Friday, February 13, 2009

being a fan

The black and white was taken the night of June 17th. Its actually probably the morning of June 18th at this point. The Oilers have just beaten the Hurricanes soundly to force a seventh game. We had watched the game at Paupers surrounded by Oilers' fans. From there we headed into the night, myself and one of my best friends, four Irishmen and assorted others, meandering through the warm streets to the Cloak and Dagger for pints and then on to Parkdale, ending our night at Ted's Wrecking Yard. I think. I was so so drunk.

That was probably my best night as an Oilers' fan. The worst one followed two nights later, although actually for me the first game of the final is probably the lowest point of all if I really think about it.

I just presume that anyone who comes here is also a regular visitor to James Mirtle and Tom Benjamin. If you are not then you should get yourself over to both. Terrific stuff. Last week Benjamin, a Canucks' fan, wrote this in response to a post Mirtle did on the Canucks and their sorry history. Its an interesting read and its pertinent for Oiler fans who are disappointed in their club again this season.

I've beaten this drum many times but Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby is one of my favourite books. I think it stands on its own as entertainment but it also is very interesting to read Hornby's take on being a fan and a lot of what Tom wrote last week is echoed in this book.

Hornby is a fan of Arsenal. There is a fellow named Darren who is a regular visitor here, I guess; at least he certainly comments whenever the subject turns to soccer, which is every few weeks or so. Darren is an Arsenal fan while I am a Spurs fan. Arsenal is one of the big four in English soccer, or football if you prefer, along with Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea, a recent arrival to the club due to their billionaire Russian owner. These four clubs are the ones who compete every year for the titles that are available - the League Championship, the FA Cup, the League Cup (also known as Carling Cup) and the European Champions' League. All have had success of some sort over the last number of years. The odd year another team will sneak into the top four and get a Champions' League spot (Everton did a few years back, Spurs came within a whisker just recently as well) and these big clubs' concentration on Europe and the Premier League title has meant that they have been a little less diligent in the English tournaments. Last year Portsmouth won the FA Cup and Spurs the lesser Carling Cup.

The point of this ramble is that if you are a fan of any of the big four clubs you have tasted success and quite a bit of it over the last while. If you are a fan of any of the other English clubs then success is usually something that is part of your past.

But you still remain a fan of the club.

The reason I bring up Darren and Arsenal is that for nearly Hornby's entire time as a fan covered in the book (he became a fan around 1967 or so and published Fever Pitch in 1992) the Gunners were losers and losers of the worst sort. They played dull plodding soccer and their results were nearly always mediocre. No titles of any sort. Not so bad that they were relegated or close to being relegated. Just season after season of boring thuggish football played in front of disgruntled, angry fans while other teams, notably their arch rival Spurs, won title after title whilst playing a creative and exciting brand of the game.

So most of Hornby's work is dedicated to years of following a bad team playing bad football. The team rarely played a game that meant anything at all and had a long laundry list of failed players and disastrous results in big games. Hornby and his fellow fans had an expectation of disaster and mediocrity and sometimes I wonder what his take would be now, after years of success for Arsenal while former giants Tottenham are the ones who have fallen into middle of the table mediocrity.

It is in the late eighties I believe that Arsenal win their first big title in Hornby's fan lifetime and his description of it is wonderful. He describes it as a feeling like no other and of course he is right. There is nothing comparable and here I am really trying to describe what he said from my memory so bear with me. Of course you have your big lifetime moments - your wedding and the birth of your children - but having gone through these the reality is you don't have the tension, the buildup to each, right? When we married it was a terrific day and a terrific party but there wasn't the feeling of release that you get when your team wins. Now when your child is born and all turns out well there is that feeling but it is more one of relief. When my third child was born I burst into tears but it was out of thanks that she and my wife were fine more then anything. In terms of great moments in my life an Oilers' Cup win would rank behind the birth of my kids and getting married, of course, but the feeling from such a win would probably be overwhelming in terms of actually intensity at that moment.

Hornby describes the feeling as close to orgasmic and of course he is right - I remember Hemsky's goal to beat Detroit and Pisani's shortie in the fifth game of the final and game six of the final and the euphoria following each. For that matter the games against San Jose and Anaheim and all of that. Just the excitement, my heart racing, on the edge for two months.

