I had never been much of one for sports as a child. I was small and uncoordinated, and tired easily compared to other kids. My parents quickly gave up on bringing me to play baseball as I just could not hit the ball. Along with and perhaps because of my lack of interest in playing sports, I also did not watch any sports.
Because of this, the idea of watching sports and particularly being a fan of a team or athlete was alien to me. I could not understand what the players on television had to do with me. Why should an athlete's success at a sport, which has no inherent value, influence my emotions? For every athlete that wins, there is at least one other who loses, and there was usually no reason for me to cheer on one over the other.
All the same, in 2009 I decided that watching sports would make me a more well rounded person. Sports are something you can talk to almost any male about, even when you meet him for the first time. But unlike most, I had the unique opportunity to shop around and choose which sport I wanted to watch. Most of us become interested in a sport because it's the sport we played or continue to play, and that sport is often the sport our father played. I am not one for getting into something that will take a significant amount of my time without research, and so I did my studying.
It was fate that provided me with a high school friend who was a diehard fan of the Leafs, obsessed with the pain of watching his team lose as all Leafs fans are. If not for him, I probably would not have watched any hockey as I tried to choose a sport to follow. As I watched some of the most popular sports in the US, including football, baseball, basketball, and golf, I decided that hockey was the most interesting one. I had skated as a child, and although I was never any good, I loved the feeling of gliding down the ice and the cold air biting my cheeks. Skating added an interesting dynamic and also sped up the game considerably. I was also interested in the team aspect of the game. Every player on the ice was crucial, and even though you had star players, no one or two players could carry a team the way basketball stars can. Even the best goalie needs to cooperate with his defense to have any chance at success. A well coached team could considerably outperform the sum of its parts, because of the team's cohesiveness and willingness to stick to the system. The relative success of the Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes come to mind. Finally, the fact that hockey player do not shy away from pain drew me to hockey. My friend recounted countless instances of hockey players playing through injuries, of taking hits, of getting back on the bench after having teeth pulled, of standing up for one's teammate. Hockey players have heart.
I also had the unique opportunity to choose a team to follow. I was lucky in that sense, especially compared to my friend the Leafs' fan. I may get flak for this, but I eventually settled on the Detroit Red Wings. Coming off a Stanley Cup run where they were one win away from taking the title, I was in some ways making an easy choice. All the same, I could have chosen the Penguins for the same reason. So I had other reasons for choosing the Red Wings. One was that I wanted to choose a team with a rich history. Obviously, only six teams can lay claim to the title of an Original Six team. Another reason was the Red Wings' management and ownership. I was impressed my the Ilitchs' dedication to the team, as well as the steady and intelligent guidance of Holland and the rest of the management. The third reason was the team's winning culture. By that I do not mean so much that they had recent success, but that the bar was set high. A Red Wing fan will often talk about how anything less than a trip to the conference final is a failure, and that every season the team should contend for the Cup. I think the players take that commitment to winning seriously. Quite honestly, some teams don't have that same drive to win. All players like to win, of course, but some of them do not want to make the extra sacrifice it takes to go all the way. The final reason was the players' and organizations class. I still do not quite understand how to define class, but it was evident in the way Lidstrom carried himself on the ice. It was evident in Yzerman's passing of the cup to Konstantinov. It is evident in the way the players do not take cheap shots, and the management's decision not roster a player who can't play NHL level hockey but can fight.
But choosing a sport did not instantly make me a hockey fan, and choosing the Red Wings did not instantly make me a Red Wings fan. First I had to understand how the game was played, and get familiar with the team. But what I did not expect was to experience some of the same emotions that I had seen other sports fans experience. Slowly, as I got to know the team, I started to get excited when the team won. I got angry when the referees made poor calls. I seethed when opposing teams made dirty hits. I was relieved when the buzzer sounded after a long minute defending six on five. I hated the shootout.
I learned that sports are not just about winning and losing. Sports are about stories. Sports are about players and teams facing overwhelming challenges and overcoming them. Sports are about people so passionate and dedicated to their art. As I watched Nick Lidstrom play game after game and make the same perfect plays over and over, I was amazed. As I watched Zetterberg and Datsyuk battle players that were three or four inches taller than them and 20 or thirty pounds heavier, I was amazed. As I watched Helm battle for the puck tirelessly on the penalty kill and throw himself in front of countless pucks, I was amazed. As I watched Osgood become a mentor and friend to the upcoming Howard without any jealousy or bitterness, I was amazed. As I watched Howard establish himself as a legitimate starting goalie after four years of toiling in the AHL, I was amazed. I am still amazed every time I hear about the 1997 and 1998 Wings.
Admittedly, the stories still occur in situations that are in many ways artificial. Immigrants move to new countries to feed their families and provide their children with better lives and education. Soldiers fight wars to protect their countries. Athletes play sports to... win? be the best at what they do? because they love to compete? But they do serve as symbols for what is possible when we have dedication and hope.
Still, the idea of a sports fan is still a strange concept for me, even as I have become one. And so I want to take the opportunity of the new season to try an experiment. I want to see what it's like to try to become a fan of a different team. There are many problems that could arise that I hope to encounter, many of which you can probably guess. I will see games where my new team and old are pitted against each other, maybe even in the playoffs. I will have to try to identify with the team even when it makes mistakes. I will have to continue to be a fan even if the team is unlikeable for numerous reasons, whether it is simply bad, or it has a reputation for dirty play or otherwise. I know that my experience cannot be representative, but I hope to discuss some interesting questions about what it means to be a sports fan. My first step will be to choose a team. I will try to choose a newer team that has not had recent success. My second will be to become familiar with the team and its history. After that, I will do what I can to follow it while still following the Red Wings for at least the remainder of the season. Hopefully this will be an interesting read for anyone who chooses to follow my experiment.