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What Cancer – and the Canucks – Has (Have) Taught Me, Part 358: Maybe Its Not Just a Game

Okay, okay, you can put the tomatoes back in the fridge drawer. You can stifle the ridiculous laughter. Before you wonder what psychological obsession I must have to be writing about hockey, again, be assured that what I’m about to say has really just nothing to do with something that trivial. Really.

I mean, hockey – it’s just a game.

Right?

That is why no one is talking about last week, isn’t it? We don’t really need to actually discuss the chilly grey skies shrouding this city for the past few days, do we?I mean, this is Vancouver. The moist, granite atmosphere is one of the reasons we love it, or, is at least something we assume as consequence for living in one of the most magnificently beautiful parts of the world. It couldn’t be that the heathered air possibly represented a real sadness, a palpable confusion, or even sense of isolation rippling off each of us as we went about our days, telling ourselves that everything was normal.

So then, was I imagining everything? Was it all just a matter of perspective? Or were we really feeling sad about something, something that just happened to appear somewhere in the twenty-four hours we called June 15th? Was it embarrassment? Shame? Our inner child, or ‘id’ experiencing a sense of deep failure, perhaps?

It wasn’t as if anything really big had happened to us.

Of course, there was the incredibly disconcerting images of Georgia and Cambie street the hours following said game, the lighted cars, battered law enforcement officers, and shattered glass of some of Vancouver’s long-term businesses like Chapters and The Bay. But it wasn’t us who did that. It wasn’t you and I who trashed the city we say we love.

So, then, why did the drab skies seem so much more somber this past weekend? Was it just that the color grey was so much more noticeable, since it was no longer shielded by pandemic-proportions of blue and green?

Because really, in a matter of hours, Canuck colors went from being everywhere to absolutely nowhere. People wearing any Canuck-related gear were gawked at, glared at, and questioned, “how can you wear that? We lost.” Gone were the flags, the painted cars, the super-Canuck costumes, the jerseys, the face paint, the shirts, the dog sweaters, the stuffed bears in cages guarded by orca whales, and of course, the tin foil Stanley Cups strapped onto our cars, placed in our windows, and hoisted over our heads. Gone was the buzz, the hum of a city ready and waiting to win. Instead was a giant, unspoken, unrecognized space, of … something.

But its not about hockey, of course. We don’t get depressed over a simple game. We are well-adjusted, physically and socially active, emotionally intelligent adults.

Right?

And in case we didn’t ourselves recognize the absurdity of being sad about an immaterial, unsubstantial, game, the rest of our country, or rather, the whole world, and all the forces of its media, were unrelentingly blasting us with how desperately messed up we would be, if indeed we were sad about something so… so… menial.

As Rex Murphy of CBC’s, “The National,” said, we’d be “a pathetic pack of cowardly, destructive, losers.”

To be fair, he was referring to those fans who responded with violently inappropriate behavior in the aftermath of our loss, not the ones who were sitting at home, numbly staring at our TVs as we realized we in fact must be pathetic losers if the members of our so-called ‘Canuck Nation’ represented us by acting out in such childish ways.

And though we may not understand it, and though we may not be proud of it, the fact remains, that for whatever reason, it happened, and our whole province seems to be in some sort of dysfunctional grief process about it. For as many who’ve said they’ve “moved on,” the phrase is usually spoken in a terse, “we’re done with this conversation,” tone, which to me, always implies that perhaps they haven’t really moved on but would prefer not to remember it. And that’s okay, of course. Moving on is healthy. Moving on shows balance.

I tentatively put up my hand and admit it: I haven’t quite moved on, yet. I will, but for now, I am still a little bit sad. It doesn’t pervade everything I do, of course, but its there. So, either I am not in my right mind – which I am sure many of you agree with, since let’s face it, I haven’t been in my right mind for a long time! – or, it may be, just possibly, that its not ‘just a game.’

Yes, I said it. And, I believe it. And, before you click your browser button away from this page, let me explain.

Those of you who knew my dad, well, he was very, very vocal about his love of spectator sports. He often embarrassed me with his overt displays of passion growing up. For a couple of years in high school I was a stats manager for the basketball team – I know, the reasons to call me a dork just keep piling up, don’t they? – and he and mom followed me to games, along with all the other parents, making their support for our team very well known. They stood up and cheered for well-placed shots, then twisted their fists and yelled at the refs for perceived-unfair calls.

And of course, there was my dad’s trademark line. Some of you guys can say it with me right now. Ready? Here we go: “Ref!!! What’s wrong with you? Do you need my glasses?”

