There Is A Difference: The 2013-14 Conference III Opening Essay

by J.R.

The Classic & The Classical

There is a difference in the classic and the classical.

In Episode One of the excellent The Story Of Film: An Odyssey, director Mark Cousins makes this clear.

In Hollywood, the classic is represented by films like Casablanca. Soft focus. Beautiful people. Their struggles are as tough as any, but the stories are easy. They are touchstones of our experience. They are what we think of when we think of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The classical is different.

The classical’s themes are no less unknown to us. The classical is full of tales of hubris, young ambitious Icarus flying too close to the sun and melting away. The classical is Oedipus fighting his whole life against the foreordained, his highest highs slain by a mechanism triggered into motion before his birth and steady as the slow freight train, rolled to its only destination.

CasablancaIn Casablanca, Rick loses his love to a war and to circumstances he decides to ignore. He sends Isla with Laszlo, his heart broken on that airstrip. A hero made, the better good served. The beginning of a beautiful friendship with the delightfully duplicitous Renault.

In The Oresteia, Aeschylus gives us no such succor. Agamemnon loses Clytemnestra when he goes to war. She falls not just for another man, not for a hero to his people like Laszlo, but for her husband’s cousin, the villainous Aegisthus.

And when Agamemnon returns, there’s no happy ending. He doesn’t send his wife to live her life with her new love, nor does Clytemnestra eschew a regrettable affair and return to her husband. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus kill Agamemnon, the great warrior who did not falter at Troy, by trapping him a web of cloth and deceit and stabbing him in the bath.

Agamemnon was no great treat himself. He brought home a lover, too. Cassandra waited in the chariot, screaming about her vision of a murder forthcoming, but no one would listen.

And there are plenty of Cassandras in hockey — their predictions of doom falling on deaf ears, because we want to live the classic in a classical world.

We want the boy to get the girl or failing that to lose her heroically. We don’t want him to lose it all, straining against a trap of his own creation, dead in the tepid water of the bath, pinking from his blood, the prophetess wailing in the chariot.

587px-Gérin_Clytemnestre_hésitant_avant_de_frapper_Agamemnon_endormi_Louvre_5185Know this: there will be classic moments in this season. There will be moments of transcendent beauty and stories of unlikely heroes. They will be legion and our hearts will leap.

But this is Conference III, where misfits roam and fight in odd little outposts. Where petty kings are lofted legends and those same kings are trapped and trapped to death, usually on a Tuesday night against Calgary when a squeaker takes a bounce on sloppy ice, sending a deflated crowd into a night cold but snowless — all the trouble of beauty but with no beautiful payoff.

Leave the classic to Atlantic and the Metropolitan, where the ancient teams skate easily with the beautiful ones. Where a camera in soft focus track Sidney Crosby like a paparazzo following Clark Gable. Leave it to the Pacific, because it’s all Hollywood and sunshine.

Embrace the classical in Conference III. The lessons are hard earned but the lessons are worth it. When the beauty comes out of the grey, it’s more striking and more stunning and you can love it harder and love it well and love it wrong, because living in the classical, you know it’s fleeting, but you start to forget that every time you leap from your seat and it’s erased totally when you sit back down.

The Forgettable & The Forgotten

Forget_me_notThere is a difference in the forgettable and the forgotten.

We talk about forgettable seasons and when we do, we usually are talking about the mediocre ones or the ones filled with despair. But those seasons stick with us. They are what makes us. They are why the joys are so ebullient. They are not forgettable; they are formative.

Great runs of success can be forgettable. Ask an Alabama football fan to name all the national title years or a Yankee fan to rattle off every World Series. They will skip one — one dynasty melts into the next until Joe Namath is playing with Don Hutson and Don Mattingly is wearing a ring.

The human brain can only sustain so much information. The human soul can sustain so much more frustration.

To be forgotten is different. To be forgotten is to be ignored, a passive response that stands opposed to the active response of forgetting.

Conference III was not by design. It was by lack of it. The other 23 teams were cut into their easy pies or their odd ones — the Atlantic is proof the NHL was making calculations, for its goofy borders belie a cold accounting.

What was left was us — the continent’s Great Middle.

Conference III contains a massive amount of land, touching the Arctic’s icy shores and languid sands of Savannah. The snow of the Rockies trickles down to the Missouri and to the Mississippi, the puck making the same sound in Nunavut it does in West Texas. The wind rustles the wheat in Winnipeg the same way it blows onto Lake Michigan. A guitar playing the blues in St. Louis isn’t so different from one plucking out the opening chords of train songs in Nashville.

In the middle is where our countries and the world come to be fed — their bellies filled with our grain and our greens and our beef and our bacon. Their thirst satiated by our water and our beer and our whiskey. Their souls by our writers and our singers and our preachers and our geniuses.

And their Cup, too, is filled with the names of the men we cheer and, now more than ever before, the men who, like us, fought against being forgettable in a forgotten land.

We’ve no choice but to be forgotten. We can fight against being forgettable.

The Tribe & The Family

There is a difference in the tribe and the family.

NHL-CentralWe are left without a choice as to the latter. We’re stuck with them by virtue of genetics. Family is not just a construct. Every creature has a family. The mighty raccoon clings to his, scraping an existence, just as a salaryman or a farmer does. Even a clutch of flowers or a stand of trees are connected by shared DNA.

Conference III is, in ways, a family. None of us were asked if we’d like to be thrown in with each other. It was decided on high, dictated by geography and time zones and pressure from Detroit.

Our teams are joined by forces we can’t control. They are a family. An ugly one, at times. A hateful one at worst. A dysfunctional one, if we’re being generous. They are a family.

But we — we in the stands, we in front of the TVs — we are a tribe.

We don’t always understand each other. In Winnipeg and Minnesota, where hockey is pervasive, it’s hard to understand Nashville or Dallas, where we’ve had to fight for existence and for recognition and for a moment on the radio. In Chicago, where the success in recent years is magnificent or in St. Louis where the playoffs were often a birthright, it is hard to understand why people would spend and travel and cheer and hurt for teams whose fortunes are as foreordained as Oedipus’. But we chose this.

We opted into this. We cast our lot, despite all the reasons not to do it.

IMG_0143_2There are Chicagoans who shudder at the mention of Bill Wirtz, but they stayed with him. There are old St. Louis men who remember when the Blues almost left for Saskatoon and nearly everyone in a gold sweater in Nashville remembers digging in their heels and clinging to the northbound Predators with all their might. Minnesotans smart at the name of Norm Green and people in Dallas — who may love Green — and people in Colorado know that teams can leave just as they come. And Winnipeg may still be in its joy — hockey returned — but Winnipeg still looks at the rafters and sees memories of the old Jets.

And none of us are so young or so naive that we’ve forgotten the lockouts. We are stung by this sport but we stay. We could leave anytime, but we don’t. This is our choice.

And they, those 23 skating below us or flickering out from the tube, they are our avatars for this tribe we’ve chosen.

In the traditional construction, families make up tribes — those who are bound together by fate bind with others by choice.

In Conference III, we reverse: those who are bound by choice were bound by factors beyond their control.

There is a difference.