We are the champions, my friends, and we’ll keep on fighting ’til the end.
52 years after their formation, the St. Louis Blues have finally won a Stanley Cup. Finally.
I’m a casual hockey fan rather than a hardcore one. I enjoy watching it, but I don’t know all of the rules, and I’ve only been to two Blues games in my lifetime. But I like them a lot. They have fun, talented players, and the team’s social media game is on point. And I love St. Louis. Yes, it’s flawed and has quite a few problems, but it’s my home. So, like any St. Louisan who casually follows the local pro sports teams, I became obsessed with their postseason journey. Now, at the end of that journey, I want to talk about pro sports narratives.
Professional sports, just like most forms of entertainment, have narratives. They have story lines. These story lines get us involved in the games, and they can unite or divide fan bases. In most of these story lines, there is a hero, and there’s a villain.
So who are the heroes and the villains of the 2019 Stanley Cup Finals?
That depends on who you ask.
For much of America, the Blues were the heroes. They were dead last in the NHL on January 3, and they fought back to rise through the ranks and make the playoffs, and then they went and won it all. That’s a Hollywood-style underdog story if I ever heard one. And it’s full of other sports movie tropes and cliches, like the unstoppable rookie goalie (Jordan Binnington); their biggest fan being an 11-year-old girl battling a rare disease*; a celebrity fan promoting them (Jon Hamm); and losing at home to force a Game 7, which was also an away game. Both national news outlets like NBC News and The New York Times and local outlets like the St. Louis Post-Distpatch have used phrases like “fairy tale” and “fantasy land” to describe the Blues’ win. The CBC called their win a “Hollywood Ending.” Overall, the Blues seem to fit into the hero role quite nicely.
*Her name is Laila Anderson, and she’s far more poised and confident at age 11 than most of us will ever be in adulthood.
Unless you hail from Boston. As Bruins winger Brad Marchand said, “They took our dream from us.”
Whoa, Brad! The Blues took your dream from you? How dare they!
So are the Blues the heroes or the villains of this narrative? And where does that put the Boston Bruins?
Okay, time for some context. Boston professional sports teams win all the time. The Red Sox broke “The Curse of the Bambino” back in 2004 (when they swept the St. Louis Cardinals), and they’ve won the World Series multiple times since then, including in 2013 (against the Cardinals again!) and 2018 (against the L.A. Dodgers). The New England Patriots have won the Super Bowl many times since 2002. So many times in fact, that a picture of Tom Brady looking sad after the Patriots lost the Super Bowl in 2018 became a meme. People outside the Greater Boston Area reveled in seeing a sad Tom Brady. Heck, I reveled in seeing a sad Tom Brady.
Put simply, Boston sports teams have become major sports villains in the past two decades. They win so much, and everyone not from Boston is pretty sure that the Patriots cheat. The Bruins’ Brad Marchand, who thinks the Blues stole his dream, is nicknamed “the rat,” and he revels in making everyone hate him.
Interestingly, Boston sportswriters were upset that the Bruins lost, but they never congratulated the Blues on winning or admitted that they made good plays. They declared that it was all the Bruins fault. The Blues won because the Bruins failed, not because they had any strengths or good strategies of their own. One sportswriter declared that one word describes what they did: “choke.” Another one says that the Bruins had to watch the “unspeakable sight” of…the Blues celebrating because they won a championship. Read the sportwriters’ reactions in the article linked above. They’re a hoot.
One thing that comes across in those reactions is entitlement. The sportswriters seem to believe that because their team was apparently so strong, they were owed a championship. They claim that the Blues were “a slower team with an exploitable goalie.” That’s the thing: slower does not mean worse. Also, can someone please explain what an “exploitable goalie” is?
These sportswriters bend over backwards to paint any team that isn’t from Boston as a villain. This paragraph from that article sums it up perfectly:
“Shaughnessy (a Boston sportswriter) likens Binnington and Blues coach Craig Berube to Super Bowl XLII villains David Tyree and Eli Manning. Both pairings destroyed historic opportunities. The Giants denied the Patriots of a perfect season. The Blues’ win prevents Boston from holding three championship titles at once.”
…Wow. I have never before seen Eli Manning referred to as a villain. Also, the crimes that this writer has convicted the New York Giants and the St. Louis Blues of are the crimes of denying Boston the chance to earn ridiculously improbable, if not impossible, sports titles. Perfect seasons are rare. If your team has one, then it’s talented, skilled, and beyond lucky. And has any city held three championship titles at once? Should any city hold three championship titles at once?*
*Detroit apparently did back in 1935-1936.
The New York Times has a great comeback for that second charge: “The Greater Boston area must now summon the fortitude to face its failure to hold three major titles at once. Oh, well, the World Series and the Super Bowl will have to do.”
That’s the thing about villains: they believe that they’re the heroes of their own story. They get wrapped up in both entitlement and resentment. Just look at popular movie villains like Scar and Loki. You can go back to Shakespearean characters like Iago and Richard III. They want what someone else has, and they despise that person for having it. Why? Because they got a raw deal that they don’t deserve. The Bruins and their fan base are very much in that head space right now, trying to figure out how they lost the championship that was theirs. They were the best team ever! They deserved it! They were entitled to it! So how did they lose?
Well, in the end, it comes down to how each team handled adversity. To explain this, I’m going to use Hogwarts houses. The Bruins are Slytherin: cunning, resourceful, conniving, and a bit manipulative. The Blues are Hufflepuff: hardworking, good teammates, compassionate, resilient, relentless, and persistent. When the Blues would rough up the Bruins, the Bruins would make a stink about it. Their coach, Bruce Cassidy, would say something in a press conference, or one of their players would make comments about it. They’d try to manipulate things to go their way. The Blues, on the other hand, would be upset about a penalty or an error, and then move on. Interim Head Coach Craig Berube mention that he wasn’t sure that all of the penalties were called properly, and then moved on. The Blues’ greatest strength was their ability to move past obstacles without freaking out over them. The Bruins never got the hang of that.
You see, winning in a sports narrative doesn’t always come down to who has the best stats on paper. It often comes down to being able to deal with the situation in front of you and find a solution that works in your favor. Annoying opposing players the way Marchand does won’t win you championships if your opponents know how to ignore those tactics. The Bruins and their fans will have to come to terms with the fact that the Blues out-skated and out-played them when it mattered, and they won their first Stanley Cup because of it.
…I guess I just spun that narrative in my team’s favor, didn’t I? Ah, well, maybe sports narratives don’t exist without some spin.