I can still see him doing this – each time, taking off his glasses and holding them out as an offering, a statement of his disagreement with the stripes and their whistles, or, occasionally, their lack of whistles.

He wasn’t too unlike Roger Neilson, the former Canuck head coach whose-now-copper-immortalized-display – in front of the building where our Canucks play – of a white towel on top a hockey stick, became a symbol of protest and united challenge to the powers that be, that we aren’t dumb enough to think that everything will be fair, nor blind enough to assume that everything that is done to us, we deserve.

No wonder my dad loved the Canucks so much. That was just, so, him.

My grandpa was also a diehard, multi-tasking Canucks fan/armchair coach, watching the TV, reading a newspaper, and listening to the radio all at the same time, while calling out his suggestions to the players and management, lovingly criticizing the players he perceived to have Jekyll-and-Hyde performances: “Who do we get tonight, Lanie?” He’d ask. “Jyrki Lumme? Or Jerky Lumme?” In recent years, his eyes would shut and he’d shake his head violently, complaining repeatedly that Brian Burke had insisted on getting us the “sisters.”

If he could see those award-winning-yet-still-unpredictable “sisters,” now.

How appropriate that these two die-hard fans – my dad and my grandpa – died within eight months of each other. They weren’t blood related in the slightest, but seeing them together, lunching at Tim Horton’s and cruising around town, beefing about all things Vancouver, laughing uproariously and telling the craziest jokes, over and over and over until we’d beg them to stop, most people thought they were genetically linked.

And, whether our family would like to say so or not, the Vancouver Canucks were one of those things that brought these two patriarchs of the family so close together.

It hasn’t been the same since these two “peas in a pod,” have been gone. Our family has been splintered, missing the centers of optimism and laughter, wondering what we do now that our favorite fun people have moved on to a much better place.

I’ve often joked that I could literally “hear” my dad and grandpa talk to me sometimes. I don’t admit that to everyone, since they would think I’m developing a psychosis that must be Canuck-related – since hockey is apparently a bad thing, now – but these past two months its as if they were right there, again. That they were waving their towels with me as we scraped past Chicago, Kesler-bombed Smashville, and Boom-Boom-Bieksa’d over the Sharks. If they could only see us now, I would think. And it was that kind of thinking that my fifteen-year-long BFF, the loyal, fun, and fiesty-Mrs. Jana Hollinshead, was able to use to pull me up off the proverbial band-wagon jump I did after Game 5 of the Chicago series; she told me that my dad would have been severely disappointed if I gave up now. She told me, that being the sole Canuck in a family full of obnoxious Oilers, my dad and I were her Canuck family, and it was irresponsible of me to leave her all alone.

She was very persuasive.

I know you’re chuckling over that. Cute, silly, whatever you think it to be, it might be a seed of something that could be incredibly, overwhelmingly important to the whole of our society. Really.

Because, I’m starting to think, its not just a game, at all.

Stick with me, here.

Anthropological studies imply that sports were originally constructed to train young boys for the adult requirements of war, to instill in them the sense that they were warriors, to teach them to band together and defeat their enemies as a team; to help them conquer, together. Modern sport psychology supports this theory, that in times – or countries – of peace, our sports heroes are our warriors.

Many enlightened, higher-thinking individuals of developed countries like our own would dismiss this idea of “sports-as-war,”declaring any who think so as base or immature. But it is hard to argue that the fiercest fans tend to be in cities and with teams that need something positive to cheer for, desperately.

Take, for example, the Philadelphia Eagles, whose rags-to-riches story was captured in the movie Invincible. For those living in the home of cheese-steak in the economic decline of the late 1970’s, the Eagles – and likely the Phillies and Flyers too – became representatives of themselves, providing proof that they can be more than the struggles of economy or frustration of failure. It was following the worst Eagles season on record that local bartender, Vince Papale, joined the struggling NFL franchise and led them to a new season of – though not immediate winning – a sense of triumph, all the same. Just ask any Philly fan who is old enough to remember the Eagles of the late 70s/early 80s, and you’ll see it wasn’t just the players that felt hope and optimism with their NFL franchise’s turn-around – it was also the community of Philadelphia, as a whole.

Another movie demonstrating the community-rebounding ability of sports, Invictus, chronicles the country-redefining power of South Africa’s hosting the Rugby World Cup in 1995, mere months after dismantling the legal racial segregation in their country known as apartheid. John Carlin’s book about this event is aptly subtitled, The Game That Changed a Nation. Because, in Africa, sport, namely, rugby, or soccer, too, is not just a game. As The Zimbabwean newspaperwrote on September 6, 2010, “(here… sport)… is an extravaganza, a celebration of life, full of noise, colour and energy, both on and off the pitch.” Simply put, it gave them something to be excited about, something to cheer for, to hope for, together.

