A Manifesto of Sorts: Road Trips and Owen’s Mistake

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    Alec has asked me to add my two cents hereabouts from time to time, and I’ve agreed to do so with some trepidation.  For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Junior, from Heroes in Rehab: the blog.  I don’t want to step on the toes of any of the other contributors on the site, so I want to contribute something a little different from the others.  What follows is, at it turns out, a bit of a (lengthy, sorry about that) manifesto for what I hope to produce in the coming weeks for you all.  Some of it’s even about hockey and the Leafs!  I don’t really see my self as the Stuart Smalley of Leafs Nation, and the affirmations I offer will be far from daily, but…well, just read, won’t you?

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    We're Good Enough, We're Smart Enough and Gosh Darn it People Like Us.

    One lousy heart-stopping, craptastic win-that-almost-wasn’t against the Thrashers Predators (update: oops, thanks Nights, I’m an idiot.  Stupid interchangeable southeastern teams!).  One crummy “W” from a five game road trip through the Southeast, the division where NHL hockey goes to die.  The Maple Leafs can’t be happy with the way that worked out.  When the trip began ten days ago, it seemed obvious that the Leafs were expecting to get pasted by Ovechkin and the Caps (first clue: starting Vesa Toskala); after getting the better of Bruce Boudreau’s squad a couple of times earlier this year, it was essentially a foregone conclusion that the Blue & White would have the least amount of fun in a DC amphitheatre since Abraham Lincoln, and that’s exactly how it worked out.  But they had to be hoping for more out of matches against Dixie’s puck-playing tomato cans: Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa and Florida.

    Of course we know now that it didn’t work out that way.  Much to the chagrin of the local populace, Ron Wilson, Brian Burke and the team have arrived home with only two points to declare at Customs.  As far as road trip expectations go, this is the equivalent of a “buddies road trip to Vegas” turning into “an insurance seminar in Peoria.”

    With tilts upcoming against the likes of L.A., New Jersey and the Canucks, the stench of despair among the Leaf faithful grows strong.  At least, I smelled some stench;  maybe that had more to do with my most recent visit to Taco Bell.  Who knows?

    In any event, this most recent five-game trip got me thinking about expectations and reminded me of a road trip of my own, from back in the day when I was cool….er, “cooler than I am now.”  Gather ‘round now and listen, ‘cause I’m going to try and teach you something through an illustrative tale.  When Jesus did this, they called the stories “parables”;  in my case, however, you may wish to use the terms “aimless rambling” or “verbal diarrhea”.

    It was October 1995. My buddy Roland and I knew a guy named Mikey who was going to grad school at Washington D.C., and Mikey had sent word (I can’t remember how, only millionaire playboys had the Internet in those days, maybe he sent a message by carrier pigeon) that the Tragically Hip were going to be doing a show at a club in D.C. called the 9:30.  Roland and I were fresh out of school and had just started our own business.  Like approximately fifty bazillion other Canadians, we were pretty big Hip fans, and these were the days of enormous Hip shows like the Another Roadside Attraction concerts.  The chance to see Gord and the boys in a small venue was too inviting to pass up, and a road trip was duly declared (in the manner that such plans are agreed upon among young men).

    Happily for us, Roland’s cousin Owen desperately wanted to sign on for the trip.  I say “happily” because it has been my experience that the two-man road trip is quite a different and decidedly inferior experience when compared to the three-man version.  The dynamic of being the only two guys in a car driving for hours is such that the pressure to stop idly fooling around and have a Meaningful Conversation is high after a certain number of hours on the road.  Two guys can only keep the yuks flowing with each other for so long when they are alone with each other because the engine of comedy becomes starved of its most basic fuel:  the impetus to mock, taunt and embarrass one’s buddies to the amusement of at least one other guy.  Two guys can try and trade those barbs mano a mano, but without an audience to encourage each guy to raise (lower?) the level of his tomfoolery, it takes two truly proficient jokers to get a lasting, quality comedic vibe going on.  Not so for the three-man trip, which is structured so as to inherently supply the joker, the target and the audience, with each road-tripper serving time in the various roles as time goes on.  There is a natural tension to this structure that drives the narrative forward and makes it all in all a far superior experience for the participants.  No less a comedic authority than the Three Stooges can demonstrate the point; take Larry out of the mix and sooner or later, Curly and Moe are sounding more and more like Lucky and Pozzo from Waiting for Godot.

