Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Next Chapter: The Man Game

I’m delighted to join the fine folks on CBC’s new book show, “The Next Chapter,” to yak about books with a sporty angle. I recorded an episode last week with the so-literate and lovely host, Shelagh Rogers. We mused about two novels that explore sport and identity in very different ways. The hope is that I’ll contribute semi-regularly.

Why me? Well apart from my obvious interest in writing about sports, a couple of years ago I became a member of the Sport Literature Association, an international org devoted to the study of sport in literature and culture. Initiated in the 1980s, the organization now has several hundred members around the world and sponsors an annual conference in a different North American location each summer. I attended the Saratoga Springs edition and had a fantastic time with folks who study the literature of sport from a variety of angles and nations. (The spring 2009 gathering will be at Western in Ontario.)

In the wake of that stimulating weekend, I began planning a graduate seminar I’ll teach in the Writing Department at UVic in Spring 2010 (coinciding with the Olympics). “Moving Writing: The Body at Play” will explore the creative strategies writers use when they imagine the body—including the disabled body—in competition, in recreation and otherwise at play in and with the world. Smart and sporty writer and Manitoba Moose zealot, Aaron Shepard, is currently helping me design the course and narrow down the potentially mountainous reading list.

When I started reading and researching Cold-cocked, I became infatuated with the puzzle of how writers are able to capture in words what it is we enjoy about watching and playing games. Like, how do writers take what is essentially very fast visually—a face-off in hockey, or a swimmer’s flutter kick, or a left hook—and then slow it down, and interpret it so that readers can contemplate and consider meaning, not just watch the action.

Why am I still interested in the writing that uses sport to express meaning, and what do readers gain from this stuff? As I explain on “The Next Chapter,” many pleasures of watching sport are similar to reading:
  • Because our lives are relatively repetitive and work-worn, one theory goes, we want to identify with players and characters, especially when they do superhuman things;
  • We want to connect with a community of spectators and readers and so feel less isolated, hence also the success of the fantasy pool;
  • And we understand the rules and structure of the game—whether that’s curling or the short story—and are excited when the improbable or incongruous happens: the Hail Mary pass in the last minute, or the heroic and handsome canoist finishing last in a race he was meant to win, or when a historical novel messes with the facts or with our understanding of how we came to live the sorts of lives we do.
Lee Henderson’s The Man Game (Viking Canada) is stunning, a vast and complex novel set mostly in and around Vancouver in the late 1800s, and partly in contemporary East Vancouver. The historical thread explores a culture under the great pressure of the history of the West: dangerous and relentless physical labour involving logs and railways; brothels and other addictions; resistance to multiculturalism; class divisions; police corruption; the problem of weather. (It’s the kind of book that may, if you’re a writer, either inspire you to write or make you give up cause you’ll never match its brilliance. Whatever. Suck it up.)

Into this social chaos arrives the angelic Molly Erwagen (her bookkeeper husband is a paraplegic), and Molly’s an ex-vaudeville performer who recognizes the potential for profit if she coaches men to play and perform a new sport—Henderson calls it “A bizarre, cartoonish competition that combines ballroom dancing, ultimate fighting, wire-work kung fu and bare-knuckle boxing in a gracefully brutal show of, essentially, two men beating the hell out of each other.” It’s a sort of naked wrestling with modern dance and martial arts moves—a sport that all members of this new society can become addicted to playing, watching and betting on. The sport enacts violence, but it also prevents the society from spiraling into non-stop violence. It essentially changes the course of history. Most compellingly, for me, the book demonstrates the human desire to witness competition and to be seduced by the beautiful and the erotic in sport.

(Sport is sometimes called the “opiate of the masses.” In this book, opium is the opiate of the masses, and the man game is successful, in part, because citizens are bored and stoned.)

The novel includes ink-brush sketches that depict and describe—in the lovely words of the town’s supreme pastry chef—the holds and flips of the sport. The contemporary thread follows a group of folks who have rediscovered and idealized the sport and, with the help of those sketches and also naked, are endeavouring to revive an extreme, counter-culture, backyard version of the man game.

