Hope, Expectation and Despair — The Paradoxes of the NHL Off-Season

As I have battled a gargantuan case of writer’s block, the tone of this piece has become a bit more metaphysical,  assuming its own shape and character as I struggled to define it.   The theme arises from two vastly disparate events — the recently concluded Olympic Games in London, and our similarly recent purchase of a new refrigerator.  Before scurrying away, muttering about the declining state of my sanity, allow me to connect the dots and demonstrate how and why this NHL off-season — more than most — has been a fertile breeding ground for emotional instability.

First, to the refrigerator.  This particular model had been part of our household for some 22 years, almost as long as our son has been alive.  Over the years, we’ve accumulated a fair number of refrigerator magnets — not as any conscious effort at collecting, but more as the inevitable result of commercial interactions, organizational affiliations and parenthood.  As I was culling the herd in preparation for the new refrigerator’s arrival, I came across some that made me smile (the two our son created in elementary school), while others befuddled me (having no Tampa Bay affiliation, why do we have a refrigerator magnet of Trent Dilfer from his days with the Bucs???)   But the ones that gave me pause were the Columbus Blue Jackets‘  schedule magnets, dating back virtually to their debut in the league. As in many cities, these are early season handouts, and they found a permanent home on our refrigerator door.  They span two primary logos ( and a third that is gaining popularity), four starting goaltenders, five captains, the emergence of Rick Nash,  one playoff season, and more seasons of disappointment than I care to recall.   However, they all shared one common thread — at the beginning of each of those seasons, and for varying periods of time after the first puck was dropped, there was that deliciously indefinable quality we call “hope.”   As training camp opens in thirty different venues, the players, fans, coaches and ownership of each franchise share that ever-present hope that this will be “The Year.”

Of course, in different venues, “The Year” might mean different things.  Here in Columbus, a solid playoff run would be satisfying to most.  In other places, anything short of The Cup  — or at least the Cup Final — would be at least mildly disappointing.  Yet, the hope lingers, only to be eroded and ultimately vanquished for all but a single franchise, until the process starts anew the following year.

Hope is one of those humanity-defining characteristics that has long inspired writers, poets, philosophers and other observers of the human condition to wax eloquently as to its meaning.  One of the most commonly used hope-related expressions finds its roots in the following excerpt from Alexander Pope’s 1733 composition — An Essay on Man: Epistle I

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

Subtitute the word “season” for “life”, and Pope pretty well describes the lot of the off-season hockey fan — or indeed the fan of any sport — as his or her team girds for another season of competition. This, of course, deals with the concept of hope only at the macro level — that ultimate quality of success or failure by which teams are judged over the span of history.

However, hope rules not only at the macro level, but also at the level of every play — in every sport. Each shot, pass, pitch, kick or swing generates the quality of hope in somebody. While that ball or puck is in the air, someone, somewhere is hoping that it is caught or dropped, blocked or missed, or lands fair or foul. The essence of being a fan — the ultimate enjoyment of the game — is when those precious few seconds of hope and anticipation – as the ball or puck arcs toward its intended target — transform to either joy or despair. Each game is merely a sequenced collection of those moments, and ultimately define the fan experience. Fortunes are made and lost — and franchises come and go — premised upon the frequency with which joy or despair are realized. The destruction of hope vaporizes the essence of the sports experience.

And while hope is essential, as those in the business world will tell you: “Hope is not a strategy.” So, while it’s fine for the fan base to hope for positive results, those in charge of the process — ownership, players & coaches — need to have more going for them than hope. Ironically enough, if a player or team succeeds enough, such that hope is realized with any level of consistency, that hope is magically transformed into a different quality — expectation — which in itself can mar the quality of the fan experience. If success is expected, a good measure of the joy is taken from the process.

As a life-long San Francisco 49er fan, I endured years of misery until Joe Montana, Bill Walsh, Dwight Clark and others brought the first Super Bowl title to San Francisco. Nobody had that one on the radar, and nobody “expected” Dwight Clark to make “The Catch” in the NFC Championship game. But he did, and the team did, and the joy that pervaded the Bay Area was unrivaled. While the following four Super Bowl wins carried satisfaction, none matched the joy of the first, spurred solely by hope, not expectation.

