"After a while it all gets mixed together in your head and you can't remember if life is shit because Arsenal are shit or the other way around." - Nick Hornby
I'm not an Arsenal fan.
But Hornby's autobiographical novel is relatable if you're a fan of any team. The frustration, agony, and sadness that is too much the norm when compared to the brief, fleeting euphoria of success all fans crave and few experience.
Missing the playoffs, especially when it's unexpected, is one of those things that forces many fans to reflect. When the disappointment mounts, when futility becomes your team's standard operating procedure, when you wonder if you'll ever see our team win a championship, you start to envy a different type of sporting relationship: the casual fan, the fair-weather fan, the bandwagon fan.
Whatever name, the casual commitment of the bandwagon fan elicits derision and anger from the diehard. The Hornbys of the world are miserable because Arsenal makes them that way. It's an intimate relationship between team and fan and often it's not particularly healthy. We put a lot of ourselves into that commitment with the team and that effort often goes unnoticed by the organization.
We love our teams but teams don't love us back.
Casual fans avoid the heartbreak and depression. Diehard fans appreciate suddenly-full stadiums, increased revenue, and the increased chatter about the hometown team. But casual fans so often irk their more committed counterparts because they opt out of the hard stuff. They don't have to struggle with mediocrity, betrayal, and change.
Sometimes life is shit for fans and that mood has little to do with annual spring failure. When an organization's misdeeds feel like the last straw, fans turn inward and re-examine what those team colours really mean.
The past year has been one of redefinition for the organization. The departure of the long-time captain and the expectations placed on his successor struck at the heart of our relationship with the team. Narratives about leadership and integrity became frequent talking points when mere months before such things were unquestionable. It's more than an issue of Spezza's playmaking talent or Daniel Alfredsson's legacy; it's that the commitment which defines both players' time in Ottawa is the same commitment diehard fans bring to the team. To see it count for so little in the end, to see it discarded for a few extra dollars, undermines the whole enterprise.
I don't know what my breaking point is with the organization.
I assume I have one. I suspect most people do. I'm not there yet. Not even close. Maybe that says more about me than it does the situation. But I can outlast this. To be a diehard hockey fan over the past two decades is to understand that every several years owners collectively cry poor and deny fans of playoff races, scoring titles, and championships. I come back every time because I don't want to miss seeing Erik Karlsson, Kyle Turris, or Bobby Ryan. I come back because, good or bad, I'm a Sens fan and that fact defines me as much as Star Trek or Bruce Springsteen do. I come back because for me, as a fan, the Stanley Cup doesn't mean the same thing if it's not with Ottawa.
The refuge of the diehard is the cyclical nature of sports. There's a reason the diehard's mantra is "there's always next year".
As much as this season was trying, feelings of disappointment slowly melt away throughout the offseason. The playoffs finish, teams go through the draft and free agency, and slowly, but inevitably, the season becomes the past and talk of rookie camps and exhibition games take over as anticipation for the new season, the fresh slate that so many fans crave, builds.
And it's quite possible next year things will be different.
Younger players who struggled this season will have taken the next step in their development. Players who struggled with injury throughout the season will be healthy and contribute more. Players who had a down year will return to their career norms. The aspects of the game defined by nothing more than luck will fall in our favour. It could all go so much differently.
And that's the hope. That's what sustains such commitment. Hornby's quote is so appropriate because it illustrates the level of integration diehard fans need to carry them through the franchise lows and the too long summers, punctuated by playoff defeat. It's not a perfect system, far from it. Too many of us are left wanting year after year; victims of location and family loyalties, subject to the increasingly opaque decisions of billionaires and former billionaires. But I can't simply extract the parts of me that are black, red, and white.
For better or worse, I'm a Sens fan.