could do. It's almost as if the fact of it exists outside of Ovechkin himself, as an entity unto itself.  Almost as if the man is just an agent for some requirement of fate.  

In hockey as in viking-era Scandinavia, it helps if a leader is in synch with the supernatural, with fate. In the words of Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, "there are certain individuals, that...good fortune follows them...but they [also] make their own good fortune..." He was speaking of young Washington prospect John Carlson after he scored a goal in sudden-death overtime to win the World Juniors championship earlier this year - but he could have been speaking of Ovechkin.

This link with fate in no way takes away from Ovechkin's own courage and initiative - on the contrary, these were the very qualities that allowed him to act. People who don't like The Man - and there are plenty of those - will say that it's just his bravado, or his arrogance or something like that. But of course - it takes a dose of arrogance, or we could call it self-confidence - to step outside of what is commonly done and to take fate into your own hands. To be the one who takes on the responsibility to lead is to call attention, both good and bad, to yourself. Ovechkin does it so often! The remarkable thing is that his "taking care of business"  so often seems to be laced with absolute joy and lightheartedness. Maybe that's part of what allows him to "synch up" with fate so regularly.

So what else do hockey players and vikings have in common?  
  • Helmets (without horns). (Unless you count goal horns.)

  • Habitat (cold and ice).  

  • Beards (during the playoffs).

  • Beer. (Vodka?)
Ovie's mom, Olympic basketball gold medalist Tatyana Ovechkina, knows a few things about bravery and strength.  She has been quoted as saying something to this effect: "To be a hockey player, you have to be both brave and strong. Alex is brave and strong." 
That's pretty Viking-like, too.