The Blue Jackets’ lone playoff appearance generated a similar reaction — and I’ve never been in a louder, more raucous environment than Nationwide Arena for Game 4 of the first round playoff series against Detroit that year. Columbus was swept, but that fact only minimally impacted the pure joy of the experience.

In contrast, the local Ohio State football team is “expected” to win Big Ten titles and National Championships with regularity. A loss is a cause for grief — two is despair — three is a catastrophe. The recent unpleasantness with the football program has created hundreds of thousands of miserable people.

Hope ~ Expectation ~ Despair

Those qualities were crystallized for me during the recent Olympic Games. As a former competitive swimmer and water polo player, I am an Olympics-addict, and the fortnight of Olympic spectacle serves more as an extended sleep-deprivation exercise for me than anything else. It was simply an added bonus that Mike “Doc” Emrick, the first broadcaster inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, was tabbed to call the water polo matches. (Water Polo is, after all, simply hockey on unfrozen water without sticks). However, I digress. As I watched the swimmers, the gymnasts, the fencers, weight lifters, track stars and others I found remarkable how failure and success were received by the competitors, their coaches and families, and how the line of demarcation between success and failure became blurred. While gold medalists were uniformly pleased — and most displayed rather unbridled joy — others displayed their pleasure in a more matter-of-fact, businesslike manner. While some of this can be attributed to differences in personality, it is equally a function of expectation.

As you move away from gold to silver and bronze, these qualities assume starker relief. In the Men’s 10 meter platform diving competition, China’s Qiu Bo was disconsolate over winning the silver, while Great Britain’s Thomas Daley (and supporters) took a celebratory plunge in the pool after nailing down the bronze. Russia’s female gymnasts were similarly crushed by silver medal performances on individual apparatus, and USA gymnast McKayla Maroney was icy in accepting her silver medal in the vault, after the TV commentators had ill-advisedly all but hung the gold around her neck before a single gymnast had vaulted. On that particular day, however, Maroney was the second-best female vaulter on Planet Earth. One would think that this is cause for celebration — but such is the destructive power of expectation and the absence of hope. Meanwhile, legions of athletes exulted at simply having the chance to represent their countries on the world stage.

So, what does all of this have to do with the NHL — and particularly this off-season?

In the typical summer, the NHL fan is subjected to an emotional roller coaster as the Entry Draft, free agency and trades unfold. This year, multiple cities were hopeful entrants in the Zach Parise/Ryan Suter Sweepstakes — but only one was the winner. Nashville and New Jersey were on the short end of that one.

Columbus also served as a poster child for the emotional extremes that can arise during a typical off-season. First came the head coaching decision, then the draft. All along, the question of Rick Nash’s status loomed over every decision, with daily rumors — most unfounded — moving the emotional meter from one extreme to the other. When Nash was dealt to the Rangers, the deal was –and still is–analyzed from every conceivable angle and perspective.

Each move creates hope or despair in some element of the fan base, and the experiences in Columbus, Minnesota, New Jersey and Nashville are replicated across the league –to one extent or another. Each deal done — or not done — creates or stifles opportunity and hope, depending upon what you read and what weight you ascribe to the opinions of others.

Complicating the analysis are what I will call The Hope Killers. We all know them — they are the fans, pundits, media members or internet trolls who jump on every actual or rumored transaction, strategy or statement, and provide an allegedly “definitive” assessment — which invariably predicts catastrophe — unless the club has acquired Crosby and Malkin for picks and prospects. Even then, these “experts” would likely cite the injury history of the two players as a harbinger of doom. While such individuals have always inhabited the planet, the advent of blogging, Twitter and Facebook have given an immediate voice to such view, without the hindrance of editorial review or evidential support. (And yes, I understand that this very piece is the product of such freedoms. I, however, leave it to you, good reader, to render judgment . . .) While the astute and committed fan is rarely swayed in one direction or another by The Hope Killers, the more casual fans can be. I can’t count the number of times that locals have come up to me, reciting the most recent unsubstantiated (and frequently absurd) rumor from Twitter or elsewhere as fact. Using this specious foundation, they then traipse merrily down an illogical road to a hope-killing conclusion.