In some sports literature, or literature that uses sport as a dominant motif, the metaphorical possibilities are wide and deep and that’s part of the pleasure of reading: making connections and understanding the body and competition in a new way, why it all matters to identity and so on.

The man game is like that: Henderson’s said that it’s a metaphor for engagement with the capital O Other that marked Chinese and First Nations tensions when the west was being settled. For me, the game says a lot about masculinity and the role of women in the physical lives of men; it presents violence as both brutal and beautiful which is, it seems to me, also what the settling of the west was, especially if you’re a forest.

And then there’s the erotic component: these men become infatuated with the beautiful Molly; the game exists because of men’s obsession with her; and the players train and perform naked. For me, the sporting body is always erotic, and this book depicts sport as primal, or elemental and also elegant. Put this beside the image of Molly’s husband in his wheelchair—a man who is all brain and no body—and the novel becomes very powerful in its wisdom about how we define men and women and even love. Everything about the game in 1886—all the metaphorical nuances—also apply to contemporary culture (the move toward extreme sports, for example), and that’s only one of the ways Henderson has done something remarkable and very moving.

With Henderson, the thrills come in many forms—the writing itself is breathtaking—and the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are very complex ideas.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Allegory O' the Room

This time of the season: the slap and tickle of the live fantasy draft gives way to deep bitterness over picks scooped by others; 4 games played in far-off lands on big ice with intriguing new lines and match-ups (Jarkko! Cookie! Marc Crawford’s colour!); an endless pause stretches out before the season’s North American debut when those fantasy points will start to determine good-day or bad-day at work; plans to plant Salt Spring Island garlic between periods, between games come the weekend.

Post-equinox, the signs are good. Who scores the season’s very first goal? My former pretend boyfriend, Markus Naslund, looking a little tractor-like in the acceleration department, but the wrist shot (another spring surgery on that Moore-busted elbow) seems epic. Who’s leading, after—okay—four games those goofs who Live-Draft mocked me when I picked the once and future Nazzie? Team LoJack, yes.

And over at my other pool—which formed the real structural backbone of Cold-cocked—team names and players have really stepped up. Last year, Bill Gaston (Midnight Hockey and The Good Body) who was BESTASS became BLESTASS and this year dresses Team OBAMASS. Joaner MacLeod has for years been known as TALLON, in honour of our Vancouver girlhood pretend boyfriend, Dale; this year she’s gone all ManU and is Team BIG GIRL’S BLOUSE. We finally convinced poet/hockey scholar Tim Lilburn to join. The team name he really wanted had too many letters, so it’s been shortened to Team ALLEGORY O’ CAVE. This prompted another newbie—our uber-grad student, Aaron—to go with Team WHEN IS A MAN?

Speaking of poets, I hung out with Randall Maggs a couple of weeks back at the wonderful Winnipeg International Writers Festival (Cara Hedley, author of the chick-hockey novel, Twenty Miles, was with us, too, a good gal guide for our Splash and Dash ride on the Assinaboine and Red Rivers). Randall may be the current best-selling poet in North America with his Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems. Over breakfast on Sunday, he posed a new theory as to why I would feel such energy and excitement in the Canucks dressing room, why along with the fear and silly self-consciousness I meditated on in Cold-cocked, I would feel also renewed and alive, aroused in the usual and unusual ways.

Elsewhere in the book, in honour of my fighter-pilot father, I try to dispose of the prevailing and ridiculous comparison between hockey players and warriors. But Randall thinks I might have been tapping into some deep vein of battlelust when the sight of B Mo’s bare feet got me going. Warrior/players, he proposes, are healthy and strong and happy to be fighting and really pleased with themselves because they’re protecting the womenfolk and the whole society. Pride, arrogance, super-charged ego: we need them to be this way and like it when they are. The sexual component is natural, too. Once the community is defended and the ramparts hosed down, we can all celebrate, relax and breed more warriors. Happy players, happy fans, and especially happy civilians who get to hang out for twenty minutes, post-wargames, in the room. Maybe.

