Losing At Hockey

Hockey teams are losing games. Cities are losing teams. A lot of us are losing a lot more.
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The Avs lost this week. Or last week, I don't remember.

The loss wasn't a huge surprise. The team had a remarkable season. It was a season robust and lush in the wins column: they won 52 games, and they won their division. It was a season budding, blooming with individual achievements and accolades: the team had finalists for best rookie, best goalie, best coach, best player-combining-sportsmanship-and-gentlemanly-conduct-with-a-high-standard-of-playing-ability. So, pretty good.

It was even a season neatly satisfying in the story department: a franchise with some talent but little recent success reaches back to those heroic times of victory and appoints potent representatives therefrom to positions of power; the captain of their championship teams is now their front-office leader (Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations, whatever the hell that means); the legendary goalie from those squads is now their head coach. Contagious winning. Leadership. Exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and perfect hair forever!

There was, however, a serpent in the garden: the fancystats types kept pointing out that the team was a poor puck-possession team, in a sport where puck possession correlates strongly with winning; those few fancystats types with an instinct for history remembered the last time this was true of the Avs, which was just a few years back, when they squeaked into the playoffs behind some brilliant goaltending and got steamrolled by the San Jose Sharks. A number of smug types people spent a number of their dwindling ration of hours on this planet wringing their hands over the prospect of the team's seemingly inevitable downfall. Which came this week. Or last week. I don't remember.

***

I can tell you about the loss -- the losses -- I do remember. One came the evening before Halloween. I was on the couch, dicking around on Twitter after work, having a conversation that now makes me flinch:

To unpack: a team I'd had low expectations for, following a season at the very bottom of the standings, was, at that moment, winning a hell of a lot of games. Their goalie, Semyon Varlamov, was contributing massively to the proceedings on the ice, before unveiling a Simpsons-themed Halloween costume. In spectator sports, this counts as charisma. This was a moment apparently prepared for maximum enjoyability, combining two of my favorite cultural artifacts. The only way it could have been more specifically narrowcast at me is if Varlamov had been caught spending an hour debating whether Poison Idea was punk or metal. As Holly and I bantered, an article arrived: Varlamov had been arrested on domestic violence charges, including kidnapping.

And in my head, a door shut. The complicated currents of projection, identification, and empathy comprising "rooting" have their limits, and with them exceeded and the door shut, the Avs' season lost most of its access to my heart. Watching games, checking scores, trash-talking, active debating: all these were still available, but only to the head. The mechanisms of real rooting, the way fans pour themselves into the game, team, season, and the way those things then seem to inhabit and suffuse the fans and their lives: these were lost. They call this alienation, sometimes. (Holly handled this, characteristically, earlier and more subtly than I have.)

Another loss came during a midwinter getaway: somewhere in Hawai'i, on the 27th of January, the inbox pinged -- The SF Bulls To Cease Operations Immediately. This loss wasn't a huge surprise: on the 20th, team coach/owner Pat Curcio had announced as much. (My incisive wit allowed me to summarize, indeed apotheosize, both the Varlamov situation and the Ruining of the Bulls with a simple, comprehensive, and adequate-to-the-gravity-of-the-situations "Welp.")

The zippy slogan used by the CEO of the Cow Palace, the Bulls' home rink, to describe the problem was, "They're trying to operate a minor-league team in a major-league city." As perhaps befits the circumstances, that gets it wrong on several levels. First, as the article itself points out, even major league teams find the going rough within San Francisco's city limits: while the Giants are doing well, civic staples like the 49ers flee to the dollar-greener pastures of Santa Clara, and the owners of the Oakland-yoked Warriors of the NBA continue to struggle to find a soft place to land on the other side of the bay, some place fashionably farther from light rail and existing infrastructure.

A more apt diagnosis of the Bulls’ failure came from Pat Curcio himself, when he described the difficulty for his players, facing $3,000 rents on minor-league salaries. As Jason Cohen -- who literally wrote the book on minor-league hockey -- told me: that rent "for AA hockey players is a new one". Indeed.

High rents in a sizzling, bacon-wrapped economy are going to be a real problem, and not just for minor league hockey players getting paid like minor league hockey players. But the problem isn't what minor-league players make, or not just that. It's the radical economic changes that have plagued, to the point where they have come to define, cities like San Francisco.

This is a city now built around indulgence, from ever-fancier restaurants to ever-easier gesture-controlled summonings of convenience like Uber and various and sundry delivery services. The humbler pleasures of a night out at the minor leagues maybe can't compete, which is a problem that goes beyond those minor league players being able to live anywhere within those city limits.

But it's worth remembering that the rich people thumbing screens for rides and reservations aren't actually the only ones who live here. As Rebecca Solnit, perhaps our smartest Californian, has argued, this one-time "edge city", which was "once a great city of refuge for dissidents, queers, pacifists and experimentalists" drew immense cultural benefits from its status, from its residents:

a host of writers, artists, activists, environmentalists, eccentrics and others who don't work sixty-hour weeks for corporations -- though we may be a relic population. Boomtowns also drive out people who perform essential services for relatively modest salaries, the teachers, firefighters, mechanics and carpenters, along with people who might have time for civic engagement. I look in wonder at the store clerks and dishwashers, wondering how they hang on or how long their commute is.

When we lose those people and the things they like, we lose a lot. Certainly we lose more than just a minor-league hockey team.

Another painful and significant loss can be seen in the story of Semyon Varlamov's domestic violence charge. In the Denver Post stories devoted to the topic, the following timeline is presented, even in the original story from Oct 30:

  • Nov 12: Semyon Varlamov gets new lawyer; charges still pending from Denver DA
  • Nov 19: Semyon Varlamov domestic abuse case given to Denver DA
  • Nov 22: Semyon Varlamov, Avalanche goaltender, charged with assault in domestic violence incident
  • Dec 2: Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche goalie, back in court in assault case
  • Dec 5: Semyon Varlamov could be Russian goalie starter in Olympics
  • Dec 20: Semyon Varlamov, Avalanche goalie, sees charges against him dropped
  • Dec 22: Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov "excited" that legal ordeal is over

Here are two stories that are not included in that timeline: Oct 31: This, and
Nov 2: This.

In those two articles, one can read things like:

The woman accusing Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov of assault and kidnapping said he had been drinking for more than 12 hours [dressed, it so happens, as DuffMan, a fictional beer company's fictional mascot] before he returned to the downtown Denver apartment they shared and began kicking and beating her.

"He was having fun, he was laughing," Evgeniya Vavrinyuk, 24, said Thursday.

And:

Interpreter: How many times did he beat you?
Vavrinyuk: This one was the fifth time he beat me.

What is most clearly lost in the timeline the Post presents is Evgeniya Vavrinyuk. What is also lost in the timeline the Post presents is everything not immediately pertinent to the prospect of a professional hockey team's success. What is therefore also lost in the timeline the Post presents is any sense that something beyond the performance of a powerful man might be of importance.

The charges, the timeline is careful to remind us, were dropped; I am further noting that here. The timeline didn't include this note from the Centers for Disease Control's factsheet on Understanding Intimate Partner Violence: These numbers underestimate the problem. Male victims do not report IPV to police, friends, or family. Victims may think others will not believe them or that the police cannot help.

The Avs lost last week. Or the week before. I can't remember. They're out of the playoffs now. On June 24, we'll find out if Semyon Varlamov wins or loses the NHL's Vezina Award, which is given to "the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at his position." I won't be watching the awards ceremony. Some things, and some losses, just seem more important.


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