As if the epic gravity of the fact that you were at the most highly attended hockey game of all time or the fact that you have probably never paid this much money for tickets to a sporting event weren’t enough, Winter Classic coordinators decided to deliver an added bonus for those brave enough to stay until the very end of the January 1st showdown between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs. (If you guessed that Nick Fury inducts Pavel Datsyuk into the Avengers after the credits, you are incorrect. Romanoff never trusted the guy.)If you hadn’t already been carted away in an ambulance after suffering symptoms of severe hypothermia, you had the option to experience the supreme treat of hearing the exclusive live announcement of the 2014 US Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team.
I went to the Winter Classic with my buddy Tom Mitsos, a die-hard Detroit and Team USA fan, and had he been able to feel his toes he would have made me stay through to the end of the announcement. As it was, he’d forgotten what toes were like, what they were used for, and how it might feel to wiggle them. While sitting in Ann Arbor traffic for a matter of hours, I found the time to look up the Men’s Hockey Team using my phone’s browser. Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard was joined by Maple Leafs forwards Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk and a long list of current American hockey royalty. There was no shortage of talent on this team, but there was an unsurprising lack of my guys.
In order to unpack this phrase, “my guys,” we’ll have to flash back a few years to when I waited out the toughest three years of the recession living in North Texas – Denton and Fort Worth, to be specific – and in the process became a lifelong fan of local NHL team the Dallas Stars. While in Denton, my brother Micah and I would walk down Fry Street, which at the time was considered the best bar scene in the area, over even Dallas’s Deep Ellum area, and over to Riprocks (or “Rips,” as Micah called it) to watch the Stars battle their foe-of-the-week on a TV tuned to Fox Sports Southwest. My brother’s love of the team was intoxicating, and fairly virulent, but there was something about this team that was bigger than just sharing a deep love with my brother. I’d watch hockey games while nursing a Ziegenbock and chowing down on a burger and when I looked up at the screen it was as if the Stars were the only team broadcast in color. Even the Detroit Red Wings, the beloved team of my youth and of my home town, only played in grey-scale. The other teams were Kansas and the Stars were Oz. I’d only had that feeling two other sports teams in my life, and both for only a year: the first was with the Dallas Cowboys during Terrell Owens’ last year with the team, and the second was the year the Detroit Lions looked like they might go undefeated, before most of the team had been arrested for drug crimes or otherwise. As of the 2013-14 hockey season, if my calculations are correct, I’ve been a Dallas Stars fan for a full seven years.
After looking over a Team USA roster devoid of Dallas Stars, I started to peruse the line-ups for some of the other contenders for Gold in the Olympics Men’s Hockey tourney. Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen had joined Boston’s Tuukka Rask and San Jose’s Antti Niemi as goalies for Team Finland, up-and-comer Valeri Nichushkin was playing for Team Russia, and captain Jamie Benn joined head coach Lindy Ruff on the roster of a star-heavy Canadian Olympic Team. Just prior to the Olympic break, I remember staying home sick from work, the only thing keeping me both warm and comfortable enough to sleep through my illness being the outdated Brenden Morrow Stars jersey Amy had bought me along with Valentine’s Day tickets to a Detroit-Dallas game at the Joe Louis as Christmas presents a previous year, and posting a selfie on Facebook just prior to a Stars game reading, “Go Stars! Go Canada! Go Finland! Go Russia!”
I hadn’t followed Olympic hockey in previous years – it was always over before I realized it had even started – but I had always assumed, in the current world climate, that the way I’d chosen which Olympic hockey teams I would support was the same way everyone chose which team they’d root for. For example, fans of Henrik Zetterberg would be fans of Team Sweden and fans of Pavel Datsyuk would cheer for Team Russia. This was not the case. In the days to come, I was bombarded by people horribly offended by my Facebook status simply because I was not rooting for Team USA to win the gold medal for ice hockey at the 2014 Olympics.
Don’t get me wrong. Some of these people had good arguments. There were those who said that I am merely a “contrarian,” choosing opposing teams simply to act as a devil’s advocate, and to some extent they are right. I have a lot of trouble joining in the actions of a mob, and one of my greatest fears is the tyranny of the majority. I was also called a “troller,” which is equally accurate. I do like to put things out there so we’re not silent about possible sources of oppression. I even have a friend who is known to refer to me as an “iconoclast,” but in a post-Nixon world of pedophile priests and human rights sacrificed for the sake of fleeting public security, what remains unspoiled to be placed atop a pedestal? The annoying part of the dialogue that followed my post was not being called these names that I clearly have little problem with being called. The annoying part was when people would act like there was a moral imperative to root for Team USA, like my choice to support any other team was simultaneously killing Tinkerbell along with all of America’s deployed armed forces and the American public as a whole. When George W. Bush was deposed of, I thought I’d see an end to McCarthyist accusations wherein ones opponent is labeled a terrorist, but that thought went up in smoke when I ended up on the wrong side of sports.
