I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife. This may seem like a strange way to start off a hockey article but it’s central to everything else I’m going to say. I think we exist for a limited amount of time, and then we don’t, and that’s kind of just it. And because I think that, I spend a lot of time thinking about time. If you believe that every life has a definite end point, past which nothing else happens, it becomes very important to make sure that you’re using whatever time you have in a way that adds some kind of value or meaning. Any time I use up I can never get back, so I don’t want to spend my life doing things I’ll later wish I hadn’t spent so much time on. That is to say that I find myself frequently thinking about a question that sports fans often ask – “Why am I doing this?”
Normally that’s meant as a rhetorical question, but I mean it sincerely – why do I watch hockey? Out of all the things I could possibly be doing with my time, not to mention my emotional energy, I choose to spend a lot of it on hockey. What do I expect to get out of that?
I have often thought about how professional team sports seem to be structured to make the people who watch them unhappy. The point of team sports is to win the annual championship, but every year most teams lose. There are 31 teams in the NHL. 32 in the NFL. 30 in the NBA and MLB. So 97% of teams don’t win each season, meaning 97% of fan bases go home disappointed.
But this is absurd. Why should anyone pick a hobby where they expect to spend 97% of their life being disappointed? The only logical answer has to be: winning a championship isn’t the only way to have fun.
On some level I think anyone who watches sports already knows this. Why does anyone tune into the regular season at all, if the only thing that matters is the post-season championship? If the regular season games don’t mean anything, why spend 10-12 hours a week, every week, for decades on end, watching them? The answer is of course that we’re not just watching to see who wins the championship. The championship gives the whole thing structure but it doesn’t give it meaning. The meaning is what happens along the way.
I’m going to talk about the Toronto Maple Leafs for a minute, since after all it’s tonight’s playoff game that got me to write this to begin with.
The Toronto Maple Leafs currently have the NHL’s best goal scorer. They have one of the top few passers in the world. They have a goalie who’s easy to cheer for, and who’s done nothing but stop pucks all year. And they have a lot of other good players on top of that. All season long we’ve been watching those players do fun things. Every highlight reel goal, every great Jack Campbell save, every game they won, those moments were all fun to watch, and they all mattered.
Remember when Jack Campbell won his 10th straight game, and Mitch Marner counted off the wins with him?
That tweet got thousands of Likes. It was an awesome moment. It was fun to watch. And it mattered. Even if the Leafs lose to Montreal tonight, even if the season ends in crushing defeat, that doesn’t do anything to change the fact that we all watched that moment and had fun doing it.
Maybe you don’t agree with that, and that’s fair enough. No one is under any obligation to share my world view. But let me ask you this: If you don’t agree, if you think none of those things matter, why are you watching? And I don’t mean that rhetorically: what is your reason for watching if you’ve already decided that nothing you see can make you happy? Why choose to spend your life on a hobby that will make you 97% disappointed?
There are a huge array of things I could do with my time instead of watching hockey. For example, I love playing music. Just about every day I play guitar, and every time I do I feel great. Whether I’m writing a new song, or playing a classic, or noodling away on something random, there is just something about playing guitar that makes me happy. So why watch hockey when I could spend that time playing guitar, which I know will make me happy, instead? Why spend some of my incredibly limited amount of time in this universe watching a game that I expect will make me 97% disappointed? The only possible answer is that it has to be fun all along the way, not just at the end.
Some fans will nod sagely and say “I’m too smart to let myself get sucked into believing they’ll win”, but that’s like picking up a DVD of Lord of the Rings, turning to the room and saying, “You know, I’m not willing to suspend disbelief. Dragons and magic are impossible”, and then putting on the DVD anyway. And then doing it again and again, several times a week, for the rest of your life. Of course, no one is under any obligation to spend 3 hours letting themselves believe in magic. And indeed, many people won’t watch fantasy movies for precisely that reason. But it would be absurd to engage in this ritual, over and over again, and every time you do it you turn to the people in the room and tell them you’re too cool to believe in what you’re about to see. Letting yourself get sucked into believing is the whole point. There is no Lord of the Rings if you can’t believe in magic. And so it is for hockey, too.