“You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.”
-Roger Kahn on the ’52 & ’53 Brooklyn Dodgers
In the short history of the Texas Stars, this season is going to be the shortest.
Last night, in a 5-1 drubbing, the Oklahoma City Barons reminded Texas fans that the team currently holds 14th (of 15) in the Western Conference and is tied for 28th overall.
The playoff picture for Texas looks worse than the AHL live-streaming web feed, which itself looks worse than the early days of live television.
The NHL trade deadline looms; parent team Dallas is a point or two outside a playoff spot. The question on the minds of fans is ‘What’s Nieuwendyk thinking?’ because while all players – at all levels – are expendable commodities, and none seem more susceptible to this slander than the AHLers.
This makes it my least favorite time of the hockey season. And it is cause to ask myself, ‘why do I care about this team anyway? Haven’t I always been a Dallas fan first?’
I’ll never forget it: February 9, 2010. We show up at the Cedar Park Center for a game against Grand Rapids and someone in our section says “Vishy’s not playing.” Vishy as in defenseman Ivan Vishnevsky. Through 51 games, Vishy had 8 goals and 16 assists including 4 GWG and 4 PPG. He was without question the quarterback of our power play. He was 4 for 5 on the shootout. So where was he?
Traded to Atlanta along with a draft pick for goalie Kari Lehtonen. Despite being a hockey fanatic going back to the North Stars in 1977-78, I had an embarrassing moment of pure naivete. I asked,
“So who did we get?”
We got no one. Of course we didn’t. In order for us to get someone, you have to redefine ‘we.’ In that case, ‘we’ got a goalie. But the real ‘we’ statement is this one, familiar in feeling among AHL fans as the NHL’s trade deadline nears:
We don’t matter.
Reminders that we don’t really matter are frequent: for instance right now the Texas Stars need wins, but Dallas needs warm bodies, and the warm bodies they call up are generally the ones so warm they’re on hot streaks.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re happy for these guys. Sometimes, it’s a guy’s first call-up to the NHL. Their paycheck jumps by a factor of 10. We post congratulatory messages on Facebook, “Totally deserving!” “Good luck in the big show!”
But it’s difficult to reconcile rooting for a team that exists solely so that its players can leave. When your guy is lighting the lamp, making you jump out of your seat night in and out, making you swap “what a move!” comments with your fellow fans, you’re actually in a state of functional denial. The better he plays, the more excited you get, the bigger his local fanbase becomes—and the further he moves away from you.
Pro sports might be a business, but being a fan is not. Being a sports fan is not a mature thing to be, you’re not required to act like a grown-up… unless you’re unlucky enough to fall in love with a local minor league team.
Being an AHL fan is like being in an abusive relationship: for every jubilation there is a corresponding disillusionment lurking somewhere. For every thrill, agony. Every triumph, humility.
It’s like being a masochist who’s into serial attachment disorder.
In trades, the media will report that Superstar player A was traded to team B for Players C and D ‘and a prospect.’
Most fans stop paying attention by D.
But that prospect has a name. He probably has a significant local fan base. He’s probably spent the past season or two going to community hospitals and grammar schools, doing meet and greets, Hockey ‘N Heels, and playing his ass off for (now) 76 nights out of the year, taking long bus rides. His hustle has won over the fans. They think of him as one of their own, they see him as a star athlete, a celebrity. Brushing him off as a nameless throw-in prospect is unthinkable, an insult.
But it happens with great unceremonious silence. So I hate this time of year.
When these kids do well down here, we lose them, either in call-ups or as trade bait. Rooting for them to develop and improve is akin to being a parent, not a fan. Later you’ll beam with pride, say ‘I remember when’, but you’re kidding yourself if you deny the deep melancholy.
Try being an AHL fan. You won’t like it. Sometimes though, most of the time, you’ll love it.