The thing with an orgasm though is that you can have another shortly after. (Or maybe not. If so then see your doctor or look into finding someone who has read this.) And you might not have a ten year or twenty year or lifetime buildup towards it. Its like The Forty Year Old Virgin. Steve Carell gets right back in the saddle after his first go and the other thing is he hasn't been chasing Catherine Keener for all of those years either on top of that.

Think about how we Oiler fans will feel when the Oilers break a drought that is too long now but only eighteen (soon to be nineteen) years. How would Tom Benjamin react to a Canucks' victory? How about a Leafs' fan react to a Cup? A Hawks' fan? How about the Cubs winning the Series?

Unless you are a Manchester United fan there aren't many guarantees in professional sports and they (and Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea) are helped by the fact that there are four honours to win in every season. In North American sports there is only one that really counts in each major sport and even the most successful teams can go years without winning. Last year's Stanley Cup was Detroit's first in six years. The New York Yankees have not won a World Series in eight years.

I think this is also one of the reasons that the Olympics are so popular. We knew Katrina Lemay Doan and Simon Whitfield (at least this time around) and Clara Hughes and Pierre Leuders and the hockey teams in 2002 but for the most part we don't know these athletes. I had an inkling of who Jennifer Heil was in 2006 but I had never watched ski Mongols and I had never seen skeleton until I watched the fireman win in Italy. It didn't matter though - when they were competing I was going completely mental.

The tension of the competition, the anticipation, the agonizing and finally the thrill when Beckie Scott or Chandra Crawford or Ryan Cochrane or Carol Huynh win a medal is a rush that cannot be matched and of course with the Olympics while it may represent for the athlete the culmination of years of work, for the fan, for the Canadian watching the event, it is something ongoing, every two years Canadian athletes will compete and we will cheer for them and we will feel the rush when they reach the podium. I think that has something to do with the popularity of the Olympics, I really do. If you're a fan of the St. Louis Blues you don't have a lot going for you. If you're Canadian you can watch Simon Whitfield toss his cap aside and make a break for it and the excitement leaves you exhausted and sweaty and feeling like you need a cigarette for some odd reason. That or a cold shower.

The truth is there is no rhyme or reason to being a fan of a particular club. I was a fan of the Chicago Blackhawks all of my life and it wasn't the losing that made me cut the cord, it was the disconnect between the owner and the fans. Oiler fans reacted with anger and bitterness to the Ryan Smyth move and a lot of folks walked away that day, some temporarily, some for good, but imagine a team with all kinds of money cutting loose every star player when it came time to pay them, gutting the scouting staff, failing to televise local games, rejecting their greatest stars from the past, disposing of every manager or coach who brought any kind of success because of jealousy and politics. That was the Chicago Blackhawks. The losing was bad. The contempt the club had was the killer though.

It can always get worse is what I am trying to say and the Edmonton Oilers are about to test our patience as fans as they embark on a four game stretch that could make or break their season. L.A., Phoenix, San Jose, Dallas, all on the road, without Lubo, gone for the season, without Grebeshkov, and suddenly the strength of this club, the blueline, has been eroded so that Smid and Staios, who struggled as the third pair, are now in the top four and it will be Strudwick and Peckham out there on the blue.


This could be it and its a test of our faith. If Lowe had done a better job I think they'd be able to survive an o-fer on this trip and that doesn't even begin to take into account MacTavish's failings. In any case this could be the season right here.

And if you really want to start worrying take a look at this. Try and make it work. Use the new math or the regular old math. Then hope and pray that Shoalts is wrong. If he is not then this club is in serious trouble or Daryl Katz is going to have to eat a lot of contracts.

As for me I'll just keep on carrying on as a fan. Three years is an awfully short time in the grand scheme of things. Just ask a Leafs' fan.


Swabbubba said...

well it is a pretty important trip. Now these contracts were based on a even growth in revenue. Maybe the League will have to discount the accounting practices of some of it's "special teams". Like a team buying seats? So they can get the revenue sharing how does that play in the overall revenue?
If the money keeps on shrinking then the players take has to go down that works I am not sure as they can only get % of total. So then players contracts that are large would be pressured by other players to be dropped as they would all have to pay into the escrow that would be returned to the team. Based on this if I was new player I would not want my paycheck being docked for another player. I am an IT guy not a money dude.

