A friend of mine, who is not a hockey fan, asked me yesterday, "Do you believe your team is going to win the Stanley Cup?" Of course, I scoffed at the notion and answered the Habs haven't even made the playoffs yet and if they do, it's pretty likely at least ten of the other teams that qualify will be better than they are. My friend then asked, "Why are you rooting so hard for them to win these games then?" That's a harder question to answer.
Pride among fans is a factor, naturally. We want to be able to say to leafs and Bruins fans that at least our team made the playoffs. Our degree of frustration at not winning a Cup is therefore lower than yours whose favourites didn't even appear in the post-season. Part of it is habit. We cheer because we are conditioned to cheer. If Pavlov's dogs salivated at the sound of a bell, we salivate at the Sens in the Bell. Eternal hope comes into it too. We hope the team makes it and we hope they get the right combination of luck and big performances when it counts. We hope they'll surprise us. But believe? That's a little word with big implications. It's hard to admit, "Yes, I believe," out loud, when your team isn't the 'Hawks or the Caps, without looking at least a little sheepish.
Belief is a powerful thing in sports. It's what empowers a little man to face down a huge defenceman and win the battle. It's what prompts a team to tap a goalie on the pads after a bad shot goes in because they have no doubt he'll shut the door afterwards. It's what binds a group of players with individual interests into a single unit with a common purpose and, like the old parable about a single stick being easy to snap while a bundle can't be broken, a unified team is hard to beat. Belief is a weapon difficult for an opponent to defeat, but it doesn't come cheap. If players or fans truly believe in a team, it means they're exposing themselves emotionally. It's easy to say, "I hope the team wins, but it'd take a miracle," not so easy to say, "I believe in miracles." Believing means investing a little bit of yourself in the team's fortunes and taking down the protective barriers of cynicism and skepticism. When a team you truly believe in comes up short, it hurts a lot more than one about which you can say, "Oh well, I didn't expect anything better."
Last year, if my friend had asked me whether I believed the Habs would win the Stanley Cup, I would have answered, unequivocally, NO! I hoped they'd make the playoffs to avoid the shame of missing out after winning the conference the year before, but there was no belief in that bleak hope. This year is different. Maybe it's because the team tries so much harder and seems to care about its individual players more than last year. Maybe it's the cockeyed optimism we feel in an Olympic year after watching our athletes strive for gold and actually bring it home. This year I can't say I DON'T believe. It'll take a couple of more wins with some convincing performances, but I'm starting to believe anything can happen once they're in. When I think about why I'm watching every game with such hope and every result means so much, I realize there must be at least a kernel of belief in there somewhere. A person can't root this hard for a team in which it's impossible to believe. That's a start.
Perhaps ten games from now, when my friend asks me whether I believe the Habs will win the Cup, I can say it out loud.