Our Prime Minister, on national television, explains that he appreciates the arts, really likes the cultural component of this country, totally gets it, because after all, his son is taking guitar lessons. Our Prime Minister doesn’t know the difference between a hobby and a profession, a calling, or what it costs artists to contribute to society in the way they believe most meaningful, textured and efficient. Count the books mentioned in this blog and appreciate the ways authors influence and improve the way we see ourselves, how they aspire to lead us out o’ the cave and into the light (block that metaphor). Consider the vast territory we cover and the not-always quantifiable investment return we provide. To paraphrase Francine Prose in a recent Harper’s review, the Prime Minister could express contempt and loathing for a vast list (updated on the hour) of liars, cheats, millionaires, hockey teams and infidels, all of whom “access” public funds, but chooses to condemn and ridicule Canada’s cultural community. Why?

Randall is due to tour the Sawchuk Poems in all the American cities that have teams for which Terry Sawchuk played, thanks to the genius of his publisher, the small and lovely and low-overhead Brick Books, and the cooperation of the Canadian consuls in those cities. He spent almost a decade researching and writing his book—obsessed, passionate, and determined to tell the story, through art—poetry!—of a complex and tortured hockey player. He will receive royalties only in the form of copies of his own book. Cara Hedley has written the first novel about women playing the national game and is now a PhD student at the University of Calgary. 

Cold-cocked attempts to disassemble the simplistic, Don Cherrified, over-determined version of the sport and to rekindle and re-frame a nation’s love of its beauty, to de-centralize our preoccupations. I received no Canada Council or BC Arts Council funding for the book, nor did I ask for any. I paid two editors (my employer, UVic, helped here), a photographer, and a publicist; I paid for a flight to Toronto, one to Vancouver, and hockey tickets to 15 games in Vancouver. I will long be in debt to the book, and my publisher will not become wealthy through its proceeds, though he took a huge risk in publishing a book that is so counter-culture and which central Canada booksellers deemed to be “regional” (egads!) and therefore not worthy of prime shelf space. We all deserve better, no doubt, but we accept the terms.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Thin Air (Go Moose!)

I’ll be talking hockey with a dandy bunch of writers at this week’s Winnipeg International Writers Festival, Thin Air (go Moose!).

Friday September 26 I’ll be at Selkirk Library @ 2:00 with Cara Hedley, author of the women’s hockey novel, Twenty Miles (Coachhouse). Here’s a bit of the Twenty Miles blurb:

Iz has a long, fraught relationship with her sport. Her dad was a hockey star, and her grandfather made a rink for her as soon as she could stand. But when she leaves her grandmother behind to play for the university team, she can’t quite find her own place in the game.
   From the rowdy hilarity of the Scarlets’ dressing room to a quiet reticence toward first love—and with a little beer-bonging and a lot of hockey along the way—Iz tries to navigate the ways loss is played out on the ice.
   Both fast-paced and hesitant, Twenty Miles celebrates women’s hockey and offers an uncompromising look at the ways in which the sport haunts the women who play it.

Then on Saturday the 27th @ 2:00 on the Mainstage, Cara and I will be joined by poet Randall Maggs, whose amazing, Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems (Brick) was called by Stephen Brunt possibly “the truest hockey book ever written. It reaches a level untouched by conventional sports literature.”

I read with Cara in Toronto last fall and she was not only smart and charming and sporty, she brought along a few members of the Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team. Randall was a huge success at the international conference on hockey held here in Victoria a couple of years back. He’s a fantastic reader and a swell dude.

Not only them: the recently Giller-longlisted Paul Quarrington is also on the Saturday bill. His hockey novel,
King Leary, was last year’s Canada Reads selection, defended and championed by the suddenly magisterial Dave Bidini.

We’ll be reading and then yakking about the game. Question for Winnipeggers and Manitoba Moose fans: should Nolan Baumgartner play the fourth line in Vancouver or top line for the Moose?