Some road tunes
LA & San Jose
last but not least

Doogie2K said...

The thing that kills me about our current predicament is that because we're shorthanded, we basically need to ask Calgary to win a whole lot of games over the next two months. The win over LA was a nice start, but we need them to win five of their next six (i.e. all their remaining non-Edmonton February games) in order to give us a hand up. It's disgusting.

Speaking of Carol Huynh, I'm friends with two U of C lady wrestlers and one former national-team speed skater, all of whom know Carol (she trained here in Calgary), so I was one of probably 100 people in all of Canada who knew who she was before she won gold. There was quite a bit of excitement around the office the next day.

hunter1909 said...

erm...fuck Hornby who I can't stand as a writer anyway - too sentimental for my tastes. Arsenal fyi are the only team in the English soccer league who have NEVER been relegated. They have won titles, and cups, with almost stunning regularity. And as for Spurs, I don't think they've won the title since 1961.

In English footie, winning the equivalent of the President's trophy is the be all and end all in the domestic game. Having said that, every team plays each other once, at home, and once, away. So at the end of the season, everyone has played everyone else the exact same amount etc. Unlike the NHL which has evolved into virtually 2 different leagues with the conference setup.

I don't understand how anyone can be a fan of one team, then the next, so long as team number 1 is still functioning, or unless there is a brand new team that comes along and replaces the first one due to say, playing in that same fan's home city. I was also raised an Oiler fan, and unfortunately might die one. The fact that morons currently run the team have little to do with it. Like being a fan of Newcastle United, Oiler fans are stuck with the team whether they like it or not.

I don't really have any hope that Oilers will do anything at all in the playoffs, so better to miss them and get rid of that brain cell less character behind the bench. Who knows? There's always "next year".

Oh, btw lol: Hawks are on the rise. Always the coolest jersey in hockey, now might just be the time for you to return to your first hockey love. The Oilers? They might well end up never winning another cup ever. This sad sick fan will always have those heady 1984-90 days to recall, even if they started when was in elementary school.

doritogrande said...

I had an inkling of who Jennifer Heil was in 2006 but I had never watched ski Mongols

I believe the term you're looking for is "moguls". Otherwise, we should be watching for terrorist alerts.

If you're Canadian you can watch Simon Whitfield toss his cap aside and make a break for it and the excitement leaves you exhausted and sweaty and feeling like you need a cigarette for some odd reason. That or a cold shower.

Couldn't agree more. That was probably the most excited I've been watching a sporting event. Any sport. His effort there was just pure heart and soul, full stop. Even to have him passed at the end couldn't take away from the moment he kicked it into Canadian gear. I just kept screaming at the tv the same thing over and over until he was passed: Ze germanz, zey're coming! Run from facism little Whitfield!!!

Black Dog said...

dg - yeah I know its moguls, just being a smartass; that triathalon was one of the greatest things I have ever seen, just amazing

doogie - my main concern is that I think the Oilers just are not going to win enough games, period, especailly now that Grebs is out as well - Calgary could win all of those games to help us out and it would still not be good enough

Black Dog said...

swabb - don't know what will happen or how it works but I do know that a player's existing contract would not get cut so this is a big issue for clubs like Philly, Calgary and the Oilers - the Oilers will have 34MM tied up in Penner, Horcoff, Hemsky, Moreau, Visnovsky, Souray, Gilbert and Staios alone - they have to move some of that money this summer I think

hunter - yeah but the sixties, seventies and early eighties were a dead zone for the Gunners, as for Spurs can't remember their last title exactly but they won their fair share of FA Cups right through the eighties, I believe, and also a couple of European titles as well; the Carling Cup last year was their first title in a decade I think

as for "leaving" yourt first team, it can happen but it takes a lot - I didn't mind the losing (well, I did but only one team wins every year) but Wirtz and Pulford killed that franchise, you would have had to be a fan to understand it

I loved the Hawks and part of me hopes they do well still but those old pricks gutted that club and its fans

hunter1909 said...

Arsenal won the double in 1971. Am not sure about any other titles, off the top of my head.

Spurs were a hot team in the early 80's with a pair of Argentinian World Cup winners.

