What a difference a year makes. This time last year, our biggest concern was whether Carey Price would justify the Jaroslav Halak trade. That seems such a trivial worry today. Last year, the silent ice lay like an unspoken promise, slumbering unblemished as we waited for the game-time drama to unfold. This year, what happens on the ice is far from our minds.
This summer, the deaths of three young men who died under shadows of depression and addiction haunt us. The announcements that Marc Savard won't play at all this year because of head trauma, and that Sidney Crosby's return is uncertain for the same reason, fill us with regret. And now, the very idea that an entire hockey team, more than thirty young men in the primes of their lives, with families, hobbies, loves, collections, pets, favourite songs, imaginations, tattoos, mothers, homes and dreams can be entirely wiped out in the breath of an instant horrifies us. This is a dark, dark summer.
One could argue it's been a dark year. The near-destruction of Max Pacioretty at the hands of hulking Zdeno Chara, and the NHL's subsequent virtual shrug, made many of us think hard about what we admire...and what we don't...about NHL hockey. The rash of concussions sustained by players on every team at every level has made us wonder if this is really the game with which we fell in love. The questions we've had to ask ourselves about why we're fans and why we continue to be are still unaswered for many of us. This summer's events have served to drain much of the enthusiasm for the coming season from even the most fervent of us.
In a way, though, the way we feel now might be a catalyst for the betterment of the sport, or at least the way we fans behave toward the sport and its practitioners. I know I can't blame Sidney Crosby for whining to the refs anymore, because I just want to see him play again. I can't hate the leafs because I think about the Minsk fans who probably hated to see Lokomotiv come to town, and now they're all dead. That stuff goes beyond hockey. That's real life, and as we know, sports are supposed to be an escape from real life. These athletes are supposed to be heroes who stand above our vices of addiction and depression and avoid our human tragedies. They're not supposed to die. This summer has proven they're not any of that. These players are people with the same needs and shortcomings as the rest of us, and that must change the way we, as fans, look at the game.
Now we know these guys are human beings who just happen to be really good at the game we love. That has to give us some perspective about what we expect of them. I know I don't want any of the Canadiens to goon it up until his brain is damaged or he becomes addicted to narcotics to handle the pain. I don't want any of them to sit at home feeling so inadequate and helpless that he becomes suicidal. At this point, whatever happens on the ice is secondary to making sure the young men who play for our team are healthy, happy and protected. That's a radical shift for a fan who used to only want a Cup, no matter what the cost.
It comes down to the fact that hockey is entertainment. Sure, we want to win, and Canadiens fans perhaps want to win more than anyone. This summer, however, we have learned we cannot satisfy our vicarious thirst for victory through young men who are all too human. They are people, and through the miserable events of this summer, player and fan are perhaps more understanding of each other than they've ever been.