More info on Thin Air can be found here: www.thinairwinnipeg.ca

Though I’m still suffering from summer Olympics hangover and can’t shake the gripe that pro athletes are snarky over-paid lazyboys, here are my three pre-season wishes to make the story of this season more engaging:

  • Nazzie—after yet another elbow surgery in April—finally gets to rip it up with Scott “The Alaska Passer” Gomez in New York.
  • Chicago makes the playoffs led by a healthy Jonathan Toews and then goes way deep and we see Dale Tallon’s big face light the arena like a mile of LEED-certified solar panels.
  • Eric Cole gets his body back from the broken neck and, along with Luby Visnovsky, gives Craig MacTavish’s chest a reason to fill out those snazzy suits.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Buy Now, Pay Later

I've said before that the bad thing about blogging is it makes you feel like having an opinion when having one isn't the only option. I could watch soccer, lament Federer's whoopsie, groom Max the dog with that fancy comb. I could do something about the ants on the counter. Or I could share my thoughts on the Hockey Night in Canada theme.

At first, I thought it was all about the music. The composer, of course, wanted to be fairly compensated for all the air time. She wanted lots of money because there was lots of air time. Fair enough. Her agent seemed a little slimy, but whatever.

Then it became, for me, about CBC deciding they didn't need to pay a real musician--the composer--because they could just, you know, do an American Idol kinda thing: have a game, let The People choose. That way, no real musicians have to be paid (just that hundred grand flat fee they're gonna offer as prize), or revered, and after all, anybody can write an anthem, come on: power chords, James Bond horns, judicious use of bells, sprint-march tempo, kettle drums, smarmy swing part, modulations galore, and lotsa tom-toms (I listened on Limewire; sue this, TSN). And The People know good tunes when they hear 'em, right? We know what we like. We'll pick.

Then I tried to imagine how much CBC pays Elton John and Nickelback every Saturday night when they play their hockey-rockin' "Saturday Night's All Right" before the game and wondered how that compared to what they pay that nice lady composer. Couldn't imagine.

Today, I'm thinkin': Well, 3 million's a lotta benjamins to pay for a song when you're the national public broadcaster and you just canned your in-house symphony cause you couldn't afford 'em any more. Real musicians: who needs 'em, who can afford 'em? If it's my song, I cut a CanCon good deal with the Mother Ship and cut back on the Perrier and red grapes. But that's me.

Also: I think CTV/TSN has miscalculated the depth and breadth of that brand/song and the need for its CBC affiliation in order for it to work/excite/inspire. The song aint worth much without the history, the context. Say "Let it Be" came out in the 50s and it was, I dunno, Pat Boone who sang it. See? Not the same. No hit. No getting charged up. Likewise, the theme without Ron MacLean et al.

Please: forget the contest. Recycle. I'm just brainstorming now, but what about Glenn Gould, "Goldberg Variations"; do we still have to pay for that? Would Stompin' Tom donate something? Or that old Bobby Gimby track, the one from the Centennial? Or we could go for a more interesting, incongruous emotion to start the games on those lonely Saturday nights when your daughter's out with her boyfriend, and the winds are southwest gusting to 80K, and the dog needs combing, and the ants are coming down the wall again, and the world still doesn't care about the stuff you care about, and your team still doesn't have a centreman for handsome Nazzie, and Trevor's now a smarmy real estate developer interested only in, say, granite countertops and glass tiles: Joni Mitchell's "River."

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Guitar Hero

In Cold-cocked, I explored the permeable border between fantasy and reality that fans cross when compelled by sports heroes. Self-mockery in mind, I admitted the make-believe and fleeting relationships I’ve courted with Markus Naslund and Trevor Linden, among fleeting others. If little boys pretend to be Sidney Crosby when they play road hockey, I figure, if they naturally imagine it’s Game 7 overtime and the puck’s on their stick and then floating over the star goalie’s glove into the net, and if that’s how they bond life-long with the game—studies suggest this—then why not pretend something a little less intimate than actually being a player: why not imagine Markus in my garden, or Trevor admiring my middle-aged hands?

