Friday, 16 August 2013

The Lore of the Rinks: the Inevitability and Necessity of Hockey Narratives

The role that narratives play in sports has recently become a topic of conversation among hockey writers. Molly Brooks offers an amusing and insightful comic on the subject, and her work has inspired Cam Charron to offer his own thoughts on the relationship between sporting events and literary and cinematic narratives. While I enjoyed both pieces, I would like to challenge some of the underlying assumptions in each regarding the role that narratives play in hockey.

By "narrative" I mean underdog stories, redemption stories, epic playoff collapses, vengeful hockey fights, age-old rivalries, and everything else that turn hockey matches into stories.

Brown and Charron both suggest that these narratives are things that commentators and fans impose onto games because the human mind desires order. Both assume that literary narratives offer clearly delineated characters and tidy, coherent plot arcs based on the principles of cause and effect. Through a chain of causality, we can trace the conclusion of a plot back to the inciting action. These tales end in a way that pleases audiences (often by fulfilling poetic justice).

The problem with this general understanding of narrative is that it really describes certain types of stories. These include melodramas, romantic comedies, and other genres that often force a happy (albeit absurdly unrealistic) resolution. I'm talking about movie like you, Pretty Woman.

There are, however, many modern literary modes (e.g. naturalism, absurdism) that defy such approaches to constructing narratives. Even earlier writers such as Shakespeare offered plays featuring ambiguous characters, irrational motives, accidental turns of events, unjust actions, and troubling endings. All of these characteristics try to mimic aspects of real life.

Writers such as Samuel Beckett deliberately flout the idea that narratives should be rational and have a purposeful action and conclusion. Waiting for Godot offers no clear beginning or ending. There is no distinct hero or villain, and there doesn't seem to be any purpose to the play as it rambles on. At the end, the audience is left with the sense that Vladimir and Estragon will continue to wait endlessly for someone who may never come.

Despite its purposeful pointlessness, we can still relate to the story as we have all been in situations reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. In hockey terms, this narrative likely appeals to players such as Roberto Luongo, who has long awaited a promised trade that (so far at least) hasn't and doesn't appear likely to happen.

I could offer a list of similar text, but instead I'll focus this post on challenging the notion that narratives are imposed on hockey games, or, as Charron puts it, that fans and commentators "reduce hockey to theatre".

Narratives are not an artificial mode of understanding that we impose upon sports. Narratives are a natural way of perceiving events that develop organically. They frame hockey games whether we want them to do so or not. It's arguably impossible to prevent narratives from enveloping our understanding of most human events, so we should consider them to be an integral part of (not a separate entity from) hockey games. This manner of perceiving events does not reduce but enriches the significance of hockey matches.

Narratives infuriate and perplex us: one team's resounding win is another’s tragic loss or farcical failure. A single player (e.g. Daniel Alfredsson before he left Ottawa) can be a hero to some fan bases and a villain to others.

Despite these frustrating aspects, narratives are indispensable because they make games, seasons, and entire team histories not only memorable (a mnemonic device) but enjoyable and meaningful (a qualitative device): they ennoble teams and elevate players to a heroic status. Indeed, that's why we praise franchises by calling them "storied." This word explicitly recognizes that teams with a wealth of rich narratives are particularly significant.

Narratives Are Inevitable

We can't avoid narratives because they attribute significance to events. Box scores tell us what happened; narratives (whether developed by commentators, players, coaches, or fans) offer explanations as to why that happened and why it is significant. That's why the earliest accounts of human history are myths containing various narratives rather than chronicles that simply catalog statistics.

Narratives make games meaningful. There's little to anticipate ahead of an Ottawa Senators-San Jose Sharks game since there is not much of a history between these teams. Unless either team desperately needs wins to clinch a playoff spot, this sort of game will be overlooked entirely or easily forgotten because it lacks a compelling narrative.

The same could have been said about the Sens and the Anaheim Ducks last year. These teams met in the 2007 Stanley Cup Final, but rivalries between finalists often dissipate quickly. (Does anyone seriously consider the LA Kings to be the New Jersey Devils' nemesis because of the 2012 playoffs?)

