I watched a four-hour hockey game last night. As a Leafs fan, obviously, I planned to root for Pittsburgh. You can’t be a Leafs fan and root for Ottawa, right? Besides, watching Crosby knock the Sens out in the first round is almost like seeing him in a Leafs’ uniform. And don’t start about rooting for Americans against a Canadian team—that might work for one of the other four Canadian teams, but not Ottawa, never Ottawa. Or so I thought.
Ottawa was the weaker team—clearly, and by any measure. They were playing against the best guy in the game today, against a team so loaded with talent it ought to be impossible in a salary-cap league. Ottawa has a history of first-round choking. They’re on the road, down 3-1 in the series. They ought to lose. They have to lose.
During the first seven minutes of the third period, I counted twenty shots—not on goal necessarily, just shots, you understand—for Pittsburgh, versus two for Ottawa. And I thought, “This is a defeated team. The physical cost has become too high, the chance of prevailing too remote. They’re just not good enough, and they know it.”
It didn’t matter, then, that the game was still tied. Ottawa was finished. Pittsburgh’s go-ahead goal two minutes later confirmed it. Ottawa was out in the first round. Again.
Two minutes later, as so often in this game we love, a harmless-looking rush turned into a goal. Only this goal tied the game, and now Ottawa had a life.
The goal changed nothing, really. Ottawa still had no answer to Malkin and Crosby. Pittsburgh was still the better team; Ottawa still had no chance, or almost no chance, of seeing the second round. But for the next ten minutes of the third, and an unbelievable 47 more minutes of overtime, sheer force of will kept Ottawa in the game.
As a sports fan, you’ve got four types of teams. First, there is the team you love. You only get one of these, even if you are an adulterous polygamous sex addict. Second, there are teams you don’t care about; the number of these is directly proportional to the greed of your sport’s owners. Third, there are a few teams you hate; more than a handful is hazardous to your mental health. And fourth, there is the team you loathe and despise with every fibre of your being. Like the team you love, there can only be one of these.
If your answer on Line A was “the Toronto Maple Leafs,” chances are your answer on Line D was “the Ottawa Senators.” And, yes, there are reasons, perhaps silly ones—years of the Battle of Ontario, Alfredsson’s aping of Sundin’s stick-throwing, the laughable outrage over Domi-Arvedson, the pitiful homerism of Ottawa’s sports media, or even the paranoid delusions of Sens’ fans—but it’s ultimately not about any particular thing. Hating the Sens, at this point, is just instinct, so ingrained and so primal that Brian Burke’s punking of Brian Murray at the draft made the last five miserable years of Leafs fandom bearable. Well, almost. But you know what I mean.
But at a certain point, none of that matters. Because as hockey fans, it is the game itself that matters most. Ultimately the game transcends teams, and rises above personal commitments.
There is a difference between playoff hockey and the regular season, and that difference is night and day. You might think that the difference of a similar magnitude would separate playoff hockey from second- and third-sudden-death-overtime-period playoff hockey. But you’d be wrong: the game is simply too physically demanding for that. No matter how good you are, no matter how skilled, how artistic, how strong, after four periods it gets sloppy. Routine passes are flubbed, clearing attempts turn into giveaways, laser-beam shots veer wildly.
Some viewers would tune out when the game’s dazzling skill and speed fade. We who understand hockey know that this is the moment to sit up and pay attention. Highlight-reel moments exist in every game; guts and determination are rarer and more precious commodities.
As a Leaf fan, I will always hate Ottawa, but last night, I cheered for them. Because, ultimately, it’s not about the jersey, or even the men wearing the jersey, but what they do with the puck on the ice.
Hockey speaks to us on an emotional level. It says many things, but what it screams is defiance. The desperate core at the heart of hockey is a refusal to be dictated to—not by our opponents, not by their skill, not by their strength, not by the laws of gravity or time or even the rules of the game itself. It is a symbol of our determination to fight on, in the words of Robert Jordan,
“till water is gone,
till shade is gone,
into the Shadow
with teeth bared,
to spit in Sightblinder’s eye
on the last day!”
Win or lose, it is that attitude, that refusal to be bowed, that characterizes everything we love about hockey and those who play it. That's why Leafs Nation has always reserved its greatest loyalty not for the Sundins and the Mogilnys and Kaberles, the game’s artists and magicians, but for grinders and beaters and hitters and fighters—guys like Clark and Gilmour and Domi and (hopefully) Phaneuf who personify this attitude, with skill or without it, winning or losing, but always with heart and soul.
Tonight the team won, the team that represented those values, was Ottawa. As a proud member of Leafs Nation, I had no choice but to cheer for them.