    So there were three of us and the energy was, accordingly, up.  Besides all that, Owen was a pretty funny guy.  The thing you need to remember about Owen is that he was a few years younger than Roland and I.  He also played for the “Whitesiders” in our Tuesday morning pick-up game, whereas Roland and I were long-time “Darksiders”, so Owen kind of became a natural target for both of us to pick on.

    Owen was also probably one of the most excitable Hip fans I ever met.  In truth, Rollie and I had many purposes for the trip to D.C.:  in addition to the Hip show, we planned to visit our friend Mikey, we planned to do a little sightseeing, and we had a couple of short business meetings lined up.  Not Owen, though;  he didn’t really know our friend at all, and had no other interest in travelling to Washington.  He was just going to be along for the ride for most of the four day trip.  His only goal was to see the Hip.

    This road trip really was something else, and I could go on and on and tell you stories about the trip down (we really did laugh ourselves pretty much hoarse all the way to D.C.), the pub crawls (met a local folk band, forced them to sing Gordon Lightfoot covers and a surprisingly thorough version of “Farewell to Nova Scotia” in Georgetown), or the White House tour (a friend of a friend was an intern in the Clinton White House – no, not THAT intern – and we actually went into the West Wing of the White House, including the Oval Office, the Roosevelt Room and the Rose Garden), but the point of this story is the Hip show.

    So it was that on our last night in D.C., we headed out to the 9:30 club to see Gord Downie and the Hip rip through an amazing show.  The club is this little place, it was like seeing the Hip at the Horseshoe Tavern.  The music was fresh and loud, the band was on, and the joint was packed;  it was one of those transcendent rock ‘n roll moments.  Cold beer and a sweating house packed with Canadian ex-pats combined to make this a home game for the Hip, and they knew it;  I will never forget the energy of that show.

    Owen was over the moon with excitement.  The smile on his face was three feet wide the entire night, and when the band called it quits for the first time some time around midnight, we might very well have tied a string to Owen’s ankle and told people he was a helium balloon, because he was absolutely floating eight feet in the air while the crowd stomped, hooted and hollered for encore after encore.
    As the last strains of the last chord faded away, though, our paths diverged:  Owen wanted to get an autograph.  Roland, Mikey and I, as well as the group of Mikey’s friends who had joined us in the club, we all wanted to stay and enjoy a beverage or two.  Owen wanted to leave.  We had seen the band’s tour bus parked outside the club on the street, and Owen desperately wanted to go park himself next to the bus, pen in hand, and get the band’s autographs.  There was friendly conflict about this difference of opinion;  we belittled Owen’s fandom and made it clear that we wanted to stay in the club.

    Owen would not be swayed from his goal.  With a singularity of purpose unknown to the average beer-swilling club goer, he bade us farewell and left the club alone to stand his lonely vigil next to the band’s bus.  The rest of us carried on carrying on.  In particular, bent on securing further and other alcoholic beverages and keeping the party going, the group of us headed downstairs to another club below the 9:30, a club devoted to giving local indie bands a place to play.  There was still a (completely anonymous to us) band playing down there, and before long we found ourselves standing pint in hand watching them rock out.  At one point, I was enjoying the show and turned to my left to make some sort of comment to somebody in our group, only to find that I was standing next to Johnny Fay, the drummer for the Tragically Hip.  Johnny had a pint in hand too, and he nodded to me and said something like “Good band, eh?”

    People who know me may have a little trouble believing this next part, but it’s true:  I acted like Johnny Fay was just another one of the guys in our group and carried on a conversation with him.  So did Roland and Mikey.  Before long, we were just hanging with Johnny Fay, four guys watching a band and drinking pints together.  We never mentioned to him that we recognized him, though I’m pretty sure he knew we did.  He seemed happy enough just to have somebody to talk with about the music we were watching, somebody to stand and drink a pint with.  It seemed to me as though he was waiting for the other guys in his band to come join him downstairs, though they never actually came down.

