Monday, 28 January 2019

A FAN’S NOTES

Mildly Indifferent Mutterings

It’s that time on the sports calendar. The dead of winter. Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue is being airbrushed, prepped for press and poised to offend the sensibilities of some prim high school librarian somewhere. The National Football League is on Super Bowl hype hiatus for another week. My pal Stats Guy talks over his pint about pitchers and catchers reporting to baseball training camps. It’s also the National Hockey League’s mid-season all-star break which is when most Canadian fans take stock of their favourite team’s spring fortunes.

Iggy Pop: That TV, it just insults me. I do not consume much televised sports these days mainly because the concussed talking heads behind the semi-circular desk on the glitzy set make local news presenters, incoherent tellers of more important stories, seem somewhat articulate. Still, the national question at this moment in this election year is: Whither the Stanley Cup and will a Canadian team win it for the first time since 1993? The pundits care. Actual hardcore hockey fans do not. All that matters for me is Montreal or nothing at all. I cannot tell you who won the Cup last season because it wasn’t the Canadiens.

The Habs are surprisingly respectable this season despite an appallingly useless power play. They should be somewhat decent too, given that the squad is eight years into management’s five-year plan. They seem headed in the right direction even as the window gently closes on the primes of two of their best players, goaltender Carey Price and captain Shea Webber. My old friend Tim figures the Habs will be roadkill following the first round of the spring playoff tournament. Of course, we’ve had no expectations since Guy Lafleur retired the first time. The team’s last two Cups (1986 and 1993) were sweet but stolen. Opportunity may not be knocking but it’s standing outside on the WELCOME mat.

Meanwhile something is rancid here in Edmonton. When I was born I was swaddled in bleu, blanc et rouge, not blue and orange. Consequently I’m incapable of cheering for the Oilers but I feel for their fans (and non-fans like me) who ponied up public money for a new arena built to drive private profit and who, understandably, expected something in exchange, a winning team for instance. Okay, a modicum of hope. A professional sports team may not give much back to its host city in monetary terms but it sure can generate an incalculably positive civic buzz when its play is championship calibre. That feeling here has been dormant for too long.

Edmonton is a big town only if you were born in rural Alberta. I’ve always found it to be a charmingly schizoid place; it is at once a university town, a blue collar town and a government town. Its arts scene is dynamic. The mix makes for a unique quality of life up here in the near north. To my dismay and mild disgust the Oilers franchise has always emitted a whiff of arrogance; that the team is the best thing this city’s got going for it. Alas, the club has proven itself chronically incapable of skating the skate.

The Oilers are currently floundering in the beer bottle backspit of the NHL’s Western Conference despite icing captain Connor McDavid, this era’s Guy Lafleur on game nights. Their record is 23-24-3 or 23-27 if you discount the cheap points the NHL awards to losers who hang in for a face off beyond regulation time. Those winning and losing game totals also add up to the approximate number of general managers, coaches and first overall draft picks the Oilers have churned through in recent seasons. At the 2019 break there remain five teams for them to leap-frog into a playoff position. Trouble is those rival teams are able to rack up cheap loser points too. The Oilers are done.

A quarter century of whingeing “Whither the Stanley Cup?” suggests that sustained and grandiose ineptitude is not a new story in Canadian hockey. While Edmonton’s organizational plight vexes fans and observers alike, the club has yet to become the laughingstock that is the Ottawa Senators. There’s still a lot of time left on the clock however. If the Oilers were a publicly traded company shareholders would be screaming for the slash and burn intervention of an activist investor. They are more like a particularly thick winner of multiple lotteries, a player lucky beyond all odds and belief who repeatedly squanders his windfalls.

The Canadiens have been mediocre for years, inconsistent. “But,” as Tim says, “nobody does ceremony like the Habs.” His remark is the ultimate back-handed compliment. When your team’s marketing department elects to sell the Kool-Aid of past laurels to a new generation of fans “Let’s hear it for our legends!” you know you’ll be in for a long, dark winter. The Canadiens are very adept at promoting their history which is older than the NHL itself. Unfortunately, they had to get good working with video, lasers, smoke and mirrors as they’ve few other assets.

The Canadiens are similar to a corporate entity. There’s a mindset and a mantra that may not suit all employees. Bad decisions have been made and bad luck has been endured. Unlike the Oilers though, the Habs were never handed the keys to the kingdom by the league and city taxpayers only to keep losing them in the snow.    
    
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