And how could we forget the emotional explosion of hope that filled the city of New Orleans whe the Saints won Superbowl XLIV, only a few years after Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped the entire city out? Even this past off-season, the NFL itself has acknowledged the community-building power of its Louisiana franchise. Despite the fact that the Saints organization is currently losing money, the league has refused to relocate. Even those motivated often primarily by money are choosing to recognize the significance a sports team can have to an entire city in need of daydreams, of promise.

My critical-thinking friends will challenge this suggestion, particularly those whose passions run to other diversions, whose talents are wrapped up in things other than sports. We often recognize the power of the arts to develop a city’s emotional expression, to enrich the beauty or depth of their culture. We recognize the fun in diversions such as board games, reading, and physical activity. But how could following a professional sports team be that significant to the potential health of an entire city, especially a city as diverse as Vancouver, let’s say? How could a metropolis so blessed with beauty and a wealth of social activities, be benefited by a mere hockey franchise, by a game that many consider to be less about skill and more about violence?

Except, its not about the game. At all.

Rather, it might be that the game is really a fundamental expression of the battles we fight in our everyday lives. Somehow in following a common team through their ups and downs, we are able to come together and emphatically declare, we will not be overcome.

Based on the media speculation following the Vancouver riots, it seems that in Canada, we seem to feel above this degree of sport-team devotion. One article termed Vancouver’s preoccupation with its Canucks “pathological,” “tribal,” and “primitive.” We’re too quick-witted and mature for this, aren’t we? We’re too rational, reasonable, and controlled, to care about something this base. We’re above this.

Pfft. Hogwash.

We like to think we are a free, peaceful, polite country. And we are, for the most part. But that does not mean we are without major, societal concerns. The drug-infused culture of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver is a devastating example of such problems. The hidden-but-regrettably-real presence of human trafficking, and the resulting unfortunate prevalence of sex trade workers – or shall we say it bluntly? slaves – is a deep concern in our city. Not only these issues, but the growing economical concerns of British Columbia, combined with our exponentially-rising-cost-of-living, produces a culture whose late teens and early twenties worry over finding a job, period, let alone a job that pays enough to live on, and let alone a career that supports the possibility of ever owning property. Not only are vacations becoming more and more out of reach for all those but the upper class, but the prospect of simple road trips are also significantly hampered by the insanely high cost of gas.

And let’s not forget the increasing road rage over our packed-sardine style of traffic.

We may rightly call those who started the riots morons, over-privileged white people who need some serious discipline for their criminal behavior. For sure, there are many professional rioters who anticipated the opportunity to steal-and-resell items of interest following Game 7 in Vancouver and traveled here solely for that purpose. And even those who got caught up in the emotional contagion of the crowd produced behavior that was outright criminal. And yes, they deserve to pay the consequence for this behavior. Our society wouldn’t function without the enforcement of laws that protect our community.

But our society also won’t function in an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, in a segregation of what we consider ‘good people vs. bad people.’ Sure, a physical separation from harmful people may be necessary. But this mental division, this thought that, that could never be me, is not helpful. Because maybe, if we were really honest with ourselves, we’d recognize that, given the right circumstances, we’re all capable of of such horrifying violence.

And whether we understand it or not, I believe that is why we feel such shame, such responsibility. Because some of those who called themselves us, some of those who joined in with the slogan of “We are all Canucks,” acted out in a very destructive, harmful, and criminal way. As my fellow-writer-friend, Jay, says: “We are all Canucks,” became “We are all Cavemen.” And my mother added: “Nasty Cavemen, at that.” Like it or not, that night was still a part of who we, as a community around this city, really are. Ugly, embarrassing, and captured on international cameras. But there, and part of us.

We are quick to say, “That’s not my Vancouver,” and in a sense, we’re right. But maybe what we’re really trying to say, is, “That’s not who I really want my Vancouver to be,” or “That’s not who I think my Vancouver can be.”

We are quick to distance ourselves, I think, largely because the world is pointing their finger and laughing at us losers. We are desperately fighting for our reputation. And we should, but unfortunately, the reality is, that most people will judge us no matter what we do. Especially now.

Because, it was just a game, after all.

And that’s what bothers me most: that many writers, reporters, and residents of Vancouver themselves, are now suggesting that because we rioted over the Canucks, the Canucks themselves – and our allegiance to hockey or sport in general – must also be bad. That our only way to heal from this is to pull back from our national past-time and seriously question why we get so involved. That our over-involvement is a sign of a lack of personal health.