And this is the point where my good friend and fellow Winter Classic attendant Tom comes into the conversation, at exactly the wrong time. As one might expect, things got explosive. Before you all start lecturing me on the value of tact, I want to let you know that tact is overvalued in our society. It is not tact, exactly, that is the problem, but the thing that people parade around as tact. People prefer to be dishonest, to avoid conflict, and to be generally spineless, a series of vices that they define as a virtue, and as a result we see rumor-mongering and passive aggressive cold wars popping up left and right. Tact is downright useless in today’s moral climate. What it ought to be replaced with is understanding that effective communication requires a particular type of argument coupled with a particular type of delivery, both of which vary according to the circumstance. What follows is a good argument that I managed to attach to a terrible delivery, and the explosive consequences that I mentioned earlier.
While these are not the words that I exchanged with the my various angry interlocutors, they are the foundations of my perspective on the subject. If you’re looking for my response to my good buddy Tom, you can feel free to skip this section and jump ahead to “The Delivery.”
One of the current trends, alongside gluten free and non-GMO, is the buy local movement, but there was once a world where you had little choice but to buy locally. If you couldn’t grow or make a product at your own homestead or with the help of your kith and kin, you would bring your excesses to market and trade them to other people. This myth is both true and false. For many people, all of life took place within a thirty mile radius from birth to death, and yet even some of the earliest civilizations – the pre-Greek Minoans and Myceneans – were known for vast shipping networks, with suggestions of boat routes from Ancient Greece and Turkey all the way to Great Britain. For most, if not all, of recorded history, humankind has been cosmopolitan by nature.
We are more cosmopolitan now than at any other time. While for most people cosmopolitan means a drink or a magazine, it generally means that you are at ease in one country as much as in any other country. It derives from the Greek “cosmos,” or world, and “polis,” or citizen, suggesting that a cosmopolitan is a citizen not of any particular sovereignty, but of the world. There are some who are going to argue, “I am not cosmopolitan. I’ve only ever lived in America. I’ve never even traveled overseas. I did go to Tijuana on Spring Break once, but that doesn’t count.” I challenge these people to look at the nationality of the people who read their blogs, of those who post your favorite YouTube videos, or to simply check the tags on their clothing for their country of origin.
Some might argue that the Olympics was created not to fan the fire of petty local vices and feuds with ones neighbor, but in order to create a greater citizenship, a kindred spirit with people of different regions that might prevent future warring and trade disputes. Whether or not that is the case, I have a lot of difficulty finding any sporting event where you will find something purely American going up against something purely Chinese or purely Latvian. The main threats in the Olympics Hockey tournament were, as always, USA, Canada, Russia, Sweden, and Finland, and we have expected this to be so for some time simply due to the fact that these teams are loaded with highly skilled NHL players while many of the other teams are not. Now, players for these teams don’t simply stick to their home country and wait for the Olympics to come back again. These NHL players spend nearly all of their time practicing, playing, and making money for teams that are located only in North America, US teams like Philadelphia and Washington as well as Canadian teams like Montreal and Toronto. The majority of the players for the Dallas Stars may be Canadian by birth, but they are paid by an American team and in turn make money for the same American team, have houses or apartments in America, buy food and drinks from American drinkers, and bring their cars to American auto repair businesses when they break down.
The time when the purely American team or individual could be found has long been over, and that is assuming it ever existed in the first place. The original European settlers had nothing in common, no unifying language or national origin, and the American identity was defined in the negative, as not-British, not-French, not-Dutch, and they had even less in common with America’s original human settlers, the so-called Natives who traveled across land bridges from Eurasia long before any settlers accidentally stumbled upon the continent. Everyone is tainted, by this country or that country, through coaching, sponsorship, family, friends, financial support, media support, merchandising, or ancestry, and this is exactly as it should be. As a result, our thinking about who we want to support in any sport is rich and complex, allowing us to express our freedom to choose not only through popular vote for US public office but also by rooting for another nation’s Olympic team for reasons as simple as liking their story.
This is the argument that my beliefs on the topic stemmed from…
…and this is how I delivered those beliefs.
When Tom came at me with a “home team trumps everybody else” [Tom, a text] argument, I hit him back with three incredibly long texts explaining a series of questions that complicates the idea of “home team,” asking whether a goal by Tomas Tatar (Detroit Red Wings) or a win for Team USA is better for Michigan, and suggesting that the American revolution was fought so people wouldn’t have to be “guilted into liking the most popular [team]” [me, a text].