Even the “traditional” media outlets can get in the mix, albeit largely inadvertently. I have been watching with some bemusement as The Hockey News has been rolling out its predictions for the forthcoming season over the past two weeks or so, in apparent blissful ignorance of the fact that there are scads of deals remaining to be made, that the fiber of the game may change significantly between now and the time the first puck drops, and that nobody really knows what any of these teams are going to look like on the ice come October. (This is not just sour grapes resulting from THN’s selection of Columbus as the #15 team in the West — honest). With all of the existing turmoil, and some significant personnel in a prolonged state of limbo, it is ludicrous, in my marginally humble opinion, to be prognosticating the season’s outcome with any vestige of credibility.

Of course, this off-season features the Ultimate Hope Killer — the veritable vulture drooling in the tree — namely the NHL-NHLPA CBA negotiations. This has been it’s very own thrill ride, dating back to Donald Fehr’s appointment to lead the NHLPA. At that time, commentators forecast dire results, given Fehr’s history of hardball (literally and figuratively) negotiation. Anxiety built as time passed with no start to the negotiations. Once started, however, things appeared to go swimmingly for awhile, with Fehr himself holding out a figurative olive branch by suggesting that the players would consider working without a deal for this season, should it come to that. Then came the surprisingly draconian proposal from the owners, which was roundly and virulently castigated by virtually every informed observer . . . except the players’ union. Instead of lashing out, the NHLPA listened, analyzed and began formulating their counter-proposal. When presented, observers were again surprised at the lack of reactionary tone or radical stances. Though details remain sketchy, it appeared to provide a seemingly rational alternative structure, preserving the salary cap, but enhancing revenue sharing and other elements. The owners’ brusque reaction, punctuated by Commissioner Bettman’s assurance that the owners would lock the players out if there is no deal by September 15th, produced a new round of wailing and hand-wringing, as the rhetoric appeared to provide a foreboding message.

While I am often accused of being an inveterate optimist, and have been dubbed by some locally as the “voice of reason” in the blogging community, I am also not stupid. To attempt to put lipstick on the pig that his the NHL labor situation at the moment would be a foolhardy exercise.

Personally, I believe that the owners have blown a tremendous P.R. opportunity by not joining hands with the union in a virtual chorus of Kum Ba Yah and agreeing to play without a deal while a new solution is derived. That’s a topic for another article, however. The point for today’s purposes is that the ongoing CBA negotiations act as a further damper on hope, and in some quarters are quickly leading to despair. Hope breeds interest, interest breeds enthusiasm and enthusiasm breeds vitality for the individual franchises and the game itself. Despair breeds nothing but more despair.

Is there a point to all of this?

Yes, there actually is. Those of us who blog about hockey (or any other sport), love the details, the subtleties and nuances of the game that escape the beat reporters and evening news. This applies particularly to those of us who write here for Overtime, which provides a forum for more in-depth and off-beat analysis than you will find most other places.

Statistics are fun to play with, and the temptation to move the pieces around as if this were all some elaborate 3-D game of chess is almost overwhelming at times. But beyond the statistics, and the rosters, and the contracts lies the world of emotion — of hope, joy, anticipation, frustration and despair — all of which weave a rich tapestry that we cherish as fans of the NHL . . . or NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS . . . the concept is the same.

There is a deliciousness of not truly knowing what will come next — whether that be the next play, the next game or the next season — that keeps us coming back. While there are always obstacles in the way, there is always that sense of hope, and keeping that flame burning — however dimly — is something that is worth the effort, even in the face of seeming adversity.

Maybe Pope phrased it correctly in part of his concluding passage:

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood; All partial evil, universal good.
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite, One truth is clear, ‘Whatever is, is right.’

Let’s play some hockey. Soon.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Hockey On My Mind « tenminutemisconduct.com

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