Hockey, Austerity and Collective Achievement

Photo: Montreal Canadiens

Hockey, Austerity and Collective Achievement

What an improbable playoff run can teach us about social movements and ourselves

Last Thursday night, Montreal's beloved Club de Hockey Canadien ended a thrilling playoff run with a loss to the New York Rangers in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals. Montreal's famously enthusiastic fan base had lived the ups and downs for weeks as the team overcame tremendous adversity (one of the more cumbersome nicknames for the Boston Bruins), and achieved far more than most fans expected them to. We experienced, as the cliche goes, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. And the thrill of victory again. And the agony of defeat again. And when Alex Galchenyuk hit the crossbar in game four, the puck deflecting a few centimeters to the wrong side of the goal line several long minutes before Martin St. Louis finally put one past rookie phenom Dustin Tokarski, we experienced that other cliche: it's a game of inches. Millimeters, even.

Last Saturday morning, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty sent out a missive about the upcoming provincial elections in our neighbouring province. The title: "a Chance to Choose Between austerity, Austerity and AUSTERITY." The explanation was straightforward and all too familiar:

Living wages, decent income and affordable housing are not on the ballot in this election. The only differences between the three parties is how much austerity each plans to impose and how quickly they intend to do it. All Parties agree that working class people and poor communities should pay for the crisis while the rich get a free ride. At most, the parties disagree about whether or not to throw a few crumbs at us as we sink deeper into poverty.

That got me thinking. What does hockey have to do with austerity? Not much, on the face of it. But hockey can go a long way to helping us understand austerity, and the movements that have won things like free education, public health care and weekends. And the forces that are eroding those gains.

The Montreal Canadiens lost their first playoff game against the New York Rangers 7-2. Up to that point, their -- our -- goaltender Carey Price was having the best year of his career. Without him, Montreal's distinctive CH logo would have long since disappeared from NHL arenas for the season. To make the game even more decisively demoralizing, Price was injured when 6' 3", 233-pound New York forward Chris Kreider crashed into his knee, skates first, at an estimated 36.2 kilometres per hour.

Between the epic defensive breakdown and the loss of our irreplacable best player, many Montreal fans thought that it was over. Anyone who has had the experience of being a fan of a team that makes a deep playoff run knows how intense the emotions -- and how intense the efforts to avoid experiencing disappointment -- can get. After each playoff loss, discussions on forums like Hockey Inside/Out were dominated by disgruntled fans spewing venom at their own team, predicting swift elimination, and calling for multiple players to be dropped or traded. It's an impressive collective display of the bargaining stage of the grieving process.

With a defeat/setback one-two combo like game one of the Rangers series, fair-weather fans of les Habitants started to jump off the bandwagon, cutting their losses. Hard core fans grimaced while commenting dryly about drowning their sorrows in Molson Ex. Playoffs are exciting, but for the emotionally invested, fun isn't the first word you'd pick.

Human beings don't just drown their sorrows, they proactively avoid having sorrows to drown. In both hockey and class struggle, lowered expectations are the favoured way to do this. "Without a big first line centre, we're not going to win the cup." "With all the budget cuts, wages won't keep pace with inflation."

And yet, the Habs stayed in it. Dustin Tokarski, a minor-league goaltender who had played a total of ten regular season games over the last decade, put on a show, making impossible saves on world-class players. The team, though clearly still nursing injuries from the Boston series, rallied. Fans started to get back on the bandwagon, and the city started to buzz with playoff hopes again. Tokarski got the Habs to within inches of playing game seven against the Rangers in Montreal, and who knows what would have happened if they had?

Hockey is a game of inches, but austerity is mostly a game of miles. When a society tries to empower itself to control the wealth, land and labour it holds in common, the most common result is, to put it in hockey terms, a first round exit in five games or less.

We live in one of the wealthiest societies in human history, but our lived experience has taught us that we're more likely to see our team win the Stanley Cup than we are to cut down Emergency Room wait times, reduce tuition fees, stop politicians from stealing from unemployment insurance to cut corporate taxes, or raise welfare rates to the poverty line.