Shortly thereafter, I started a guerilla attack on Tom via Twitter. Tom wrote an innocuous statement that perfectly fit his post as a sports writer and Detroit Red Wings blogger / podcaster, a Valentine’s Day tweet reading, “Today is the worst, not because it’s Valentine’s Day, but because Zetterberg pulled out of the Olympics” [Tom, Twitter]. I implied that because of Tom’s position regarding Team USA, he must want Zetterberg to die because his efforts are not for the glory of Team USA and also that Ryan Kesler, Phil Kessel, Max Pacioretty, James van Riemsdyk, and Blake Wheeler should “be hung for traitors” [me, Twitter] because they play for un-American teams in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg during the regular season.
One week later, when Team Canada won the gold medal qualifying game with Dallas Star Jamie Benn scoring the game-winning-goal, the entire thing came to a head. We exchanged angry texts for the entirety of the morning, and it only stopped because my fiancee said that I was being a dick and should apologize to Tom. What happened next was unexpected, and did a lot to change my perspective about petty arguments. We’ll get into that soon, but first a flashback.
Several years ago, I was living in New York City. I spent a lot of my free time on AIM – little did I know, but it would be my last year using the program – listening to my brother talk about this great hockey team called the Dallas Stars and explaining their virtues and victories, and yet this was before I was even a Stars fan myself. I was in a band called Get Stop Ticket with my three friends Becky, Elliot, and Fiona, who had also relocated from Grand Rapids to NYC. We never played any gigs, but we certainly made the rounds of the Brooklyn and Manhattan (and sometimes even Queens) night life. One weekend, another Michigan compatriot and fellow musician, a DJ named Jon came to visit us. We attended a concert at Studio B – I think it may have been the electronic band Modeselektor, and if that is the case then my brother was there in attendance as well for this story – and I remember Jon checking in every couple moments to tell me something about the music or to crack some joke. I remember feeling really annoyed that the experience was peppered with this side-commentary and creating this unfair perspective of Jon as a pest that evening. Later, however, we went to a bar, and Jon started to unload some things about his past that I didn’t really know. We had gone to the same high school and I’d always seen Jon as much more popular than me and having a wealthier family, but I had never bothered to wonder what was going on in his life. That evening at the bar I began to feel for Jon more than ever before and to this date I believe that we are kindred spirits in ways few others are. I respect Jon and value him as a human being and a friend. The lesson I learned that night was like that of the classic parables of ancient history.
It was a lesson that I hadn’t learned well enough to treat Tom with the dignity that he deserved during our Olympic-sized battle. As soon as I backed down from the offensive, Tom felt safe enough to admit that his father had been in the hospital and he was terrified that things might go poorly for him. It’s not my place to tell Tom’s story for him, but it is my place to point out that this was an instance of the same lesson. I spent so much time attempting to meet the teams and players involved in Olympic Men’s Hockey where they are, loving them despite national affiliation, that I had forgotten to meet Tom where he was. Tom was in a scary place and he needed a friend, and what I brought to the table was yet another enemy.
Eventually Tom and I got on the same page, and I think we’ve put this dispute in the past. We’re both firm in our beliefs and I think we respect one another. To Tom’s credit, he was quick to share the blame for the series of events that had us at one another’s throat. In the end, we were two people who held different opinions, both with completely understandable and positive reasons for holding those different opinions (The Argument), and yet we clashed like Titans because of how we decided to let those opinions play out in public discourse (The Delivery).
Children are concerned with fairness, but only insofar as they gain from it. As a child I believed it unfair that my brother got presents on my birthday (Christmas) but that I didn’t get presents on his, so my parents would get me a present on February 4th. People on Facebook speak up for justice, but only insofar as their own cause is served. Tom and I, along with all of the others embroiled in the Olympic controversy I’ve written about, valued the concept of respect, but not in its fullness. We wanted people to respect our own opinions, either before or at the expense of offering the same respect to their opinions. Respect was at best a compromise and at worse a battle won or lost. If I had been able to see past the delivery and even past the argument and noticed the human being behind it all, a lesson I had claimed to learn after the incident with Jon, I would have seen another person who suffers through the difficulties of life just as I do. I would love that person for exactly the right reasons and I would have nothing but respect.
I’ve learned this lesson before, but I haven’t figured out how to live this lesson. Some would say this is the ultimate message that the people of the book (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) profess in unison, the same set of words uttered in different tongues by Confucius and to some extent – to lay individuals – by Lao Tzu and Buddha. As for me, I know that I am often presented a chance to prove that I have become the embodiment of this concept of respect, and that I can think of two times when I have failed. My fear is that I won’t get that many more chances.
(Oh, and by the way, Tom’s dad made it through that difficult time, and we were all pretty darn happy about it. We love you, Mr. Mitsos!)