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.

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