    I have to tell you that this went on for about ten or fifteen minutes before it started to dawn on me how crazy bummed Owen was going to be when he found out what we’d been up to;  none of us had cell phones then.  I wanted to laugh, but at the same time I knew his heart would be broken when he found out that he had spent time standing in the rain next to an empty bus when he could have been having beers with the Tragically Hip.  The thing is, though, it was after last call now and there was no way to get outside, get Owen back in and still drink beer.  So we all did the only thing we could do, which was hold our pints, shoot the bull with Johnny Fay, and laugh discreetly amongst ourselves at Owen’s misfortune.

    I honestly don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I think one of our group finally explained to Johnny how huge a fan Owen was and that he had basically been staking out the tour bus for the last hour or so waiting for his bandmates to clamber aboard.  Johnny agreed to help us out and as we were finally clearing out of the little bar downstairs, he arranged for Owen to be allowed back in for a moment.  When we called to him from the club door, he was adamant that he didn’t want to move from his spot.  It took a lot of urging and more than a little profanity to get him to listen up and come the hell back inside for a second.   He did, and no sooner had he walked into the lobby of the club when his eyes went as wide as dinner plates;  Johnny had arranged for Gord Downie to come out and meet us.  Owen got his CD signed, and we chatted with Gord for a bit.  I remember telling him that we wanted his opinion on a matter of great interest to Canadians, an upcoming event that would have profound implications for the future of the country.  He thought I was talking about the Quebec referendum;  I told him I was referring to Leafs vs. Habs at the Gardens on Saturday night and he laughed.  We shook hands with Johnny and Gord and got ready to leave;  Owen asked Gord if he would mind posing for a picture.  He said okay but looked a little uncomfortable about it;  I asked Gord if he would mind if I had my picture taken with Owen, and he laughed and said okay.  The snapshot taken, we wandered out into the night.

    The reason I’m telling you about this road trip is because I think as Leafs fans, it’s too easy for us to – like Owen – focus exclusively on a single goal to the exclusion of all else.  The danger in doing that is that you might miss out on some positive experiences.

    So it is, I would say with this year’s version of the Leafs.  Yes, the team played with lethargy and a troubling lack of discipline on this recent road trip.  Yes, they should have come back home with some more wins.  Yes, their failure to do so probably definitively puts an end to any remote playoff aspirations the club may have had even ten short days ago.

    There are, however, some positives to take out of the Leafs’ play this year.  If you remember that there was never any chance that this team would win the Cup, and that the goal is and always was to simply take positive steps in terms of player development and team building towards success, if you remember that winning this year is not the ultimate end – then you can begin to look at this season as part of a process that has to happen.

    It’s that process and the specific, identifiably positive things that have occurred that I want to write about in this space.  It’s too easy to be negative, to petulantly stamp one’s virtual feet and to point out, over and over again, that the team isn’t going to win the Stanley Cup this year.  Hell, if you’re the mainstream media, you continue to point out that the team didn’t win last year or the year before that, all the way back to 1967 and to act morally outraged that the current management still hasn’t done anything to revise that historical fact.

    But there are things that are happening that bode well for the future.  Don’t misunderstand me, there are no guarantees that these positive developments will inevitably result in the Leafs winning the Cup;  only Mark Messier, Joe Namath and Meadowlark Lemon have ever had any success in guaranteeing wins.  I can’t say with any certainty at this point that the Leafs will reach their ultimate goal next year or any particular year after that.  But that doesn’t end the discussion;  I think there’s a value in trying to rationally and objectively measure the progress that has been made, where it has been made, when it has been made.

    Those are the things I hope to write about over the next few weeks, the silver linings in the immediately obvious clouds.  I want to focus on the positive developments in the process of building a contender as another season winds down, and we go through the trade deadline, the draft and another season of free agency.  I have a list of specific players and aspects of the Leafs’ game that I want to discuss, things that I think are encouraging in some way about the prospects for the Blue and White.   In this way, I hope we can all avoid making Owen’s mistake;  by worrying too much about the plan, the goal, the objective, you can miss out on some good stuff along the way.

    Sorry for the long-winded introduction.  Next time, I promise to greatly reduce the “tied an onion to my belt” quotient of the post.  I know the list I have in mind to write about.  Got any suggestions?  Drop ‘em in the comments.