MONTREAL, QC.–There are a number of words to define that time of year where the leaves are changing colours, the air gets colder and kids everywhere cling to the straps of their backpacks as they wait for the bus to bring them to school. When the backpacks become hockey bags, that word is preseason.
Preseason has changed meaning for me over the years, as it has for many hockey fans. It used to be a time of confusion because I had no idea who any of these new players were, how to identify them or define their performance. It used to be a time of frustration because games were never broadcasted and one would be lucky to find them on the radio. Mostly, it was a skippable precursor to the inevitable part where coaches would shape the team around recognizable returnees and throw in a few new faces that everyone would have time to get to know over the regular season, fan opinion notwithstanding.
This year’s new faces are more or less known to us already as not very much young blood is due to make the team. Yet first round draft picks are overnight celebrities without having put a foot on the ice yet and groans are already starting in goal—helped along by the sudden availability of television feeds, online streams and Twitter.
One thing about the preseason has been and will remain constant: summer months can create a world of withdrawal. It’s therefore far too easy to get caught up in all the excitement when things actually start off much better than expected. It was five years ago when I snuck my discman (!) into class to get an AM radio stream of the game as one new kid on the block was lighting it up and making the fans cheer like crazy. It was right after the lockout which was one of the most telling kinds of withdrawal: a collective nervousness that comes with league-wide change. But Habs’ fans were keying in on something that had been lacking for a long time: a power forward. A keen eye for the front of the net. That so-called essential scoring threat.
This Sunday night they played against him. The once-beloved son of the franchise now wears Christmas-tree colours with the Wild. Which of us prophesied that outcome in October of 2005?
This year’s withdrawal was more powerful than it has been in recent seasons; coming off a playoff performance with the amount of excitement as 2009-10’s has been hard to come by over the last decade and a half. This off-season, as represented league-wide in the new-age NHL, was a struggle to keep that team (and that dream) intact. Result: bitterness, negativity, and the return of thousands of “general managers” to their proverbial desks in near-record timing… 1:33 of the first period on September 22nd. When did we expect—rather, demand—of our players to be as 110% focused and prepared as we were for the new year to start? If there was a time for losses and mishaps, it would ideally be when the points in the standings are fruitless. That brand of logic points us back to falling on the usual clichés: “it doesn’t count” and “it’s only preseason,” which is now generally seen as a cop-out rather than truth.
When is it preseason and when is it fortune-telling? Studies, if they want to be taken seriously, come from data assembled in great numbers and over a long period of time. Yet for some reason we don’t seem to take those commercials where 3 out of 4 dentists recommend X toothbrush as seriously as we do Teams A and B over one and a half weeks.
Another thing I seem to remember was that the ‘surprise’ undefeated (or nearly) Habs of preseasons past usually caught up with their real fate in the later months ahead. Missing the playoffs, injury-crippled lineups or worse was not unheard of after impromptu winning streaks featuring Mr. October, Brian Savage, among others. Hindsight is as usual 20/20, but results like these are not alien to their share of hype and eventual disappointments. Alternatively, neither are the scores where team chemistry is lacking at first but picks up in time for when the “real action” gets underway.
Yet boxscores are not as powerful to the watcher, it seems, as attitude. The sore spot about emerging forms of spreading information is that a singular clip has the capability to morph into damning evidence we don’t need but will still affect us in one way or another: such as in the case of those continually-regurgitated sound bytes of Carey Price’s now-infamous “chill out” that, despite its reason, has rung on several deaf ears in the mentality several of us now follow in terms of preseason. Interpretations of how those words reflect on his attitude have become hyper-polarized into enough hot air on the AM dial to power a steam boat the size of the Titanic.
How to factor a positive approach into a seemingly dead-end situation for many hopefuls is another example of how attitude is so valued these days. Visuals of rookies duking it out—literally—for the spot they so desire have become ingrained into our collective culture surrounding this time of year. The hesitation around actually believing in that ideal, however, circles around the increased potential for injuries (see New York Islanders) and the fear of more physical dedication on a player’s part leading to more harm than good in advancing his career and what is the point, really, when it’s everyone’s spot to lose in the end?
Don’t tell Ryan White any of that. As he proved yesterday, the image still applies—and can carry loads of power even for the players.
What his performance will do to his fate, of course, is another story entirely, a fact many of us seem to have disassociated ourselves from because we’ve lost ourselves in the power of our inner highlight reels; a lot of us have made up our minds and supported our qualms about the current lineup with decent arguments.
But back to reality, folks. No matter how much we at the Bell Centre and we at home have to argue, outside opinion is still notwithstanding. Jacques Martin has a plan—one that involves thirteen or fourteen forwards, seven or eight defensemen, a starting goaltender and a backup goaltender that are entirely up to his and the coaching staff’s discretion.
Naturally we’ll wait until it comes out after October 2nd before we start digging into ways we would have done his job better. But until then, the least we could do is return to the notions of old—and enjoy the show.