When I was a kid, my brothers, our friends and I spent most of our waking hours outdoors. We had a grassy meadow behind our house, and every summer my youngest brother would build a cabin there, only to tear it down every fall and start over again the following summer. It started out as a simple lean-to the first year. Then it developed four walls and a flat roof. Then he learned how to build a peaked roof. In its final incarnation the cabin had a loft and built-in furniture, painted with the leftover sky-blue a neighbour kindly donated after re-doing his living room. That summer was the best year of the cabin. My brother and his buddies had a great time building it. I spent rainy days inside it, sitting at the little crooked table, creating my own hockey league.
I dragged my brothers and about four friends into the league as well, but it was really my baby. I re-named all the NHL teams (I remember the Hartford Insurance Salesmen being one stellar example) and designed uniforms for them. Then I designed a draft system for stocking the teams, which included the automatic assignment of each fantasy GM's favourite player to their rosters before anything else happened. Then everyone picked their franchise (mine, of course, was the Montreal Black Aces, with very sharp red and black uniforms) and stocked it with players. This process took up a good part of the summer, with many revisions, trades, logo re-designs and, most often, lineup creation games. We'd prepare for imaginary matches against each other, setting the lines to exploit or shut down those of our opponents, while the other kids debated who'd win based on our line combos: "No way Carbonneau keeps Gretzky from scoring!" "Yeah, but Carbo's got Hawerchuk on his line, and he'll even it out." "No way you can do that! Hawerchuk's a centre too!"
I was thinking about the cabin and our hockey league the other day, and it made me laugh, because grown-up hockey fans do the same thing exactly, no matter how old they are.
Remember four years ago, about this time? The Canadiens announced they'd signed a European player in whom several NHL teams had interest. The rumour was he'd all but decided to go with the Capitals when the Habs swept in and beat George McPhee to him. Canadiens fan sites on the internet exploded with enthusiasm as people posted their dream lineups featuring the 6'2", 200-pounder described as "the Finnish Claude Lemieux" and having a "similar style to Eric Cole," prominently among the starters. That player was Janne Lahti.
Of course, as it turned out, Lahti played 65 games for the Hamilton Bulldogs and none for the Habs. He put up 18 points in the AHL and went quietly back home to Finland at season's end. The reality was such a disappointment after so many fans had been hoping he'd be at least a good third-liner, and pencilled him in accordingly.
Now we're doing the same thing with Alexei Yemelin. The Habs finally signed him yesterday for a reasonable cap hit of just under a million bucks. If he makes the team, and can contribute significantly, he'll be a bargain. If he doesn't, he's got a clause in his new contract that allows him to go back to Russia rather than take a huge pay cut to play in Hamilton. It's a rare provision for an entry-level contract, but its existence means neither Yemelin nor team management are absolutely convinced he's ready to play in the NHL.
Yet, Canadiens fans, full of hope and excitement in the early stages of a very long, dry off-season, already see him starting the year on the Habs' blueline. The truth is, most of us know very little about the guy. We know he's grown physically since his draft year, and now reportedly weighs in at 220 pounds to go with his 6'1". We know he's got a reputation for walking (and sometimes crossing) a fine line between rough and downright dirty play, highlighted by three seasons in the KHL with more than a hundred penalty minutes apiece. We know he's found a bit more offense this year than he's ever shown, racking up 11 goals and 15 assists in 52 games. And we know that, although he made the Russian national team for the recent world championships, he didn't play a prominent or even a really noticeable role.
There's a lot more we don't know. Most of us have never seen him play in the KHL, or at least not for a whole game. We don't know if his speed and aggression will translate to the NHL, or if he'll be able or willing to play within Jacques Martin's system. Unlike a North American prospect, we actually have very little to go on when it comes to judging his ability to play or adapt on and off the ice. He's a mystery, really. Yet, there he is, paired with Andrei Markov or P.K.Subban in the majority of fans' fantasy line combos.
We do this because it's fun to dream in the summer. It's cool to think our team might finally have pulled one over on the rest of the league and brought in an important player without losing a thing. I just hope people don't crash too hard if it turns out that Yemelin is really just a serviceable sixth defenceman who likes to hit, or even isn't quite cut out for the NHL at all. The real anger and disappointment that comes in winter out of broken summer dreams is unfortunate.
Right now, with October still five months away, we can pretend Yemelin really is the solution to a bunch of the Habs' problems. We can imagine he'll be tough, mobile, a little bit crazy and able to pop a goal or two. We can hope he'll adapt well to North America and fit in with the team. That's because summer's all about pretending, whether it's a cabin in the meadow, a make-believe hockey league or the real Montreal Canadiens we love to manage in our minds.
I hope when the fall comes and it's time to pull the cabin down or accept the reality of the new player the Habs just signed, we're able to put the pretend away and move on without too great a burden of unrequited expectation.