I’m interested in how we place ourselves in relationships with cultural icons. It’s a strange intimacy. In Vancouver, fans my age have watched Linden go from teenage gangle-and-grit, to statesman grey-and-gone. For those who’ve never met him, he is son, brother, lover, and kind father-figure. They’ve seen him gleeful and heartbroken, bloodied, humiliated, heroic. The narrative of Linden’s career in this city—its rising and falling action, its secondary characters, drama, infrequent subtext—has seduced us into believing we have a stake in its outcome, even that we have some control over its outcome. We don’t know him, but of course we do. We’ve shared so much of his life, so many nights.

With Luc Bourdon’s death, I’ve wondered again about the relative intimacy of our links to players. My narrative of Bourdon began with the under-18 tournament before he was drafted by Vancouver. He was fantastic in those games, easily the best defenceman, often the best player. Then I forgot about him until the draft. Next scene, he’s this close to making the team in the pre-season, and radio colour-man, the excitable Tom Larscheid, is infatuated with Bourdon, begging the team to sign him, to give the kid a chance. One day after pre-season practice, Larscheid spots Bourdon standing in the rain on a street corner outside GM Place and offers him a ride to his hotel. He loves the kid. Loves him. And so we started to. Enter: imagination.

The best hockey stories don’t catalogue the precipitous rise, the predictable accolades, trophies. Sidney Crosby is one brand of thrilling, sure, but our regard for him seems superficial and easy. Bourdon didn’t freak us out with his talent or poise or ease with media. He tried, didn’t measure up, tried, nope, came closer, not yet, try again. Some nights he looked like Ed Jovanovski and had Jovo’s temperament: part boisterous black Lab, part hair-trigger Rottweiler. At the rookie camp here this fall, Bourdon seemed winded, a little slow, but maybe that was because Alex Edler was busting his butt, trying to claim what might have been the only spot left to fill. Edler resembled Nicklas Lidstrom’s calm little brother; Bourdon looked like himself, only more worried.

Like many here, I was beginning to wonder whether Bourdon would be able to stop thinking so much and just let his heart take over the way I’d seen it do in those under-18 games. Trade crossed my mind, I confess. But a month ago, after the mustard gas of another season had cleared, my daughter called me upstairs one night to watch a clip from the team’s annual Ice and Dice charity gala. My handsome former pretend boyfriend, Naslund, was emceeing a dance contest in front of a crowd of 700 fancy folk. Kevin Bieksa and Ryan Kesler were judging three rookies chick-a-booming with a naughty-looking long-limbed brunette on stage. Alex Edler was stiff and blushing and an awful dancer—part shy blueliner, part bad Abba. Rockin’ Lucky Luc Bourdon, though, quit thinking: off came the belt, out came the shirt, and his body moved like he’d been dancing with the stars all his life; up went the leg of the danseuse draped across his lap, and he Guitar-Heroed up and down her toned and tanned gam; up he jumped to twirl his partner and gyrate some more. Perfect 10s from the judges. Amazing. Everybody on stage looked gob-smacked: Luc?. Okay, I thought, Bourdon stays. He’s musical; he wants to be fun, not just have it; imagination; fearless. That list of qualities won’t appear in any “How to Be a Pro Scout” handbook, but they showed me Bourdon would be my kind of player.

Loss is at the heart, on the surface, in the bones and between the lines of much of what interests me. I come back to it in writing even when I don’t realize I am. Until this week, I didn’t know about his arthritis and the wheelchair, or about the mother who raised him on her own, or just how small and far from here his hometown is; the worrying must have been ingrained. These have added to the narrative and make his story more moving, and its abrupt end harder to fathom. Can we really feel raw, sincere anguish over the death of a young man we didn’t know? I think so. And it isn’t because he represents all the boys we do know who have died in fast cars, or those we fear will finish high school next week and enter this summer—and the future beyond it—at top speed regardless of risk. It isn’t because something’s missing from our lives and we must replace it with contrived feelings for a stranger. Grief is grief, however small: bewildering, embarrassing, somewhat maudlin, but true.

