So, we’re back. I think. Well, I’m back. You never really left, I'm sure. And Anaheim Calling has certainly been here the entire time. But, from my vantage point, its definitely a coming/being back thing. I missed it here. I cant even begin to tell you how much. But what’s weird, is that while it does feel like the NHL is back, I'm not sure what that means. For me. For y’all. Really, for anyone who likes hockey, and even for those who don’t, because as much as everything is starting to come back, it is not coming back into a vacuum in which everything is the same as when it left.
Now, I'm not particularly interested in going into the weeds of the pandemic. We all understand what's happened, as well as what is and what isn’t happening currently. There are lots of people who are vaccinated. There are also, unfortunately, lots of people who aren’t, though not all of their own accord. There are lots of people who have managed to take what should have been a unifying experience, for a global population in dire need of one, and turn it into some Rumpelstilkin-esque alchemy experiment. Spinning hay into gold, and further eroding the ties that bind us in the process.
Yet, in spite of all of that, there are still moments where I find myself able to forget about these facts and what they say about us, and return to some approximate facsimile of the Before Times™. I will admit I'm not entirely sure how to feel about that. There are so many people who are unable to forget the state of things, that to have those moments at all feels wrong. To enjoy — or god forbid savor — them, seems apocryphal. And truthfully, I have absolutely no idea what to do with any of that, because it feels both ridiculous and appropriate from both points of view.
The particulars are irrelevant, but my dad has spent the entirety of the pandemic being immunocompromised. Which means that I have spent the pandemic basically having a panic attack every time I saw people standing in groups of four or five. Just the simple act of people seeking refuge and comfort in others, for even the briefest moments, would inadvertently force me to grapple with my father’s mortality, and more specifically, the role I may or may not play in it.
The mere thought of being the one to accidentally bring “The ’Rona” into my parents’ home, was enough to make me even more of the anti-social hermit I already am. I missed things in my friend’s and family’s lives because the risk-reward analysis was almost always comically weighted in favor of mitigating risk. I don't regret the choices I made. They were the right decisions then, and remain so in hindsight. I would be lying, however, if I said it wasn't something that weighed on me, even with the benefit of knowing I was right.
All of that is to set the table for this.
Last weekend was the first official weekend of college football. Full disclosure, I haven't been following college football anywhere near as close the last few years as I used to. The reasons are varied, but chief among them is that I honestly just haven't had the time, energy, or the inclination. There are but so many hours in the day and I already use up more than a few of them watching sports. I'm not sure where the tipping point is exactly, but I imagine somewhere around watching South Carolina-Vanderbilt at 9:30 on a Saturday morning is where my girlfriend decides to become the main character in a Dateline investigation.
Cut back to last Saturday, where I was listlessly scrolling through twitter. I came across something I wasn't expecting to see, and had a reaction I was infinitely less prepared to fully appreciate. It was a minute and a half clip from Blacksburg, Virginia — home of the Virginia Tech Hokies — and it was just about a perfect encapsulation of everything I've spent the last 18-20 months being, frankly, absolutely fucking terrified of.
But here's the thing. I wasn't terrified. I wasn't alarmed or disturbed or even upset. I was none of it. What I was, was fuckin’ hyped.
Yeah, part of that is the song. The intro to Enter Sandman is iconic. It’s probably one of the most accessible metal songs of all time. And while that played a part, it only did in so much as any other song would have gotten a similar reaction from that crowd if it had been ingrained in the shared cultural experience of VT fans the way Enter Sandman is. Because, ultimately, as much as that reaction is to the song and what the song signifies - that the game is about to get underway — it’s also about something else entirely. It’s about a return to normalcy. Or some approximation of it at the very least.
Signs of that return are everywhere in hockey right now (see, we got there). Players aren't being signed or traded despite that needing to happen. Arguments about who is good, who is bad, and which contracts make good players bad values. What does underrated actually mean, and once a player becomes near-unanimously underrated, are they then actually overrated? Inquiring minds would like to know! The problem is, we had those last season, and nobody mistook that as an indication of normalcy.
The 2020-21 NHL season was a season in the same way that a zombie is a person. Yeah, technically that's true, but nobody giving it more than a passing glance would confuse the two. At best, last year was a callback to the 2012 lockout which caused the season to start in February. At worst, it was basically just the CHL with grown men (and a needless level of carelessness for the health of everyone involved in making it happen). The NHL was realigned to work within the guidelines for international travel between the US and Canada (read as: none), and then further altered by having teams only play the other teams in their division. At the end of the season, there were playoffs, and at the end of the playoffs, we had a Stanley Cup champion. Yet, it was still only a 56 game season that didn't see a single game in the 2020 part of the 2020-21 season.
But this season? The one that’s about a month away? This one is expected to be far more normal. Teams will play teams outside of their division. The season will, likely, conclude after having seen a full 82 game schedule completed, and, at the end, will be a normal playoffs that won’t see two eastern teams playing for The Cup. There will be an Olympic break, and NHLers around the league will make the trip to Beijing to represent their home countries playing alongside hated rivals, and against beloved teammates.
And we’ll be here the entire time. We’ll argue about who got snubbed from their national teams, who made the cut despite the aforementioned snubs clearly being more qualified, and we’ll spend the entire time hoping and praying that no one gets hurt and has their season ended prematurely. We’ll cheer for players we hate, because flag. We’ll curse players we love, because flag. And once it’s all said and done, we’ll return to the 2021-22 NHL season and the stretch run leading into the playoffs.
God, I can’t wait.
I need this.
I would even be so bold as to say that WE need this, and I hate saying it that way, but I don't know how else to say it. I need that pseudo-normalcy that's going to come from watching the Anaheim Ducks fumble their way through the upcoming season like a drunk in corn maze. I can’t wait to argue about how good the young talent on the roster really is, how shallow the prospect pool seems, and whether or not Dallas Eakins has ever smiled in his life (for the record my answer is yes, but only because he saw a kid eating a carrot one time and rode that high for a solid twenty minutes before driving past a Winchell's).
I don't know if I'll go to a game this season. I'm sure most of that will depend entirely on things outside of my control because I will likely remain overly cautious, if for no other reason than it just makes the most sense for me both mentally and emotionally. I do try to be a pragmatic man when possible, but if the situation improves as the season moves along who knows how I'll feel then. Either way though, I will certainly be looking forward to seeing faces behind the glass again, both in Anaheim and around the league.
And hopefully those faces will all belong to people that have gotten the vaccine and done their civic duty to protect themselves and those around them. Hopefully the rules that the Samuelis and the Ducks organization are committing to now will stay in place. I have no idea if that's the case, but I'm choosing to be optimistic in that regard. Because I do know that so many of you will go, and I want that so badly for all of you. I want to believe that everything we have done over the last year and half, the sacrifices so many of us have made, were not in vain.
We like to believe that sports creates an environment and an opportunity to be the best versions of ourselves. To live out our values in a way that produces tangible results. Values like hard work, mental toughness, teamwork, and selflessness. Well, this pandemic has provided all of us with a real world chance to do that. And while I know that many of us have fallen short or been imperfect in our attempts, the opportunity still exists for us to rectify that. To be our best selves in service of others, as well as our self. And I cant think of a better reward for our efforts than to be able to do the thing we’ve all wanted to do this whole time.