Hmm. Maybe, but maybe not. In fact, the answer may be just the opposite.

Studies in sport-fan psychology – yes, such a discipline does exist! – suggest that not only does a fan’s team bring them a sense of identity and self-esteem, but explain that “an intense interest in a team can actually buffer people from depression and foster feelings of self-worth,” (Dev Ashish, Analyst for the Bleacher Report, Sept 26, 2008). They claim that sports allow fans a sense of escapism, not only from the struggles of daily life, but the expectations of social inhibition, allowing them to express themselves freely and lash out at opponents without being ostracized for their behavior. In fact, the freer their expression, the more they seem part of the community.

That’s right, the community. For psychologists also suggest that many people find a sense of belonging and acceptance in following a sports team that they haven’t found elsewhere in life.

We’d dismiss this as trivial, except that many of us are already well connected, in churches, in charities, in social groups, in work environments, in our families and friends. Its easy to disclaim the importance of the community of sports fans when we already have a community to support us in other arenas.

The sad truth, is that most of the world doesn’t feel connected.

I’ll never forget the moment my husband was ‘hooked’ into Canuck Nation. It was November 3, 2009, and we’d been offered box tickets to the Canucks-Rangers game at Rogers Arena. In the third period, the score tied, the Rangers initiated a bench-emptying brawl ending with three of their players literally sitting on top of Ryan Kesler. When Kesler got up, of course, he was given the penalty.

The building was in an uproar. After all, those of you Canuck faithfuls, will remember exactly why we hate New York. Think June 14, 1994. Game 7, Stanley Cup Finals. The final scoreboard read 3-2 New York. There were 2 disallowed Canuck goals that night. In our heads, it was 4-3 Vancouver.

But that’s not what the records show.

But, I digress, silly Canuck fan that I am.

Back to 2009: Only moments after Kesler’s questionable penalty, the Canucks responded with the go-ahead-and-eventual-game-winning-goal. And in those moments, the entire 18,000 of us at Rogers Arena jumped to our feet, electric with excitement. High-fives all around, the guy in front of me yelled, “You take that, New York!” Another one turned to me, high-fived and shouted with his hands above his head, “We will not go quietly!” It may have only been one, regular season game, but to many of us who were there, to those who remembered with frightening clarity the spring of 94, it represented payback, or victory, for something over 15 years old.

On the Skytrain-ride home, my husband grinned at me. “This is awesome,” he said. “I made so many new friends tonight. It’s like you’re part of a new family or something. I love it!”

Kind of appropriate that he bought me Kesler’s jersey for Christmas that year, isn’t it?

When I opened it, he looked at me uncertainly. We hadn’t talked about if I had a favorite player or anything, if there was a specific number I wanted to wear. It had been a long time since I owned a Canuck jersey, and then it was one of those flying skate versions with Cliff Ronning’s number 7 on the back. Ever since Ronning had left the team, I had had great difficulty identifying with another favorite. So, David guessed.

And he told me he guessed Kesler, because, no matter how many times I get sat on and given the penalties of life, I get back up and fight too. He said he wanted me to know that it didn’t matter what was thrown at me – even cancer, even persecution – I wore the number of a player who represented resiliency. The number of a player who reminded us of that night that we felt like a part of a new community.

The past two months, this community has only grown stronger, louder, bigger, and more confident. We let our repressed-Canadian-nature be overwhelmed by our enthusiasm for something, but it wasn’t about hockey at all.

It was about each other.

I can’t count the number of amazing people I talked to solely as a result of the Canucks run to the cup, incredible people I likely would never have connected with otherwise but am so glad our hockey team gave me a reason to do so. People of faith, people of no faith, those who love Vancouver and hate it, musicians, athletes, cool people and geeks, hey, even some Americans from the Pacific Northwest – I mean, even my in-laws were cheering us on enthusiastically! – we all came together for a season.

A wonderful, beautiful season.

So, really, the last thing we need to do is run away from the thing that brought us together. If anything, we need to stick together even stronger now. Talk about what happened, admit we’re a little sad, both about the game and our unfortunately international loss of at least some of our reputation. Laugh about it, find the good, put the bad behind us, and move forward. That doesn’t happen by flipping a switch, or denying our Canuck-nature, or our city’s-intensity.

It actually happens by reaching out to those people around you and finding some point of connection with them all over again, whatever that is. We live in community. We die in isolation. There’s no way I would defeat – or at least give a heck of a challenge to – cancer without the community of neighbors, family, friends, without people like you, that actually take time out of your day to read what I have to say and make sure things are going okay, and if they’re not, asking what you can do about it. Even the fact that you might think about what’s going on with me, makes me feel stronger and more capable of tackling this very big, very challenging enemy, that actually lives inside of me.

