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I can’t watch playoff hockey anymore.
There’s a growing sentiment that the NHL playoffs are the best playoffs. That the combination of hockey’s natural unpredictability and the heightened stakes of elimination make for a thrill surpassed only by the sport’s own playoff overtime games. That the seven-game series eliminates some of the luck that plagues football’s single-game eliminations—but without favoring the higher seed as emphatically as the NBA playoffs do. That the two-month playoff stretch, which just about doubles baseball’s relatively contained tourney, is a good thing.
And yet I’m having genuine difficulty watching.
Partly because of external factors. The last month has been rough in a lot of ways, and I generally use sports as an escape from that kind of tension. The NHL playoffs work the other way around. Part of this too involves my own sad conviction that every time I turn on the TV to root for a team, that team immediately starts losing. This is, of course, complete insanity. But it’s still true. And yet another part of it comes from my growing feeling that the sport is something like 89 percent luck. (Which, in turn, makes it even easier to conclude that my viewing choices somehow affect the outcome.)
What crystallized my decision to (largely) stop watching was my realization that when the Caps win without my watching, I still get about 75 percent of the vicarious thrill of the victory. I relive it in GIFs and highlights and sometimes the condensed games that CSN airs. I read the columns and watch people—much braver fans than I—rejoice on Twitter.
But when the team loses and I’m not watching, especially if it’s one of the grinding, soul-deadening, torturous losses at which playoff hockey seems to excel, my depression is a small fraction of what it is when I sit through the whole game. The math there is pretty clear, at least to me, but let’s break it down anyhow.
Pros of watching: The shared experience of pro sports fandom. The sense that I have somehow EARNED my enjoyment of the team’s victory. The opportunity to witness feats of amazing athleticism in real time.
Cons of watching: Two-plus hours of constant, unrelenting tension, punctuated by tedious commercial breaks. The chance to be truly devastated by a loss—to have those hours of white-knuckling culminate in sudden heartbreak (as in overtime) or a slow acceptance of the inevitability of failure, or any of a dozen other flavors of misery. (Columnist Bill Simmons has for years written about the “levels of losing,” which he thin-slices into 16 distinct varieties of pain. By contrast, winning creates a one-note emotion.)
Pros of NOT watching: Two-plus hours to catch up on chores or see my children or otherwise use as I please. Not jacking up my blood pressure and shaving years off the end of my life. Seeing all the amazing feats of athleticism (in highlight or GIF form) without having to witness the more quotidian stuff. Still get to smile and enjoy a victory, and still able to enjoy that victory’s benefits on the wider community. If following via social media, can still enjoy real-time action by proxy with much lower emotional buy-in.
Cons of NOT watching: Joy in any victory feels totally unearned. Receive totally earned derision and scorn from other, better fans. And … well, that’s about it.
And, if we’re being real with each other here, isn’t joy in a victory just as much a lunatic illusion as my imagined, observer-effect culpability in a loss?
So I’ve largely made the only choice that makes real rational sense: not to watch. I’m not proud of this. It makes me feel pathetically old and fragile, for one thing. It makes me an undeniably lousy fan, for another. And it is beyond preposterous for even the most part-time, alt-weekly-ish of sports columnists to take comfort in NOT watching the local team’s playoff run.
Whether I’m proud or not, though, the fact of the matter is that not watching the hockey playoffs has reduced the stress in my life. It has made a rough few weeks incrementally easier. Not watching, in fact, has paradoxically managed to increase my enjoyment of the whole thing. I only hope that one day the Caps will give me the opportunity to really enjoy not watching a Stanley Cup Finals appearance.