Monday, May 26, 2014

Teemu Selanne Has a Posse

Like everything else, hockey is mostly about doom. Decay and death are inevitable, omnipresent, omnipotent -- and sometimes, hockey men transcend these with speed and power and grace and skill and will. And, sometimes, they embody them, and initiate us into the mysteries of limitation, decline, and lack.

In 2004, the Colorado Avalanche franchise was coming off a couple consecutive disappointments, and was mourning the loss of its iconic goaltender, so it was time to rebuild. Or reload. Or something. Anyway with furrowed brow did the Avs survey the available free agents, and with money did they entice a magnificent pair to the cosy environs of the Front Range: brilliant skaters by the names of Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, 16 all-star games, 736 goals, a pile of awards between them. ESPN commissioned a documentary series on the team, drawn by the stars' charisma and the prospect of a world-historical kind of season.

Selanne had long been known as one of hockey's fastest skaters, with the hand and brain skills to match his unequalled feet. He came to the Avs with 436 goals in his 901 games, and zero evidence of decline, having played all 82 games each of the previous two seasons, scoring nearly 30 each year. Not quite the point-a-game man he had been in each of his first ten seasons, but he was, after all, 33: no longer a young kid, but still a powerful, productive skater with adorable tousled hair and a firm jaw line.

It was a disaster.

While he did manage to appear in 78 games, his speed and strength on his skates were obviously completely gone. A bad knee reduced him to fourth-line duty, and he proved unable to finish or distribute at a high level, notching a paltry 16 goals and the same number of assists. He'd once been impossibly swift, and the end of his career had, clearly, come equally swiftly.

The next season was taken from us all by powerful men who decided the existing economic order displeased, and so they did decree that in their stately pleasure domes would obtain a "salary" "cap" -- really a "salaries" cap -- such that each team would have the same maximum amount to spend on player payroll.

Thus it was that Selanne mounted a thoroughly hopeless comeback campaign, back with his old team for a mere one million dollars, a far cry from his 5-million-plus season in Colorado. The well-regarded Finn would, no doubt, take a bit of a victory lap, and everyone could enjoy watching him end his career in a familiar uniform. Any actual hockey performance would of course be impossible: the end had come, and all that was left was to face it with some dignity and class.

That was nine full seasons ago. Over those nine seasons -- or, to put it another way, over a second full career, for most players -- Teemu Selanne played another 572 games, and piled up another 232 goals, including two more 40-goal years, and won a championship. He has just retired, as close to a universally beloved figure as the game has known.

Hockey, like everything else, is shadowed by and susceptible to doom. But life often finds a way and rebirth is inextricable from death. Teemu Selanne has a posse.

Download your own Teemu Selanne Has a Posse sticker sheet here, and check out all the Clear the Crease Posse Members while you're at it!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Patrick Roy Has a Posse

Patrick Roy is in the conversation for best-ever at his position, the beginning and end of the conversation about "pissed-off goalies", a likely winner of the award for 2013-14's best NHL coach, and the definite winner of an award for great coach-dad for that tremendous moment a few years back when he signaled his goalie son to join in a line brawl, resulting in matching father-son suspensions and an assault charge for the younger Roy, after the dutiful son skated the length of the ice to whale on a guy for 15 seconds while the dude didn't fight back. Patrick Roy is, then, one Hall of Famer who is also a cult figure. And so he gets a posse.

The cult was founded in 1986, when the Montreal Canadiens installed the rookie as their starting goalie for the playoffs. (There's an interesting echo here, as the team had previously pulled the rookie-goalie-as-playoff-starter maneuver in 1971, with a legendary goalie/big white guy/increasingly senile politician named Ken Dryden. It worked, in 1971.) Fifteen playoff wins and one championship later, Roy was named the 1986 playoffs' most valuable player, and stories began to be told about the insane teenager who talked to his goalposts. Three years later, in 1989, Roy and the Canadiens would play for the Cup again, losing to the Calgary Flames in six games. And in 1993, Roy's Canadiens squad won a ridiculous 11 straight playoff games, and a completely implausible 10 consecutive overtime games--including three in the finals. Unsurprisingly, this magic trick was rewarded with another shiny trophy recognizing Roy as the playoffs' best. So far, so good: excellence is an excellent reason to posse up for somebody.

