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The Gift of Games that Matter

Many fans are upset the Habs aren’t tanking, but the value of meaningful games is drastically underrated.

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

What do you want?

What are you here for? What draws you in, compels you to risk real emotion sitting in the stands or before the screen, hands over your face, only half daring to watch through fingergaps, the visceral gut-drop of a late goal against spreading through your body like sepsis?

And why, why on Earth do you keep watching, still stomach-sick as the rollercoaster ascends and then screams down into three-on-three overtime, the buck and heave of every rush palpable and excruciating? Heart pounding in your ears as you try to shout but fail because you’ve forgotten to breathe for the 30-second eternity you’ve spent on this terrible ride. And then a breakaway, every eye fixed, the collective inhalation anticipating the profound advent, the win, the hot chill of bated joy already spreading over your tingling throat and jaw.

A miss. A two-on-one the other way. The chill drops cold down through your chest, guts, your goddamned soul as they shoot and you die, the red light and siren blinding and blaring, an ambulance too late to save a single life.

This isn’t the Stanley Cup Final. This isn’t even the playoffs. This is game 75, and it mattered so much it killed you.

Everybody wants the Cup, the distant glint of silver just on the offing’s farthest edge, which, if you can only keep it in sight, suffuses everything with its shining intensity, a beacon for those who can navigate nearly seven dozen nautical perils in a vicious, frozen sea.

We call this the regular season. We often dismiss it. The best teams are impatient for the playoffs, skimming lightly over the rough waters, their fans fretting about matchups, the format’s current injustice, the weather. The worst teams barely seem to be rowing at all, unseaworthy vessels aiming early at another target, the draft, sitting deep at the bottom of the lowest trench. They sink, their fans pulled down with them, slowly circling the whirlpool.

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.

— TS Eliot, “Death by Water”

Sinking to the bottom of this tank, they say, is the way to resurrection. The chance to find a saviour, or two, or three, or four (in landlocked Edmonton no less, a miracle!), one for every time you dare to die for the future, eschewing today’s temptation, that lighthouse in the distance, for a chance to bask in its glow another time, perhaps for many years, and so close up it burns like a perfect shower, washing away the cold, dark memories of so many years spent drowning.

But even this is still just hope, a chance, another kind of risk. You may not find your saviour, no matter how often you plumb those depths. Worse, your leaky ship, helmsman asleep at the rudder, drunk steward snoring in his berth, might drown the perfect captain you’ve just won.

Are you here for this? Have you come to watch the annual funeral procession, pulse pounding, holding your breath as lots are drawn?

You’ve traded hockey for bingo.

Give me none of it.

Save your calculations of profit and loss for someone else. The Cup is the goal, but long-term-Cup-odds-maximization-through-medium-term-losing sparks no interest, brings nobody any real hockey joy.

All any athlete, any fan, really wants is the chance for something incredible to happen. Give me 82 games that matter, where every win and loss is magnified in a sink-or-swim race to the playoffs, where game 65 lifts you to the rafters, while game 68 hits you like a rock in the teeth. Where every game, till the very end, is life or death, a hair’s breadth separating victory from ruin.

There is a game tonight. It matters so much it hurts, and you will watch it, risking that very specific kind of pain you have known only too well time and time again. Why do this to yourself?

You know the reason. You engage, and invest, and immerse yourself not despite but because of that intensity of emotion, the pinnacles of joy and the nadirs of despair, the inimitable, uncontrollable, chaotic thrill disaster of empathically, emphatically climbing aboard that precarious vessel and, if need be, going down with the ship.

You wouldn’t want it any other way.