In every sport there are teams that should win, but don’t: the Mets of a few years ago, the Dallas Mavericks, Arsenal, the Buffalo Bills. Success in sports is—like it or not—determined by winning. And winning is so often determined by luck, the right matchups, or one play—all fractions of the larger whole. Championships are so rare because you need so many things to go your way—in addition to playing at an elite level.
Yet these teams—so talented and so often great—try to meet the expectations that they only have so much control over. With each loss, they take a step further into their own heads, into some convoluted network of blinking neurosis. Every loss, really, is inexplicable. We can’t understand why it’s not working. Yet, we still try to find reasons why, further confusing and confounding and compounding the neurosis. The atmosphere turns into a bloated bubble of pressure, growing bigger and bigger. The thing is, it never bursts.
That’s the Vancouver Canucks.
Vancouver is a city governed by hockey. They have twins who, as far as I know, are the only two players in sports history to communicate subconsciously (They’re also a good bet to become the first set of twins to win MVPs in back-to-back years. If that happened in the NFL, someone at ESPN’s head would explode.) And they’ve got a franchise goalie. He led Canada (a similar case study in neurosis) to a gold medal, and he’s signed to a 12-year, $64-million contract. They came into the playoffs with the league’s best record—the prohibitive Stanley Cup favorite.
In their 40 years as a franchise, the Canucks have never won a Stanley Cup. The past three seasons they’ve won the Northwest division, but have lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the conference semifinals of the past two.
They’re trying to find a way out of the tangle. As only sports can do, the Canucks were matched up with the Blackhawks—an eight seed, limping into the playoffs, but still the defending Stanley Cup champs. Vancouver won the first three games, but just as they were about to escape, they were tightening a huge knot at the other side of the rope. We just couldn’t see it.
Inexplicable failure leads to desperation. And desperation makes us do stupid things. Alain Vigneault, Vancouver’s head coach, benched Roberto Luongo after Chicago won games four and five. Luongo’s confidence has always been brittle, making him a fitting centerpiece for such a neurotic franchise. If Vigneault didn’t break it, game six might have. Luongo’s replacement, rookie Cory Schneider, got hurt, so he had to come in cold during the third period. He let in a rebound and gave away the losing goal in overtime.
Vancouver goes into game seven tonight against the Blackhawks. Their goalie has to be shattered. They’re playing at home, and that’s worse. The pressure might suffocate them—if they haven’t already suffocated themselves.
Sports fan or not, you need to watch tonight’s game. Either to experience a relief so massive that it’ll affect you in some way. Or to witness an epic collapse and a tragedy we’ll be talking about for years. Whatever happens, you’re allowed to enjoy it. It’s sports. It’ll be beautiful either way.
—Photo AP/Nam Y. Huh