So apparently there will be a hockey season after all.
You’d think I would be more cheered up by that news than I am. I like hockey, really I do. Among the sports most often televised on American channels it is the one I most prefer to watch, in keeping with my general tendency to be out of step with my own culture. But somehow, I find myself rather unimpressed with the news.
There are four main levels of fandom in sports.*
At the very bottom are people who simply don’t care at all. They find the game uninteresting. They can’t understand why otherwise rational people are so fascinated. The game makes no sense when they watch it and even less sense when someone tries to explain it, and they don’t see why this situation needs to be corrected. Given a choice between attending a game in this particular sport and doing chores around the house, they’d have to think long and hard before coming up with an answer.
This is how I feel about basketball. Basketball has always struck me as a complete waste of time on every possible level – from playing it to watching it to reading about it – and I once cheerfully passed up a chance to see in person, for free, one of the great players of today in order to go to a high school play with my daughters. I am aware that other people disagree with me on the merits of basketball and to those people I say “Bully for you – enjoy yourselves. But if you bother me about it I will yawn so hard the airflow will strip the plating off your jewelry.”
The next level up are people who will watch the home team. They like when the local folks are in the mix for something good, and you never know when something interesting might happen. They understand the game but don’t particularly go out of their way to make time for it. The idea of watching a game that doesn’t have the home team in it strikes them as nonsensical.
This is how I now feel about baseball. I grew up a Phillies fan, and I try to keep tabs on them. If they’re on, I’ll sometimes watch. Admittedly I pay more attention to them when they’re doing well then when they’re not, but so it goes. I don’t know if that makes me a bandwagon fan, since I’ve been on that bandwagon since the early 1970s and there is no other Major League team that I would declare myself a fan of, but there it is. I used to be more of a fan, back in the day, but I lost a lot of interest after the 1994 strike cancelled the season and have never really gotten it back. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a Major League game in person that none of the three stadiums where I attended games exists anymore. We do have a minor league team not too far from Our Little Town, though, and I enjoy going to those games. I even wear their hat around town because I like the logo and it’s nice to have a team nearby that I can cheer for. So perhaps my fandom for baseball will one day rise up a level or two again.
The next level up are people who will also watch games that don’t involve the home team as long as the teams are talented and/or there is some importance attached to the game. They’ll follow the local team, and when there are playoffs or championship games or even games that might have some kind of bearing on a) the fortunes of the home team, b) the general set of the playoffs or c) the championship game they’ll happily tune in. They know the game, appreciate it, but don’t really get too worried about missing out if they don’t see things. They’ll read about it later, or find someone else to talk about it with.
This is how I feel about football. I am a confirmed Eagles fan and will watch them most of the chances I get – not all, particularly as my general interest in the sport is a bit thin of late, but I’ll generally watch. And I live here in Packer country, so I’ll watch the Packers too. It’s also fun to watch good teams play even if they aren’t the Eagles or Packers, and I do try to keep an eye on how things affect their playoff chances. This was easy with the Eagles this year, as they were eliminated sometime around Halloween, but the Packers are still in it as of this writing so that took some figuring to get all the ins and outs straight in my head – and I was willing to do that figuring. I understand the game well enough to know what is happening, what should be happening, and even in most cases what could be happening. But it’s not the next level.
The next level up are people who just love the sport. People who will watch any random game between any two teams that are playing the game, regardless of talent level, distance from the home team or any other team that matters to them, or significance in the standings for anyone in the league. They’ll talk your ear off about the game, and they know all the little rules that get enforced maybe once a season.
That was me and hockey for a long, long time. I’d watch the Flyers. I’d watch the other division teams. I’d watch games played by random teams in other divisions. I’d even watch meaningless late-season games between teams so far out of playoff contention that they had already been eliminated from next season’s playoffs. It’s a fun sport to watch just because it is, at least I think so. For most Americans, hockey is roughly the equivalent of basketball to me – something that happens for reasons that are never adequately explained and best not thought about. But for me, it’s the gold standard of American sports.
But you know, it’s been months since the season was supposed to start, and there was no hockey.
Life is a liquid. You take hockey out of it and there is no hockey-shaped hole remaining to put hockey back into later – everything else sloshes in and fills up that space, and if you want to put hockey back into your life you have to find somewhere else to squeeze it into the corners. That’s what happened with me and baseball after 1994. It wasn’t that I had somehow sworn off baseball in a fit of pique, never to return. It’s just that other things filled up the baseball-sized hole in my life and I’ve never quite managed to squeeze baseball back in the same way.
I’ll still watch hockey games. I’ll still cheer for the Flyers. And the Penguins. And a host of other teams that I like, in descending order. I might even pay attention to all the little things around the league again – personnel moves, injuries, things like that. Or I might not.
And that’s a shame, really. It’s a great sport. It’s fun to watch.
But it’s on the outside of my life looking in, now, and I just don’t know where it will fit anymore.
*Yes, I know there are more. I’m simplifying here. There are levels between levels, subcategories of levels, and then there are levels beyond levels that I would just prefer not to think about. Don’t even get me started on the volume of fanaticism that it takes to get involved in a fantasy league in any sport. It’s complicated enough trying to figure out why you should care about a group of highly paid professionals playing a game without trying to figure out why you should also care about an imaginary group of highly paid professionals of the same names playing a slightly edited version of that game a day later on a spreadsheet. If your world reaches that point, I say skip the introductory fiddling and go straight for the whiskey.