Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Some thoughts on the sports landscape, in the age of COVID-19.

Under ordinary circumstances, we would be fully in the throes of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs right now. 16 teams would be waging an all-out war of attrition, fighting tooth and nail for the right to call Lord Stanley’s hardware their own for a calendar year. We would come together, whether our teams were in the tournament or not, and perhaps find ourselves latched on to new heroes. Or maybe, we would just watch the storylines unfold, and be fans of the game of hockey, rather than hockey teams.

Needless to say, these are not ordinary circumstances.

Last week, I had TSN1200’s Ian Mendes on my podcast, Internal Budget. Among the many topics of discussion in our 90-minute rap session, was the ongoing speculation of what the remainder of an NHL season and playoff would look like. Ian made a great point when he said that he believes hockey fans are growing weary of “what-if” scenarios, and the seemingly endless array of frameworks that could be used to salvage the time of year that we love so much.

I’m inclined to agree. The blurry days since the world ground to a halt have left me with numerous different feelings. I’ve run the gamut of emotions from taking a bit of guilty pleasure in the relative tranquility, to feeling isolated, and missing the things that fill the individual holes in my life.

I miss sports like crazy. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are my favourite time of year, and that two-month distraction from the rigours of daily life is sorely missed, especially given the palpable anxiety, and sadness that currently grips our society. But I have to admit, I’m tired of hearing about the moving goalposts too.

To me, it feels cheap, and almost callous to be so enamoured with only hockey right now. Sports are great, but in the grand scheme of things, they don’t matter at all. Dr. Alan Drummond of the Canadian Association of Emergency Room Physicians, put it best in an interview with Rick Westhead last week:

While the idea of NHL arenas, our beloved and hallowed sanctuaries, being converted to makeshift field hospitals or morgues is a sobering thought to say the least, Drummond’s remarks beg a question that needs to be answered; is our collective focus on sports doing more harm than good?

It’s an idea that carries some weight when one remembers that it flies in direct contrast with our cultural zeitgeist. Canada in particular is a nation defined by hockey. People make fun of that, and perhaps deservedly so, but our national identity is not solely about slapping a piece of rubber into a net with a stick.

Hockey is about survival in a cold, icy environment, while pushing one’s physical abilities to their limits to achieve victory for their brothers and sisters. The issues within hockey culture have been evident through the last six or so months, but at the end of the day, people of all races, religions, and genders come together to enjoy this game that is so beautifully our own. What’s more Canadian than that?

With all this in mind, and in a culture so absorbed with uniting through sports, Dr. Drummond’s indictment of the sentiment is completely logical. Our singular focus right now should be on doing our part to stop the spread of COVID-19, and taking care of each other in a time where the very fabrics of our everyday lives have been uprooted.

Focusing singularly on when sports COULD return, rather than when they SHOULD return, could have dire consequences in a crisis that seems as if it could last upwards of 18 months.

We need to pour all of our time and energy into returning the world to some semblance of the normalcy that we’re all craving. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that we’re all struggling with this new reality of isolation, so aside from the obvious priority of preventing deaths, we should be doing our duties to bring our world back.

Over a week after my conversation with Ian, I’ve had some time to weigh my thoughts on the matter, and figure out where I truly stand on the issue. I’m still exhausted with the meaningless nature of the constant speculation. I still agree with Dr. Drummond that our complete, and undivided attention needs to be on stopping the spread of this disease, and protecting those most vulnerable.

But I also believe that sports can help us get through this dark period. It’s not about fantasizing of our teams achieving victory or missing the “exhilaration” of gambling on results. It’s about thinking of a future in which we can come together again. When we can congregate with people wearing our colours, and hug complete strangers in utter jubilation again. It’s about tweeting people thousands of miles away about the crazy thing that just happened in the game, and reliving the .GIFs and video clips for days, weeks, months, and even years to come.

One of the keys to winning a war, is to remember what you’re fighting for. We are fighting for those to whom this disease could present severe consequences, that is always going to be priority number one. However, we are also fighting for normalcy. COVID-19 has stripped us of things that we maybe have begun to take for granted, but that mean the world to us nonetheless.

Dreaming of a time where sports can return may be the exact thing that we need to get through these agonizingly slow days of darkness. Keeping our collective eyes on the prize may help to put things in perspective. If we recognize that sports are secondary, but use them as motivation to follow the rules of physical distancing and staying at home, then they may prove as a rallying point for our society.

So the next time that you feel alone, or the days and months ahead seem daunting, remember your favourite sports moment. Maybe it was a single moment within a game, or maybe it was a championship, but remember that one time that the sport you love made you the happiest. If you keep that image in your mind, it will help you to remember why we’re doing this.

It will help you to remember that the more we do in this moment, right now, the sooner we can come together, and have those moments once again.

Stay home. Listen to healthcare professionals, while they’re on the front lines saving lives. Together, we’ll kill this damned disease, and we’ll all be hugging each other in arenas, bars, and living rooms once again.

Keep your eyes on the prize.

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