Did you ever ask yourself, "Why am I a hockey fan?" Maybe you have, but it's probably more likely you haven't. You just are one. If you do think about it, though, you probably realize you fall into one of the two main categories of "fan." You are either a fan of the game itself, regardless of which team is playing, or you are a fan of a particular team, regardless of what kind of hockey it's playing. You may possibly fall into both camps, but there is a distinct divide in the way you approach them.
If you love the game of hockey, you probably enjoy the Olympics better than the NHL version. You can objectively watch a Pens/Sharks game and appreciate Crosby's skill and Thornton's seeing-eye passes without mocking Sid's whining or Jumbo's playoff chokage. It doesn't matter which team wins as long as the hockey is fast, exciting and skilled.
If you love a particular team, it's different. You are attached to that team win or lose, and, with the inevitability of loving just one team among thirty, losing happens much more often. As generations of players and fans before you have learned, losing isn't much fun. So: enter, the marketers.
The marketers give us a slick, fun, glossy reason to love a team even when it trades our favourite players away or misses the playoffs or hires coaches who make inexplicable decisions. The marketers manipulate our perceptions, stroking the loyalty we invested in a team as children and breathing continued life into its brittle adult incarnation. They deal in nostalgia and glory and emotion.
Marketers are able to create their castles in the sky because there's...unsurprisingly...a market for them. We want to believe miracles can happen. We're willing to ignore current player scandals, big-money contracts and cynicism in favour of basking in an air-brushed version of the glorious past. We warm to images of players as children, in their younger innocence, set to music that stirs our memory and our blood. We love highlight reels and dramatic symbolism in pre-game presentations. We're letting ourselves be manipulated. The funny paradox is we know we're being manipulated, in theory, but we don't want indisputable proof of the fact. We don't really believe in the Wizard, but we get angry if someone exposes the bald old man behind the curtain.
That's why it was so disappointing to find out this week that Andrei Kostitsyn's apparently exuberant gesture of throwing pucks to the adoring faithful after being named a game's first star was nothing more than a marketing ploy. The marketers decided throwing autographed pucks to fans would be a good way to keep bums in the seats while the Bell-sponsored stars are voted upon and announced. Bell's paying good money for the right to own the three stars, after all, so the company deserves to have fans stick around to hear the announcement. If throwing a few pucks keeps more people in the building longer, that's good for marketing.
The problem is, we like our illusions. If we think Andrei Kostitsyn is showing some genuine emotion and saying thanks to the fans with his puck toss, we warm up to him. Now that we know he's been told to do it, the gesture has lost its appeal. Not only does Kostitsyn remain as much an unknown entity as ever, but when the next player to get first star does it, throwing out the pucks will be tinged with cynicism.
The Canadiens' marketing team is the best in the business. Usually, they manipulate us in a very comfortable, subtle way. They make us feel warm and fuzzy while they sell us the sanitized version of the Habs we're willing to buy. They made a rare mistake with the three-star puck toss, however. By letting us believe Kostitsyn was making the gesture in honest celebration, we bought into an image we liked. The marketers now telling us that image was a fraud means the one they're really selling us is cheaper and less honest. They pulled back the curtain, and even though the old guy behind it might be a lovely gentleman, he's not the Wizard.
Sometimes, it's easier to love a game than a team, because even with all its flaws, a game is honest. Its outcome is undetermined every night, and can't be massaged into something it isn't. Loving a team means buying what the marketers sell, and sometimes, when they slip up, love just makes you a sucker.