MAKING unintentional errors despite all best intentions is part of the human condition. There isn’t a person on this planet who hasn’t experienced things going awry at the worst possible moment as a result of making an embarrassing mistake.
What many haven’t experienced is the humiliation of being all-too-human in front of thousands of people, the whole country even.
Many who watched their favourite NHL team do battle this past weekend are undoubtedly old enough to vividly recall Phil Esposito’s impassioned plea to Canadian fans for patience and understanding during the iconic 1972 series between Canada and the then Soviet Union (now Russia).
During the fourth game of the series in Vancouver, which saw the Canadians go down in defeat 5-3 (despite having outplayed the speedy Russians in the previous game) Canadian fans started booing their own team. Can you imagine?
Back then, the myth that only Canadians can play good hockey was a bubble that had yet to be burst; the mental pressure on the supposedly indestructible Team Canada players, who were facing the real prospect of defeat, must have been enormous.
After the game, Esposito admonished the fans on live television, saying the Canadian squad was doing its best. The Canadians, who were clearly out of shape compared to the ultra-fit Russians, nonetheless won the hard-fought series after it moved to Moscow.
Years later, Esposito recalled in an interview that the late Bill Goldsworthy took it very hard personally during the Vancouver game when fans booed him after he took a penalty that allowed the Russians to score.
“You could see it in his face,” Esposito said. “He never got over it.”
Fast forward to last week. Even NHL fans who don’t cheer for Toronto may have noticed the uproar over the Leafs’ Jake Gardiner. Gardiner, an otherwise good defenceman who, of late, has been prone to making some unforced errors, was relentlessly booed during a home-ice match-up with the Colorado Avalanche. Every time he touched the puck, a loud chorus of boos erupted over Gardiner, a nice fellow who wouldn’t hurt a fly. It was deplorable behaviour, and a terrible example for the kids in attendance, but it was unstoppable: mob-mentality had set in.
Earlier this season, Leafs coach Mike Babcock observed that the mental part of the game is especially hard for the young players of today because — like nearly everyone else on the planet — they read social-media posts about their performance, which are often mean and vitriolic.
The game has changed a lot since that memorable 1972 series. Nowadays, most Canadian players are super-fit and skate like lightning, while Russian and European players, who still skate that way, can be bruisingly rugged when the occasion demands it (hello Alexander Ovechkin).
The one thing that hasn’t changed? The players are only human, after all. Sometimes they make mistakes, like everyone else. Let’s try to remember that the next time we go to a game, whether at the local rink or the big show.