And, really, that’s just a reminder that there is an enemy that lives inside of all of us. Something that is really big and ugly and threatens to come out every now and then. It is by grace that we escape the worst parts of ourselves. Perhaps then, we could extend a bit of that grace to those of our community who let the ugly parts show.

Perhaps, too, the rest of the world will eventually extend that grace to us. Its not as though sports riots are unique to Vancouver. Montreal, the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup, rioted after they won. Los Angeles, Detroit, the UK, Australia, are all familiar with rioting. And, lest we think that we were bettered by our Cup final opponents not only on but also off the ice, let us not forget that the city of Boston themselves rioted only three short years ago, after their Celtics won. And, someone died in that riot. As far as I know, no one died in Vancouver as a result of the events of June 15th.

That’s kind of a sign of grace right there, right? An experience of mercy that our juvenile actions didn’t result in the ultimate destruction, the loss of human life. Because, based on what I saw, that could have happened.

And, if we could accept that, as Lord of the Flies so devastatingly displayed, we are all capable of great violence, we may be more motivated to protect our community and reputation by challenging those with inappropriate behavior. Ironically, riot psychology shows that those who riot over sports may be best subdued by fellow fans, that the riot itself may be best defeated and diffused by those inside the riot circle. Psychologists suggest that if the instigators recognize that those same members of the community who embraced them for their fan-dom, are now rejecting their inappropriate reactions, they may modify their behavior accordingly.

They certainly won’t modify their behavior if we’re all filming it as though it is a worthy spectacle.

Some brave souls did manage to step in to the tragedy on the evening of June 15th. Many of them were injured in some way, for participation in anything will expose us to potential pain. But if we did step in, enough of us, could we have perhaps stopped – or at least curbed – the negative behavior, before it got overwhelmingly out-of-hand?

I don’t know, of course. Sometimes, stepping in is unwise and unsafe. And, even when it would be wise, or when I really should do it, I’m not sure I would – or will – be strong enough to do it. But I want to be strong enough. Because this is something I’m a part of. Humanity is something I’m a part of. I need to fight not only for myself, but for them too.

This isn’t what we live for, like the slogan said, not really. But it does make life a little more fun. And it makes our city a little more connected. In the world of iPhones, iPads, and a generation increasingly mediated through an explosion of electronic devices, the physical screams of a city over a game is a welcome sense of positive mayhem, a cathartic way of expressing our inner geeks, and thinking, we can do this. Together. As David told me often this past week, “I miss the high-fives.” He’s referring to the phenomenon that after every Canuck win, you can walk the streets of Vancouver – or heck, even Abbotsford – and high-five every other person wearing blue and green, bringing you connection with those you barely even know.

So bring on the blue and green.

Or, bring on anything that brings a sense of togetherness in an increasingly fractured culture. That we rioted over a game indicates that there is so much more there. Instead of hiding what it might mean, or shaming it, what if we reached out and tried to heal it?

We could put our city back together. We will put our city back together. How can we not?

Appropriately enough, today, the sun is out, and, miraculously in Vancouver, it feels like summer is finally here. Our grief is coming to a close, or at least to the stage of acceptance. Hockey – and hopefully the cold – is behind us, and a new season is about to start. But let’s not forget what these sixty-plus-days showed us. Let’s keep finding new ways to bring our community together. Whether its our minor league baseball team, our new MLS franchise, the Grey-Cup-hosting BC Lions… we need to engage with our city, not disperse. Whether we play beach volleyball, bike the seawall, take the kids to the Aquarium or zoo, let’s be part of this great place to live. Whether our involvement centers around Settlers of Catan, community BBQ’s, Jazz Festivals, long-weekend-fruit-picking, ice-cream eating contests, or impromptu neighborhood kids basketball games…

Let’s get out there and play.

Because these aren’t just games. They are representations of who we are. They are rallying points for our city, for our common goals as humankind, to look at the impossible and say, hey, maybe I can do it. And if I don’t, that’s okay too. There’s next time. Next time I’ll be better. As long as we’re in ultimate competition with ourselves, and not just concerned with being better than everyone around us, we bring out the best, in us and in others. And when we see our fellow men and women acting less than themselves, less than we wish our city, or our neighborhood to be, lets not cast stones, point fingers, or distance ourselves. Lets jump in and steer them back to what it means to be ‘good sports.’

Because they are good – sports, that is. And, we can be better.

Did you hear that? We can be better.

See you next year, Boston.

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