Since I had more Arsenal friends than Spurs, I ended up leaning more towards Arsenal, but since I'm not a brit, I feel free to like any team I happen to fancy(I even liked Chelsea in 2004, just for playing great football).

English national team football is a disaster, though. They've had managers who would make MacT look like Scotty Bowman by comparison. Examples? Graham "turnip" Taylor comes to mind. And that pillock Steve McLaren.

Following the English national team is a torment I've rarely found myself in, haha. I just go for the greatest team in soccer history, the samba ones.

amw said...

Sometimes it isn't your first team, but your father's... my dad supported Nottingham Forest as a kid, watched them win the FA Cup in 1959, so obviously I had to start cheering for them -- and for the past many years, they haven't even been playing in the Premiership!

So, on a trip to England a few years ago we had our pick of expensive tickets to see Spurs v Arsenal, or a 90 minute drive to see Forest (then in the 3rd tier 'League 1') play Bournemouth... Yeah, Bournemouth -- Google Earth that burg if you care.

Thriftiness and loyalty won out that day, up the motorway we went, and Forest won 3-0!

Anyway, the Oilers truly are trying our collective patience: management, coaching and inconsistent play all testing our resolve to support our team, but I can't really see making a switch. Having endured the WHA (Jim Harrison anyone??), witnessing live the '84 cup and experiencing the euphoria of the '06 run I remain convinced that we'll be on top once more.

And the Oil will win Stanley well before Forest add any silverware to the City Ground trophy case, that is for sure...

Black Dog said...

hunter - I work with two English guys and every two years the poor bastards go through hell; I mean Canada stumbles in hockey now and then but at least we've won more than once ;)

You might not like Hornby but if you haven't read the book you should give it a crack. The double happens early but he's just a kid, realy and then its 20 years or thereabouts of shit. Not relegated but just pure mediocrity, no flair, no passion, nothing. A lot of your complaints about today's Oilers really. Just an average club with nothing to recommend it to anybody.

Black Dog said...

amw - I was a Hawks fan because of my Dad - he was a Max Bentley man and then years later we both loved Stan Mikita

Great story, great stuff really. Thanks for that.

Darren said...

Hey, I feel special that I was mentioned here, thanks BD! I do read this regularily, I just only comment when soccer comes up because I feel I am competent enough in that sport to post, unlike hockey. I just bought Fever Pitch and read about the double. Man, the way he writes it, I should feel bad about enjoying this good Arsenal since I was never around to endure the horrible he went through. I know I am supposed to 'hate' Tottenham fans as a Gunner fan, but in truth, I rather admire them for actually sticking it out through such a shambles. Strangely enough though, I take delight in the Leaf's demise, and won't hesitate to mention it to my in-laws...

Doogie2K said...

my main concern is that I think the Oilers just are not going to win enough games, period, especailly now that Grebs is out as well - Calgary could win all of those games to help us out and it would still not be good enough

Well, of course all the help in the world from sources detestable or otherwise won't matter if you don't win enough games, but we're hanging in there for now, so I've decided to be a cautious optimist. I may get kicked in the teeth for it a week or two from now, but we'll burn that bridge when we come to it.

Me, I "left" my first franchise, Mom's Habs, sometime around 1995-96. Firing Jacques Demers, trading away Patrick Roy and most of the rest of that '93 team, missing the playoffs for the first time since Trudeaumania, closing the many things just sucked about that period. It's not as bad as what happened to Chicago, not by a longshot, but being only nine or ten years old at that time, I couldn't put up with it the way I might have as an adult. I might have, of course, but then Todd Marchant of Dad's Oilers -- whom I'd appreciated when I was very small, but who had become exceedingly terrible by the time I was old enough to really give a damn -- scored in OT to eliminate the Stars, so that pushed me over. I've only recently come back around to really caring about Montreal, probably since the lockout or shortly before, after a decade spent mostly ambivalent.

Black Dog said...

Darren - its funny how it works for sure, you would never peg Arsenal as a weak sister based on where they are now

But the Yankees went nearly twenty years without any success at all before Joe Torre arrived so it just goes to show you.

And until Patrick Roy was moved, as Doogie says, the Habs were considered a threat almost every year and had ridiculous success until the 80s. Even between 1980 and 1995 they were in three finals, winning two.

You never know when the worm is going to turn, for better or worse.