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.