A few years later, Roy was having a shitty night--hey, it happens to the best of us--and his (rookie) coach hung him out to dry, leaving him in a game to allow 9 goals on 26 shots. The legendarily competitive Roy was embarrassed and enraged, so he naturally said "trade me right fucking now!", and the team's novice GM promptly shipped him off to play in Colorado, where, as I can attest, nobody had ever heard of him.

After two more championships (1996 and 2001), another playoff MVP, and a few more records here and there, Roy retired from the NHL. He rather quickly went into public service, becoming a coach widely believed to be barking mad, with the aforementioned Son Issue and a moment in his first game as an NHL coach when he appeared to try to knock down a wall to fist-fight an opposing coach.

What's great is that this was a moment that was all but forgotten after the game, when Roy demonstrated that he's actually not a screaming, violent lunatic. He's actually a great, great boss, even-keeled, generous with praise and careful to balance including everybody while singling out some for specific kudos, willing to be accountable.

On knocking down walls
It's just a normal night. I mean, this is the way I was in the junior level. [...] I guess if I'm asking my players to be intense, I guess I have to be as well.
On winning 6-1
I think we played a good game. I think we could be better defensively. I feel that we have given a little bit too many shots. At the same time, I think we could be better, but one thing I like is that they're backchecking hard. They're coming back, everybody works extremely hard. I thought it was great intensity out there. [...]
Honestly I thought everybody played well. Everybody worked hard, and that's what we said before the game: let's play hard, and that's what our guys did. [...]
Okay, it's only one game. It's a good start. But that's it. [...] Like I said to the guys, we need to remain humble tonight. There's another game coming up on Friday, we're going to have to repeat. The best way to repeat is to stay humble, make sure that they enjoy tonight, but tomorrow come and be ready for a good practice. This is the test--tomorrow morning is the test. If we come in and we're mellow, that means we don't get it. If we come tomorrow ready to work again, and then we bring it on the ice the next night, then I can say that hey, we're in the right direction.
On his goalie
He was outstanding. He was outstanding. I think he's the reason why, the first five minutes I think he kept us in the game, and he made some great saves. [...] Varly was outstanding, at every moment in that game where we had made some mistakes, he was there for us. There's no doubt in my mind he was the first star for our team tonight.
On the end of the game and the fight between the coaches
That should have been a penalty, in my opinion. It's 6-nothing, I don't think this game needs that kind of cheap shot. After that obviously there was some talk from the coaches I guess. But at the same time, what should I do? He put his fourth line on the ice, then I'm not gonna go with my first line, I went with my fourth line. That's it. I'd been matching [lines] all night long, by the way.
And those are traits that get a man a posse: excellence, a hot head, unwillingness to dodge responsibility.

That said, my loyalty to the man is rooted equally in his failings. A showboater with a taste for the spectacular, he singlehandedly cost his team a decisive goal in a playoff game against their nemeses: thinking he had the puck in his glove after he'd gone down on the ice, he raised his glove high, to show everybody "I got this--you can't score on this". The puck, not in his glove at all, ended up in the back of the net. The Avs lost the game, and the next one, a 7-0 blowout that ended the series (and nearly got me in a drunken fist-fight with a coked-up Red-Wings-fan acquaintance who wouldn't stop talking shit that night).

Two years later, the indestructible OT hero, the best playoff, big-money guy in the game's history, lost two straight OT games to lose a playoff series to second-tier franchise the Minnesota Wild. The Avs had been up 3-1 in the series, needing only a single win to close it out and move on. Defeat was plucked, crumb by bloody crumb, from the slavering jaws of victory. (Somehow, a Roy-related playoff loss to the Wild seems particularly relevant, even now. Sigh.)

In the end, Patrick Roy has a posse--and I'm in it--because he's an exemplary human, which is to say that he exemplifies humanity. Wins, losses, rage, telling your boss to go fuck himself, being a good boss yourself, rising to the occasion, completely failing to rise to the occasion, being better than you are, being worse. Being a person. I keep Patrick Roy in mind, and I keep his jersey in my closet, as a reminder that we can all, maybe, earn a posse. We can all end up in the conversation. We can all be the best we can be.

Download your own Patrick Roy Has a Posse sticker sheet here, and check out all the Clear the Crease Posse Members while you're at it!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

prove me wrong

Everybody's writing about pro wrestling. Nobody's doing it well.