In terms of Ottawa and Anaheim, however, a new source of contention has taken root. The trade that sent Bobby Ryan from Anaheim to Ottawa will redefine each match up between these teams as a chapter in the story of a young player trying to prove that the Sens were right to trade for him, and that the Ducks were foolish to part with him.

It doesn't matter whether or not Ryan himself feels that he has something to prove. Players don't always get to choose their personal narratives. Phil Kessel, for example, didn't seek the attention given to him after the Leafs dealt significant assets to acquire the all-star sniper. Furthermore, Kessel could give every imaginable answer to questions concerning his worth compared to that of Tyler Seguin, and still the debate as to which team won that trade would persist. Even with Seguin having been recently dealt to the Stars, it's conceivable that someone will resurrect this controversial narrative in order to suggest that Dallas got the most value from the Kessel trade.

Kessel's story offers just one way in which narratives ensnare players--sometimes for their entire careers.

We saw many new narratives begin to take shape recently during the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. One example is the narrative that Seth Jones has embraced: vindicating himself after he fell from the lofty position of the presumptive 1st overall selection to the eventual 4th overall pick. Similarly, Nathan MacKinnon must accept his narrative as the preeminent pick. Being 1st overall brings with it great expectations that players (perhaps, in part, due to this pressure) often fail to fulfill. In a similar way, players (e.g. Bobby Ryan) have had an unwanted narrative foisted upon them simply by being the player drafted immediately after an acclaimed superstar (e.g. Sidney Crosby).

Sometimes players have to accept that career choices come with burdensome narratives that cannot be denied. For instance, the next captain of the Ottawa Senators will have to deal with being called Alfredsson's successor (at best) or (at worst) Alfie's replacement. The player himself won't make such a claim, but his career thereafter will forever be measured against the Sens' longest-tenured captain. Whomever is asked to wear the "c" in Ottawa needs to prepare himself for that eventuality as it will put extra pressure on him from game to game and season to season.

Although often grander in scale, drama can help us appreciate the difficulties faced by players who have to deal with pressures stemming from unwanted, intrusive narratives. In Hamlet, the titular prince is forced into the role of avenger after the ghost (presumably) of his father commands Hamlet to avenge him. If there's anything Hamlet understands better than the revenge narrative in which his life has been ensnared, it's that he is woefully inept at fulfilling such a personal narrative. Hamlet is about as ill-suited for the role given to him as Shawn Thorton would be for the narrative expectations foisted upon a premier draft pick.

It's ironic that Brown refers to Hamlet in order to highlight how art differs from "the injustice, the lack of reason, the mind-numbing dullness, [and] the occasional flashes of sublime brilliance" of real life. These same qualities actually recur throughout and complicate the plot of Hamlet. Indeed, Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy meditates on whether or not a person should suffer through the infuriating accidents of life that repeatedly and pitilessly thwart our ambitions.

Hockey players who have come close but have never hoisted the cup can relate to these depressing sentiments. Moreover, the 2013-14 Leafs will have to grapple with Hamlet-like turmoil as they try to move on from the outrageous misfortune that ended their 2013 postseason.

Will Dion Phaneuf have the necessary levels of truculence and pugnacity required to "suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" next season?

Narratives Give Hockey Games Meaning

The most predominant form of hockey narrative is the rivalry between teams that renews each season. These rivalries operate in a similar fashion as Shakespeare's history plays, which recall England's previous triumphs and tragedies. These plays often celebrate the country's glorious past by recalling wars fought between England and historical rivals such as France.

In a similar manner, rivalries offer teams a chance to commemorate resounding wins against, lament lopsided losses to, and anticipate the next match up with age-old foes as the next chapter in the ongoing tale of their team's history.

Randy Carlyle: "Once more unto the crease, dear Leafs, once more; or close the net up with our shot-blocked dead."

Of course, no single game settles the score once and for all: the rivalry continues despite the outcome. An eventful game will become part of the team's history and create new storylines for future contests. Uneventful games will be forgotten. Neither outcome will diminish each fan base's anticipation for the next match up. Since there is no planned end to the NHL, there is no foreseeable end to the conflict among rivals.

In a similar way, Shakespeare didn't write about England in the same way that he did ancient Greece or Rome. He wrote about past Englishmen for his contemporary countrymen. The history plays, therefore, had no definitive ending. Instead, narratives of England's battles with rebels at home and enemies abroad invited Shakespeare's audiences to appreciate the rich history and anticipate the glorious future of their country.

