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Nothing Really Matters

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This is not the nihilism you’re looking for.

Carolina Hurricanes v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Do you know that joke about baseball?

Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer. - Ted Williams

Hockey is way, way weirder than that. Alex Ovechkin scored his 700th goal the other day, and he has 5,519 shots. His career shooting percentage of 12.7 marks him out as a rare talent in a sport that is all about failure. Most of your shots don’t go in, most of your power plays fail, most of your passes lead to nothing, most of your offensive cycles die on the vine. The only thing that works most of the time is the penalty kill.

Oh, and goaltending.

Most of the shots a goalie faces, they stop. Even the worst one on their worst night.

If you watch enough hockey it warps your mind — clearly. We all yell at the goalie as a moral failure after every loss, and we demand he be cast out if he doesn’t stop enough of most of the shots. The rest of the constant failure we simply stop seeing and processing. And we tell ourselves we can just judge by how we feel if any given player, especially a goalie, is failing at an acceptable level or not.

Because, make no mistake, succeeding in hockey is about failing a tiny bit less than the other guy. The conservative approach familiar to people lacking in self confidence doesn’t work: If you don’t try, you can’t fail. Carefully picking your moments, simplifying your game, not taking risks, that makes you into a fourth liner on a certain kind of team that is happy to play that way for brief stretches. (This is Leo. I’m talking about Leo Komarov here.) You can’t be Alex Ovechkin and think like that. Ever.

In hockey, the guy who succeeds most is most often vilified for failure. But it’s even weirder than that. The scale of your failure doesn’t really matter. The scale of your successes doesn’t either.

Any way the wind blows. Let’s play the song now. Let’s all join in on “Nothing really matters”

A win is a win and a loss is a loss, and if you scrape by on “loser points” they count too. I’m going to quote now from the rant I wrote Saturday night that I’m not going to publish:

Fulemin has a line about how sometimes it seems like all the Leafs play well, sometimes only some of them play well, and sometimes only Zach Hyman plays well.

I think you’ve created a new category here, Leafs. I don’t know what exactly to call it, but I know when I saw it for the first time. On October 25, 2016, the Toronto Maple Leafs dropped a stinker to the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first “October Freddie” period. And while Andersen was really shaky and shouldn’t even have been playing, the Leafs just let Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov float around in scoring position waiting for lanes to open up like they thought playing in their own end was the same as sitting through the boring cinematic you can’t hit esc to exit out of, and eventually they’d get back to the fun part.

And I thought you’d stopped, Leafs. That’s the thing. I thought last season, for all the shit you went through with injuries and suspensions and other nastiness, I thought you’d learned to never play like that again. And now, this year, you’ve done it so many times, I’ve forgotten them all. Saturday night, last Sunday, November 16, and there’s more.

There’s also the games you only do it for two periods or one period. But you do it all the time. And I’m not sure why we’re all bothering with you.

And yet it doesn’t matter. A few years back, the Columbus Blue Jackets, just barely missing the playoffs, valiantly and with intestinal fortitude and in a manly-man manner played out the last few weeks of the season with verve and heart and grit and ... got a worse draft pick.

Now I’m not saying character doesn’t matter, and that a culture of easily accepting defeat can’t creep into a group, but I am saying that you have to accept that failure is the name of the game. If a team fails too much, it might not be a culture problem.

Hockey is weird. It is absolutely weird, and it’s almost funny that it’s the sport of grit narratives because you absolutely can just dog that last period when the game is already in the crapper, and then you come out the next time and it’s a whole new game. You can ride the goalie for a period — remember him? He’s the guy who succeeds most of the time — and then win it with a last burst of effort. You do not actually need to start on time. Ever. You can blow leads. You can diddle the fuc uh, sorry, I started to get mad again. You can diddle around trying to do the lacrosse goal when you aren’t currently in the lead. And it doesn’t matter.

You can actually and for real care more about your personal stats than the score on the scoreboard, and you don’t need to love the logo on the front more than the name on the back. You can do all that and fail less than the other guy failed and end up succeeding.

The Florida Panthers lost on Saturday night.

The Leafs have 1.14 points per game and the Panthers have 1.13. And nothing really matters.

It feels like it should, so we’ll judge the players for a game like that game. From that rant of mine, which reads really dramatic and shit to me less than 12 hours later:

After watching that game, I am judging this team. I am judging all of them from the top down, and I’m judging them as men. They have been weighed, measured and found wanting.

Most of us know something true. Life throws curves at you. And I used to love listening to Mike Babcock and Kyle Dubas do their coordinated training camp speeches because they each, in very different ways, talked a lot about that very thing. When an obstacle comes your way — like not closing out the Bruins in Game 6 when you had the chance — you roll with it. You get knocked down, and you get up again. That is how most of us in the world get on with things. We have no Gucci fannypacks to land on. We can’t sleep through life, and we don’t need a wake-up call every six days.

It’s too easy to make up these stories about how they don’t care, and if you’re of a mind too, you can make it about envy of the wealthy and list of their salaries, or you can make it a class war issue by noting that they played like that in front of a home crowd who had paid a tonne of money for the tickets to the game.

Hockey is an entertainment business. It’s a show, and sometimes there has to be a sadsack loser in a great story of triumph and spirit. That was the role the Leafs chose to play while David Ayres had his night in the spotlight, and the Carolina Hurricanes could write some team narratives about how their heart, miles and miles and miles of heart was what helped them win the game after their goalies went down.

It was cinematic glory. And it’s bitter being the joke team, the Washington Generals, the team that exists just to lose to the Mighty Ducks in film 7 of the franchise, the hapless losers.

And man, are the Leafs ever hapless at the moment. But because hockey is so weird, they are no worse off for that. They and the Panthers are still in the race to see who is least bad over 19-20 games.

Kyle Dubas isn’t getting fired. He’s not firing Sheldon Keefe. Keefe isn’t going to demand five guys get cut from the team and callups replace them. There likely won’t ever be a bagskate. Dubas isn’t trading Mitch Marner. No one has proved at all that paying Marner less so they could give that cap space to some guy who would be injured by now in a shot-blocking incident would have won that game. Because that game doesn’t matter, even though it feels like it’s the most important game in the world.

The Leafs have to get up, take a day off to forget it, travel, and then practice on Monday while living through the tension of the deadline, and then play the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night. And they have to do that like that game never happened. Because it doesn’t matter. To anyone but you, that is.

How?

Ask any goalie how you do that.