Everything's TV now. At one time, this seemed to represent progress: we simpleton wanderers through sports had only the crude tools of rooting with which to appreciate and understand what we saw. We each were bequeathed teams to pull for--usually in some father-to-son transaction--so the story ran--and we watched them and became happy when they won, sad when they lost. For the bookish or studious or strivers there were records to memorize and brandish, a style of history comprising great men and counted things and very little else. We continued on in this fashion, we now understand, with each man his team, with their wins and looses, and an undisturbed shared sense of great plays, as when a Shot was heard 'round the World, and worthy Achievements, whether Wilt going for 100 or Maris for 61 or whichever other wonder of our blissfully unasterixed antiquity. And then one day a man did eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad Art. The truth is complicated but the metonym is simple: Bill Simmons noticed that sports were on TV, which made them TV shows, and he decided a fun way to make a nice living would be to write about TV as though it were a sport and sports as though they were TV.

This added to our understanding. Please do not allow me to avoid or underplay this point. Adding a semi-robusticated system of aesthetic angles to our WIN:LOSS::YAY:BOO rooting system for assessing sports was, for serious consumers, actually transformative, from fans to connoisseurs. Wins and losses, piles of achievement, history and greatness all had a new accompaniment, the murky metrics and swampy subjectivities of taste. (It's probably a bad idea to imagine this as a Cartesian plane, with Yay/Boo on one axis and Good/Bad on the other.)

And it was good, for a couple of years.

The problem arose when a generalized lack obtained. The conversation can't just be "taste" manifested as an endless series of "well...I like it" statements. The first step past that stage is developing the capacity to distinguish "I like this" from "this is (therefore) good". It is not clear that anyone has yet taken this step with respect to television--"we're in a Golden Age", I hear a lot, apparently because torture sequences and breasts abound, not even in distinct scenes, and there's even swears!

The addition of taste, then, stopped being a success because it did not come with any discipline. Taste became a shield to avoid attack--"well...I like it"--rather than a tool for analysis (pace the Why We Watch initiative and its twin, Deadspin's NBA Shit List series) and eventually resulted in the self-indulgent wallowing we see everywhere today. I'm talking, now, about writing about pro wrestling.

Not here to debate the merits or analyze the complexity of pro wrestling itself, I will mention only that its basic structure is both reasonably simple and a good lens through which to examine politics. It's an enterprise which sells fake fights between characters embedded in stories. In the stories, the characters are usually recognizably "good" or "bad". In the commercial aspect, the characters can be popular and unpopular, and this is, of course, the most important thing (cf "commercial enterprise"). There is also a small subset of watchers which judges itself capable of assessing the quality of work it is being presented with, adding "good worker" to "good/bad guy in a story", "popular", etc. Most are still kind of reeling that "bad guy in a story" can be "popular", if you're looking for a quick and dirty idea of the overall quality of these assessments. That is, the rooting and aesthetics are here so hopelessly muddled that no two writers can reliably agree on just who exactly is doing good work: without the objective anchor point of wins and losses, and with popularity requiring actual research to determine, and also seeming somewhat unsavory as an index of quality (cf McDonald's), all the observers are at sea, unable to do more than recount what did happen vis-a-vis what they thought would happen--as if that could possibly be of any interest whatsoever--or what they wanted to happen--ditto, plus infinitely infantile: imagine imposing this review process on any other art form! "I really expected Cordelia to rise to the occasion--everything pointed to it--and it was really disappointing to see her unable to tell her dad how she felt."

The extant writing about wrestling is, then, a failure on every available level. It fails to be either reasonably objective or rigorously subjective. It makes use of no aesthetic judgments beyond "satisfying narrative"--which means, so far as I can tell, "outcome I found palatable after being entertained for some period of time". It appears to be wholly inextricable from nostalgia for the intellect and emotions of pre-adolescence. It exhibits a galling technical ignorance, given that the form is beyond obviously best interpreted as a form of dance, and tends toward the breathlessly conversational and typo-riddled. The extant writing about wrestling is lazy and unilluminative even on its own modest recap-and-rehash terms. It has as much place on a sports site as my uninformed ballet descriptions would, and it has as much place on a good-writing site as fan fiction does.

--Chris Collision, hater