Hockey rivalries and tales of a team's heroes and villains function in a similar way: they offer materials with which franchises and fans can forge an understanding of the team's bittersweet past, present identity, and potential future.

Without such narratives, past and present teams are the same in name alone. The current Leafs are almost entirely unlike Toronto's last team to win the Stanley Cup. None of the players from the 1967 squad are on the roster, ownership and management of the team have changed repeatedly, and the team no longer plays in Maple Leaf Gardens. It takes a narrative to create the sense that the current roster is more than a bunch of guys playing in similar uniforms as past Leafs.

Some Narratives Are Meant to Be Broken

In concluding his article, Cam Charron criticizes the excesses of narratives by mentioning that, at one time, people scoffed at the idea that a European captain could lead his team to a Stanley Cup Championship. It's fair to consider this narrative ridiculous, but it's also worthwhile considering it as one that was perpetuated to make its own end more meaningful and even glorious.

To illustrate this point, I will take an example from history. In the 16th century, Elizabethan England was plagued with fears that Philip II of Spain would invade and conquer the British Isles. At the time, England was a relatively small, poor, and weak country. While the Spanish Empire controlled much of Europe, Elizabeth I's administration struggled to control its own English, Irish, and Welsh subjects.

The major threat to England during this period was the Spanish Armada, which was characterized as "invincible." Interestingly, Spain referred to its fleet as the "Great Armada" or even "Catholic Armada." It was the Elizabethan state the characterized Spain's warships as invincible.

This unlikely narrative, according to Paola Pugliatti, was used to glorify England through propaganda. While England lacked the equivalent of Spain's professional army of seasoned soldiers, Elizabeth I did have a professional, well-equipped navy that was capable of fighting the Armada in defensive battles.

Elizabeth's administration, however, didn't let on that it was capable of fighting Spain on the seas. Rather, ministers such as Lord Burghley referred to the Armada as "invincible" in order to make it seem all the more miraculous when England (aided by some hostile weather) defeated Spain's fleet it in 1588.

How could England do such a thing if its people were not nobler, more heroic, and godlier than the thralls who manned Spain's galleons? How could anyone deny the legitimacy of England and its Protestant queen when God Himself sent malicious weather to sink Spain's ships in order to preserve Elizabeth's reign? These are the sorts of jubilant sentiments that followed England's defeat of the Spanish Armada.

Unfortunately, Elizabethans didn't have the capabilities to produce "Bleacher Creatures" designed after naval hero Sir Walter Raleigh.

In a similar manner, Nicklas Lidstrom is an especially illustrious figure in NHL history because people supposedly doubted that a European captain could win the Stanley Cup. If the narrative had been that this event hadn't happened before but was bound to occur due to the law of averages, then being the first European captain to hoist the cup would seem unremarkable because it was inevitable.

By defying this narrative, Lidstrom became a champion of European hockey players who defied the critics, vindicated non-North American players, and made it easier for his fellow countrymen continentmen to wear the "c" in the NHL. If the league survives long enough, Lidstrom will be seen as the originator of a long line of European captains with Stanley Cup credentials. There's no specific reason why he had to be the first, but the fact that he was will be treated with great significance--as though fate had willed his accomplishment into being.

Artist's rendering of how Nicklas Lidstrom will be remembered as a hockey legend.

NOTE: both Charlie Gardiner and Johnny Gotselig were both European-born players who, at different times, became captains of the Chicago Blackhawks and won the Stanley Cup. These players, however, both moved to Canada as children and thereafter became hockey players. Thus Lidstrom is truly the first European hockey player to win the Stanley Cup as an NHL captain.

Final Thought

Narratives make hockey worth caring about. Without narratives, the game is a rather meaningless pastime that is merely fun to watch. With narratives, hockey becomes a stage for meaningful events that are worthy of being preserved in human history. Furthermore, these narratives--not stats--will be preserved for future posterity. People remember key events in Bobby Orr's, Gordie Howe's, and Wayne Gretzky's careers more so than they recall how each player performed in 5-on-5 in comparison to 4-on-4 situations after a defensive-zone faceoff. Those details sometimes bolster legends, but they are never the focal point in the grand narrative of hockey history.

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