Two years ago, when the Quebec student movement stood up against a tuition hike -- a tiny fraction of the austerity measures imposed by successive Quebec governments -- they had to face off against Premier Jean Charest backed up by a team full of goons. The goon part was literally true.

'We live in one of the wealthiest societies in human history, but our lived experience has taught us that we're more likely to see our team win the Stanley Cup than we are to cut down Emergency Room wait times, reduce tuition fees, stop politicians from stealing from unemployment insurance to cut corporate taxes, or raise welfare rates to the poverty line.'Hockey fans love to complain about the refs, but it's nothing like having the rule book changed on you in mid-game. When the Quebec government passed Bill 78 in 2012, banning gatherings of over 50 people that didn't submit a route to the police in advance, that's what they did. In hockey terms, it was worse than if the NHL making a rule that PK Subban can't take shots from the point on the power play. It was closer to being assessed a penalty for showing up to play.

The Habs got roughed up in the Boston series, but it wasn't quite the same as thousands of young protesters getting beaten and gassed by police, with criminal charges and jail time guaranteed for anyone who got caught fighting back.

Habs fans might complain about the biased and often idiotic commentary of the hockey reporters in New York and Boston, or the overt anti-Montreal bias of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, but we have a whole TV station that devotes itself to Canadiens-friendly coverage, along with a handful of newspapers that generate volumes of analysis on each season. Any social movement that challenges the economic order will have to start practically from scratch cultivating media outlets that will give them accurate coverage, nevermind boosterism or advice on how to succeed. Commentators, reporters and editors can be counted on to flood pages and airwaves with a toxic cocktail of lies, distortions and denouncements.

I hardly need to mention that austerity measures make a much larger difference in peoples lives than hockey does. The need for continuous growth of profits means a majority of the population and indeed, a majority of species, have to suffer indignities, lower quality of life, or much worse. And while hockey fans might riot for a night after an especially dramatic win or loss, the material consequences mostly end there.

A few of my friends are Toronto Maple Leafs fans, and I feel for them. 46 years (and counting!) is a long time to go without winning the Stanley Cup. But every year, a sizable chunk of hockey fans in the Big Smoke get their hopes up when the Leafs go on their semi-annual early-season winning streak. There's a possibility every year.

In class struggle, it takes a bit longer to get fired up for the next season, but its accomplishments over the last 1000 years or so are nothing if not impressive. We've abolished slavery in a number of countries, toppled monarchies (and dictatorships right and left), reversed coup d'etats, and forced the creation of the flawed but unprecedented modern welfare state. We haven't won the Stanley Cup (as it were), but we've changed the game plenty of times by forcing the other team to adapt.

Montreal made it close in the conference finals with a bruised team and an AHL goaltender, but for long stretches, popular movements seem more like an exhibition game between the Chicoutimi Sagueneens and the Broad Street Bullies.

But if you think that losing in game seven of the Stanley Cup Final gives you an emotional hangover, you probably weren't around for epic bitterness and trauma of the aftermath of the Winnipeg General Strike, Quebec's 1972 General Strike or Ontario's Days of Action, to name a few examples. A notable difference is that each of those struggles won something even if they didn't win it all. But as hockey fans are fond of saying, they don't hang President's Trophy banners from the rafters.

For many, hockey in Montreal is something that brings us together across linguistic, ethnic and class pides. Our sense of collective achievement has been thwarted in every other venue, but we've still got hockey. The sense of community and collectivity that you feel when the Bell Centre is rockin' on a Saturday night is hard to find anywhere else. (And yeah, I just named dropped an evil monopolistic telecom company because they paid a fraction of the billions they fleeced from their customers to have access to the daily language of Habs fans.)

Hockey is a distraction from what's really important, but in Montreal, it's also one of the few avenues through which we get to experience the feeling of collective achievement on a regular basis. We can try to resolve the contradiction by either embracing commercialized and too-often militaristic pro hockey or rejecting it, but neither one quite fits. One denies our critical faculties, the other denies the compromised joys of the actual world we live in.

When the odds are stacked against us and people waver in their belief and start to give up before the game is over, it's the character players that raise their game and take us to the next level. That never-say-die attitude and the inspiration that it brings us deserve to be celebrated, both on and off the ice.

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