Monday, March 26, 2012

On Losing, Coping, and the Meaning of This

On two consecutive weekends, Michigan saw an otherwise successful season come to an end with an almost existential abruptness. Seniors--Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, Shawn Hunwick--saw their time as Michigan athletes end on a sour note, an otherwise cheerful classical symphony ending in an out-of-place minor key.

The basketball team spent the time between November and March actualizing the entirety of its potential, doing everything that it could with what relatively little it had to spare. The ride was a nearly ceaseless crescendo, a buildup to something great. It fell apart in the end; the idealism of deserved Fate--of positive outcomes reserved for those who have traversed the darkest corners of the realm of athletic pursuit--was dealt a heavy blow. Is this how it was supposed to end? The curtain falls and you sit in your seat in the dark amphitheater waiting for more, and more never comes. That is all there is. You get up and leave.

The hockey team rolled into the sequestered vacuum that is the NCAA hockey tournament with a shiny #1 seed and a roster that had seemingly experienced the athletic equivalent of a renaissance. Whether by virtue of Jon Merrill's return or survivalist instinct, the latter mirroring the same sort of late-season push we saw last year and the year before, it was breathtakingly automatic, the quintessential example of the sports cliche "flipping the switch." The streak was not only intact, it was as if it had never been in danger. As others more qualified than I can probably corroborate, this wasn't a vintage Michigan team featuring electron virtuosos like T.J. Hensick or top-notch two-way stalwarts like Kevin Porter. And yet, the results speak for themselves.

After Lynch's late equalizer and the remaining time expiring without another goal, it was not difficult to harken back to last year's championship game, in which regulation time ended 2-2 after a late Michigan goal. UMD's first goal bounced just over Hunwick's outstretched pads, the second on a UMD power play, in which a shot in close rebounded almost miraculously onto the UMD attacker's tape for a second point blank opportunity. A Rohrkemper goal tied it late, like Lynch's late goal on Friday; overtime hockey once again. The land of dread. The land of affirmation. Overtime hockey is elaborate, fevered theater. It is a Shakespearean sword fight, each combatant slowing bleeding out his life slash by slash, until one or the other has no more blood to give and thus clutches, spins, and falls.

UMD's final goal came after Michigan had spent most of the early minutes of overtime in its own zone, frantically attempting to catch its breath, to stave off the final blow. A crashing UMD forward, essentially untouched, came through and potted the winning goal. It was over.

Again, Michigan entered the perilous domain of overtime hockey, looking to make its second wind count. Survival was the only instinct playing out at this juncture. At that point, everything else fades away, ancillary to the order of the moment. Overtime hockey is so Darwinian thought set upon the framework of sport.

A rebound and a weak backcheck later and the puck was in the back of the net only a few minutes into the overtime period. Again, it was over, as if someone was repeating a bad joke after it failed to elicit laughter after the first telling. There was nothing Hunwick could do, and the fact that he was mostly helpless makes a bitter end even more difficult to take. After a career filled with save after incomprehensible save, saves that defied the laws of physics and conventional wisdom, it would all naturally end with a sequence beyond his control, one of those moments in which agency is nowhere to be found. The puck didn't care what came before; it went in the wide open net, invited by its stark dimensional reality. The puck was oblivious to history. It always is.

After these things, there must come some sort of response. Experience gives one the ability to skip certain steps in post-loss processing, insofar as watching sports can inspire feelings of personal "loss." You've got your denial, and it saves you and everybody around you a lot of time and broken household items if you just skip to acceptance.

Single-elimination hockey is Fate neutered, in which the thing that actually happens seems off, askew even, like a picture on the wall that has fallen to either side. A degree off-center. Bizarro. More so than anything else, the NCAA single-elimination format takes Fate, capitalized, and sends it through a grinder and a furnace, in the process revealing that Fate is not really a crystallized absolute but a collection of individual possibilities, flecks of charred, hardened reality. All it is is survival; the fleck that makes it through is the one that is. That's it. It's a little unappealing, isn't it?