Friday, March 28, 2008

tuff enuff

For me, coach Marc Crawford's most onerous and enduring crime is his inability to win Game 7 versus Calgary in overtime, for putting Marek Malik on the ice for the first short-handed and doomed minute after Matt Cooke and Markus Naslund had conjured (presto!) arguably the most thrilling goal in Canucks' history. Scotty Bowman would have won that game. Darryl Sutter did because he was wiley enough to put greybeard and former Canuck, Martin Gelinas, incongruously in front of the net on the most important power play of the season.

But in the aftermath years since the Bertuzzi/Moore disaster, Crawford--if you don't count the purgatory he's in in LA, notwithstanding Antje Kopitar--has seemed pretty unstained. (Tony Granato, then coach of the Avalanche and presumably the nutsy honcho who put Moore on the ice in such a stupid game, was demoted to Assistant the next season.) Reports today suggest Bertuzzi is suing Crawford.

Note that this week coach Patrick Roy received a suspension alongside the player, his son, whom he reportedly directed to attack an opposing player. Hockey Night in Canada's P.J. Stock and Ron MacLean giggled, glowed and marvelled nostalgically on Saturday night when they replayed the unprovoked and brutal beating Roy's son laid on another goalie ("He even throws punches like his dad!!"). Why didn't they see what I did: the young Roy's big fist comes back, high, and slams into the side of the other player's head--again and again--while the boy falls to the ice, undefended, face down.

The fighting needs to go from the game, but it won't. What can go and should: the testo-delight and ecstasy expressed when it happens, especially those wearing the dark suits on Saturday night, lounging in their leather chairs atop their slick and shiny set, the pornographic big screen on endless slo-mo repeat behind them. Last week, on the Canucks radio broadcast during a "lively tilt," the usually delightful and ageing colour man, Tom Larscheid, screeched, "I hope he knocks his block off!" Must we? It wasn't so long ago--35 years maybe--when CBC would go to a commercial whenever things got rough and fists flew.

I was in the middle of writing Cold-cocked during those awful days, and I thought long and hard about who was really to blame when Bertuzzi's heart and mind were disintegrating under the weight of guilt and so few others seemed willing to shoulder a young man's burden. Complicity is an intriguing concept; guilt is better measured on a continuum or a sliding scale. Until we look away from the glorification of violence, and the idealization of uncontrolled male aggression, we are all complicit.

-from Cold-cocked: On Hockey (Biblioasis 2007):

Two nights later, the game was a cryptic puzzle: how could Colorado score so high when they’d been beaten likewise a few nights before; why was Brad May unhinged and maniacal, so into Aebescher’s face and goalie-space; why was Steve Moore on the ice without appropriate back-up; could a run-up score really send a man like Bertuzzi over so steep a cliff; where were the heroic, smooth-faced captains in this game—Naslund and gentleman Joe Sakic, their All-Star Game hat trick (Bert helped, too) only weeks old—and why didn’t they stop it; why was Bert on the ice without Naslund; what is it coaches do for young men, if not get them safely through these land-mined years.

Either the bull will kill you in Madrid or the crowd will. The pre-game circus was gross. In August 2005, veteran columnist Cam Cole will write that Bertuzzi is only 50% to blame for what happens; the league and its officials and coaches are responsible for the other 50%. Missing from his equation: media and fan complicity. Airwaves and print—welcomed the engorgement of revenge, couldn’t wait for this game, thirsty for more conflict, more drama, more dimensions, to hear themselves faux-analyze and smirk in that awful insider way, on pin-striped panels of hockey hasbeens. There was the pornography of the phone-in show, “the church of athletic self-opinion,” where it all gets said and the appetite for more extreme opinions is whetted. Since when did democracy mean everyone’s an expert?

Moore didn’t see the hit coming, we’re told by the same pundits over the next weeks, and that’s what made it so dishonorable and also so dangerous, you see. But they imagined the violence so many times, placed it in the realm of possibilities, saw it coming and even called for it, dialed it up, defined and reinforced the code that would make such an act honorable.

