The best thing about having a team-issued credential to cover the Lightning is that I'm a Lightning fan, and I like to believe that being a credentialed member of the media allows me to be an ambassador on behalf of fellow fans who will never get to experience the game of hockey that way. Through this weekly column, I'll be sharing peeks behind the magical media curtain with you. Today, we're going to talk about speculating about the Lightning’s chances to make the playoffs.
It’s the big question right now; will the Lightning make the playoffs? There’s really nothing else to discuss right now. Everything else (injuries, call-ups, forward lines and defensive pairings, etc.) has assumed an “It Is What It Is Status” relevant to, but not as important as The Big Question.
For me, as of right now, the answer is: I do not know. I also do not care.
Let me be clear: I mean, I DO care about the Lightning making the playoffs. I want them to. What I DON’T care about is having anyone tell me what they think is the absolute 100% guaranteed answer to that question is today, Friday, March 10.
I’m perfectly okay with letting things play out at the leisurely-yet-frantic pace that it ultimately will, regardless of who pronounces what and when. To me, that’s one of the beautiful aspects of a long season, that there are a lot of games to be played, and eventually, many if not most of them come to mean something.
To my understanding, in the olden days (long before my time, thank you) sportswriters were very chummy with the teams and leagues they covered, refusing to present anything but the best possible profile. “Gee, sports sure are swell!”, they’d write and the fans would respond, “Gosh, they ever so are!”
Then in the ‘60s, they started peeling back some layers and revealing that it was a business, there were some sordid details, and many of the people involved had feet of clay. “Sports are still pretty great but not everybody involved is a hero”, they’d write and the fans would respond, “Well, that’s unfortunate but I guess we’re okay with them being only human.”
In the ‘70s, some sportswriters took on a really cynical edge and wrote things like “Many of your beloved athletes are straight up degenerates!”, and a lot of fans said, “Ugh! Disgusting! Sports are ruined now. But tell us more!”
Then, some time around the early ‘80s, led primarily by ESPN, sports media actively embraced the notion that not only was sports big business but sports media could be too. They said, “Athletes aren’t the only figures in sports who do outlandish things; check out OUR ‘personalities’!” and fans said, “Awesome! Give us not only sports 24/7/365, but sports coverage 24/7/365!”
That gave rise to the “sports pundit”, the guy who wears a wacky outfit and/or a goofy haircut, says ‘outrageous’ things and declares things to be ‘locks’. They issue proclamations (in August) like, “The St. Louis Blues are lead-pipe, rock solid, guaranteed cinches to win the Stanley Cup this year, you heard it here first!” and the fans say either, “What an endorsement; I can’t wait to go online and let Blackhawks fans hear about it!” or (far more likely) “What a jackass; I can’t wait to go online and let Blues fans hear about it when he’s wrong!”
I see the enjoyment someone would get from every one of those incarnations but the last one. I get being starry-eyed in love with sports. I get wanting to embrace sports on a realistic level. I even get wanting to peel back the curtain to see the warts. But I just don’t get the appeal of being the prognosticator issuing declarations of guaranteed success or failure, especially when it comes to failure.
I do not understand what joy is derived from being the person who declares, “It’s over, there’s no chance, it’s hopeless, it can’t happen, give up”. Did nobody watch the Super Bowl? Does nobody remember the Lightning coming back from down three games to two to win the Cup in 2004? What about the 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic hockey team in Lake Placid? Didn’t anybody see ‘Rocky’ for the love of... ?!? (I know he lost the championship bout to Apollo Creed, but it remains a terrific allegory about underdogs achieving greatness, in spite of that.)
I realize cynicism and snark have come to be seen as predictable and tolerated (if not positive and admirable) personality traits, but what’s the point of that when it comes to sports? There’s no challenge in stating an obvious, more-than-likely, easy-to-predict result, which renders it boring.
Meanwhile, witnessing an underdog beat the odds has always been and remains one of the very best things about sports. Unscripted human drama in a pure form. Ultimately, fate (or whatever elemental force of nature you believe in that ultimately determines outcomes) isn’t influenced in the least by what anybody has to say about it.
The people who are hoping against hope that their team pulls off the seemingly impossible don’t care either. If they’re right, they’ll celebrate and if they’re wrong, they’ll say “Oh well, wait’ll next year”.
As the Prophet of Doom, you get whatever satisfaction comes from saying, “See? I was right,” and that only happens if you are. I don’t know, but that seems like a pretty meager return on investment to me. “Well, we’re just trying to be realistic,” those people might say. “We’re trying to discourage false hope.” I understand that too; nobody’s obligated to present an unreasonably optimistic picture that defies the true facts of a situation.
Then again, what’s the harm in letting someone be hopeful? Who are they hurting if they want to grasp at slim chances? Why take glee in trying to extinguish their optimism? What’s the hurry to declare something a lost cause? I can’t imagine many people who practice medicine do so for the opportunity to deliver premature bad news to a patient’s loved ones.
“I’m sorry, your grandfather is never going to walk again.”
“Um, he came in here for an eye exam.”
“Well, I mean eventually. And you need to know that.”
As for me, I really don’t know if the Lightning will make the playoffs or not. I hope they do. I’m rooting for it to happen. As long as they’re mathematically eligible, they have a shot. I don’t need to know how good a shot that is; that will be determined by what happens on the ice. That’s good enough for me.