But, I think, that's how it is. Whether we're talking about the Big Dance or NCAA hockey, Destiny and Fate--capitalized--are not self-aware. They don't know what the basketball team has been through throughout the span of Zack and Stu's careers, or the fact that the Michigan hockey team was fighting to continue one streak while also trying to vanquish another (i.e., no national titles since 1998). This sort of literal, rationalist thought sort of guts the entire enterprise of collegiate athletics of some of its most idealistic aspects--that things are or aren't meant to be, that people deserve certain things, that outcomes affirm or erase the journey--but I think that's mostly okay. Is that a loser's attitude? I honestly don't know. It may just be white noise in the end.

When I think back on the career of a player like, say, Mike Hart, what comes to me immediately is not the fact that he never beat the Buckeyes or won a national championship. If that's what comes to you then I think our respective worldviews are doomed to never meet at any point.

The way that these two seasons ended was bitter, unfortunate, and for a brief period of time after these games ended, seemingly unfair. The basketball team had its chances; hit even a couple of the many missed layups/bunnies and trade one of those late Burke threes for a possession of actual offense and Michigan probably wins despite being outplayed. The hockey team had its chances. The Wolverines outshot Cornell and had over double the PP opportunities, including 5 in the excruciating second period. Any grievances about the ostensible "randomness" of the whole thing seem to be directed at the game of hockey itself rather than the format of the tournament. The simple fact that Michigan has come away with only two titles throughout this over two decade long stretch of tournament appearances is irrelevant.  These things happen for a reason, and as much as we like to write these losses off as either instances of grand cosmic misfortune or the absurdity that is the single-elimination format, it's all about cold, hard probabilities and inglorious toil. Even with probability and work ethic on one's side, it may not work out, and not for lack of luck. Hockey is often beyond explanation in this way, and by explanation I mean an explanation that is all-inclusive/comprehensive or one that we want to hear, that assuages the pangs of frustration that follow such a loss. Sometimes it bounces this way or that way. Why? It just does, and it does often, so that patterns seem to appear to us even though they do not exist.

Hockey is "close but no cigar" taken to its logical extreme. It is a sport that, in a way, mirrors life: work really hard and you might get you want. Tight defense, shots, PP opportunities...these don't guarantee success. Despite the attempts to distill the essence of sports into verifiable statistics and formulas, it is often just a game of hamfisted probability. Ascribing vague notions of luck or fate to the outcomes of sport or life seems a bit pointless, but the process of coping is, in a way, inherently pointless.

Then again, maybe this is my own way of coping. Maybe looking at the outcome of the Cornell and Ohio games in the way that I am is just my way of distancing myself from the proceedings. I know that I didn't always look at things this way, as if these losses suggest anything more than the fact that, on these days, my team lost because of X, Y, and Z. In light of the Sugar Bowl and all the breathless talk of redemption that accompanied it--from many, including myself--this all might seem a little hypocritical. Maybe. Then again, as sports fans, we often say what benefits us at the time, even when we may claim otherwise in other situations.

What is clear to me is that Shawn Hunwick and all of the other seniors wanted this more than you or I. The same of course applies to Zack and Stu. The level to which they wanted this eclipses yours, rendering your frustration inconsequential by comparison. After the layers of personal frustration and other somewhat selfish (but understandable) reactions are cast away to the ether, all that remains is memory. I've said this many times before and I'll say it again: championships may come or they may not, but the memories that these players give us while representing Michigan are what matter most because they are what endure. While I would have hoped for a better end for Hunwick, Novak, and Douglass, or a victory in The Game for Henne, Hart, and Long, it becomes increasingly immaterial as the years go on.

One day, a young child will be taken to Yost for the first time. A mother or father will be able to tell this child, their child, this tabula rasa of a being, the story of Shawn Hunwick. This story could quite possibly plant the very first inkling of the beauty of sport in this child's head. True to hockey form, it also might not, but there will be another day when another child is told the same story. This will happen again and again until one day, the child finally understands. I truly do not know if being able to tell the tale of a championship once won is worth more or less than that. Let the details come later.

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