We are all complicit. Duh.

But if he didn’t see it coming, he certainly heard the freight train of Bertuzzi, the clanging warnings around the ice, the blast of the horn to pull over, pal, if you know what’s good for you. At 8:41 of the third period, Moore decided to drive on. Bertuzzi did a bad and stupid thing and the pile-up was awful to see. May carries the puck, drops it like a clingy girlfriend, and begins his extraneous and automatic punch-up nearby. Hedberg gestures pathetically like a North American traffic cop to Aebescher: come over to my place, let’s throw goalie punches. Meanwhile, Moore was the worst version of horizontal we’ve seen. The game was no longer a metaphor for war, to borrow from Joyce Carol Oates; it was the thing itself.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Baby-lou, Where are You?

Sportsnet Pacific runs a post-game panel show this season that usually features Iain MacIntyre of the Vancouver Sun and Ed Willes from the Province. The opinions are predictable, the insights not very insightful, especially if you’ve watched the game and can spot bad penalties called and/or taken, or Swedish twins doing the opposite of the cycle. MacIntyre has incredibly long legs, though, and is rarely silly. So I try to watch. Last week, the panel included another warm body from the Province (Editor? Publisher? Who knows).

Trevor Linden—prior to his first game in eons—had reportedly gone all “I Have a Dream” in the room and inspired his mates to suck it up and get it on. They won. Roberto Luongo credited Saint Trev. The Province dude went ultra-blue collar and claimed to speak for fans (I paraphrase): “when players make that kind of money, losing shouldn’t be a psychological problem and at this point in the season, they better not need to be inspired by anybody, let alone a guy who most nights isn’t fast enough to keep up.” Burp.

After seventy-five games and only a handful left—their bodies running on empty or ready for the junk yard—players, it seems to me, are all about psychology. To suggest that a high salary means they should turn off the head and crank up the body is a strange and awful sort of objectification that limits the game. I want the story of what a pro athlete’s body and mind—both—endure over a long season. The game is better when the formula for success includes the abstract: determination, creativity, heart, fear, regret.

Roy MacGregor had a great story on Alex Kovalev in the Globe and Mail last weekend. It’s been thrilling to watch the ageing Hab do Fred Astaires through the neutral zone and tuck in goals wherever. Skill meets will. MacGregor writes, “He was remarkably gifted as a child: bright in school, exceptionally musical and a champion swimmer.” Then came the heart condition. Then came the hockey prowess and the consequent ill-will from other players and parents. Followed by shyness. MacGregor cites a list of things that have broken Kovalev’s spirit and also motivated him to try again: “He tore himself apart and rebuilt from scratch,” says MacGregor, to describe the difference between last year’s model and this one. “He tracked down old game tapes of how he had played in his prime and he studied the tapes, took notes and then set out to put what he had learned into practice.” Kovalev’s psychology has inspired the young dudes fuelling the eastern conference’s top squad.

In a sport that seems, here in Vigneault’s Vancouver, mechanical, formulaic, predictable and doomed, a creative and heady player like Markus Naslund can look pretty sad most nights. Kovalev, MacGregor says, “considers himself a freelancer, a player so creative he delights in having nothing in mind until the precise moment when something happens. He is at his happiest when he is surprising even himself.” Even at this time of the season, I’m compelled more by the abstract details of a player’s psychology than I am by endless faux-debate about the relative fairness of skate-stomp suspensions.

The look on Brendan Morrison’s face when he knew, before his one-legged hobble off the Colorado ice, that his season was, yet again, toast; his teammates’ faces crumpling as he left the game; the game, yet again, leaving them; the handsome all-star goalie playing a mile-high stinker at such a key time; his huge heart about to swell even bigger with the birth of his first (ill-timed) baby (What’s that tightening around his neck? It’s Scott Niedermayer’s goal in last year’s playoffs, the one that closed it down.): these have nothing to do with salaries and stats, and I’d rather be moved by them than simply feel the season crash down. When they stop being interesting in the ways all human beings are, I stop watching.