This is a hockey pond. It’s part of a park across the street from my old neighborhood—which is also my current neighborhood. Oddly, I’ve never played on this pond. None of my few friends played. I didn’t have my own skates. Even though I liked hockey and watched hockey and wanted to play hockey, I never bothered to. In college, I ended up playing a little drop-in roller hockey—but I never played on ice, never even on this ice, which I passed every day on the bus for a decade.
As a grownup, whenever I’d see a hockey movie, or hear people talking about pond hockey, I’d feel a pang of regret. Once, I took a family trip to Alberta; as we flew over hundreds of family farms I was awed to see each boasting their own private hockey pond. When I read University of Michigan forward Luke Mofatt, who grew up in Arizona, say in regards to the Big Chill, “I didn’t exactly play a lot of pond hockey,” I cringed.
As a fiercely proud Michigan native, I feel like I abdicated my birthright. I feel like I took a pass on an important part of our cultural heritage. I mean, I like hockey, I grew up a half-mile from a purpose-built public hockey pond, and I never once bothered to walk over there and play! Just another thing that normal kids do that I didn’t, I guess.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Lions being a “normal” football team lately. After reading this piece by Neil from Armchair Linebacker, a lot of thoughts that had been swishing around my head set, like concrete.
I've said there's safety in futility, that at the bottom there’s nowhere to go but up. I’ve said loudly declaring that the Lions are no good serves as disappointment insurance:
They may be looking down and shuffling their feet, hoping nobody sees them. They may be watching from afar, shivering in the bitter chill, but more afraid of getting burned again than freezing to death. Or . . . they may be loud and obnoxious. They may be proclaiming doom. They may be standing in our midst, shouting that we’re wasting our time and our breath. They may loudly predict a blowout loss before each and every game. They may boo and hiss every mistake, and crow with knowing glee after every loss. They may seek to dishearten us, to discourage us, to disperse us. They may seek to extinguish the little blue flame we’ve worked so hard to protect.
What should we say to them? “Welcome.”
Their sarcasm, their derision? It’s their scar tissue. It’s their armor. It protects them from getting burned again. If they loudly proclaim inevitable doom of the Lions, then they can’t lose! Whether the Lions win, or they are proven right, there is no way a boo bird can be labelled a loser, since they never truly cast their lot with the team.
But . . . they’re here. They’re already coming. The hope and promise and preseason performance of this young Lions team has kindled the flame to the point where the naysayers are already coming back. Despite their protests to the contrary, they are Lions fans, too. They want to cheer, they want to be true blue. If they truly didn’t care, they wouldn’t be here at the fire, they’d just move on with their lives.
What I didn’t think about is the flipside of that: it’s the losing that’s made us special, that’s made us different. It’s the losing that branded us as outcasts, that caused us Lions fans to seek each other out. It was the losing, ultimately, that caused me to carve this space out of the Internet and pour my emotions into it.
Now that nearly all of the streaks have been snapped, and we’ll expect the Lions to win more games than they lose, will we lose what makes us special, as fans? Rooting for the Lions won’t be something only “a real diehard” does, it’ll be what everybody around here does. We’ve waited and waited for this time to come, for the Lions to be a real football team again—now that that day is here (or nearly so), what will we do?
For me, what will I do? What is my role in this strange new world, where the Lions are just another NFL contender? If I’m not keeping the flame from being extinguished by the harsh and bitter winds, if the little blue flame roars ‘round the clock whether I tend it or not, does anyone have any need for me?
I think the answer lies in my kids, and on that pond. After a decade of being the losers, of being the rest of the NFL’s social outcasts, of playing by ourselves in our basements instead of joining the fun, it’s time to get over ourselves. Let’s make the winter fun! It’s time to quit moping around about how lonely we are, strap ‘em on, and go play.