As the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils prepare to face off in the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals on Wednesday, Toronto sports media has gone into overdrive doing what it does best: using real sports news as an easy segue into endless, circular arguments about what moves the Maple Leafs will make during their (yet again) extended off-season.
Being the moronically loyal Leafs fan that I am, I listen in vain for some murmur of optimism on which to pin my soon-to-be-dashed hopes and dreams. The latest unending debate concerns which veteran goalie the Leafs will go after. Three names reoccur: Roberto Luongo, Thomas Vokoun, and Tim Thomas.
One of those names, Tim Thomas, kicks down the mental door that separates two of my unwavering, and usually frustrating, passions; hockey and politics.
Now, less than a year ago the thought of Tim Thomas donning the blue and white would have implanted a CN Tower-sized grin across my face. He'd just won the Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins, picked up the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP), and the Vezina Trophy (NHL's top goaltender). He was emperor of the hockey universe. But then January rolled around and a different Tim Thomas was revealed. Tim Thomas, Hockey God, was supplanted with Tim Thomas, Tea Partier. As has been well documented, Thomas, an American, snubbed President Obama, refusing to attend the traditional White House visit that every championship team makes. He then released this grammatically poor, caps lock-happy statement:
"I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People. This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers' vision for the Federal government. Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL."
With this, Tea Party Tim -- who also sported a "don't tread on me" motif on the back of his helmet -- went from object-of-my-sports fantasies to object-of-my-unfunny-political-jokes. But now that it's an actual possibility that Thomas could play for "my" Maple Leafs (yes, I'm one of those irritating fans who refers to their favourite team as "we", as in, "wow, we're so consistently awful I can't remember that last time we played a game that mattered"), Thomas is threatening to bring together two worlds I prefer to keep separate.
Hockey-loving, liberal-leaning Canadians like to forget that hockey is an inherently conservative game. Competing groups of upper-middle class, rich (mostly) white guys go to "war" in order to bring glory and cash to corporations like Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment. These corporations then use that money to sap even more money out of poor folks who have been duped into cheering along through a manufactured, us-versus-them sense of regional and national pride. It's like Wal-Mart selling Chinese sneakers to unemployed rednecks heading for the latest "let's blame Obama for sending my job overseas" rally. If professional hockey was a person, it'd be Mitt Romney. That's why I prefer to keep political reality and hockey separate.
On the other hand, sports have soothed political divisions in the past. Nelson Mandela used rugby to unify to a fractured nation; a shared love of football inspired a literary near-miracle when Hunter S. Thompson came perilously close to admitting Richard Nixon was a human being; and Saturday morning movie watchers know Rocky Balboa ended the Cold War through boxing.
So what if Thomas becomes a Maple Leaf? Could/will I cheer for him? Of course, provided he plays well. I'd nominate Dick Cheney for pope if he produced a .930 save percentage while wearing a Leafs jersey. That's the brilliant thing about sports, it's all about escapism, suspended rationality, and communal loathing of the other team. And if Philadelphia Eagles fans can cheer for a convicted dog killer like Michael Vick, surely I can forgive Thomas for not understanding his own country's history, political system, constitution, and tax code.
I would be a hypocrite if cheered against Thomas for political reasons. Sport's ability to transcend politics and cultural differences is one of the things I love most about it. And really, if Thomas came to Toronto it would be a win-win situation. If he played well, I could let my Leaf fandom run wild. If he played badly, he's then ground zero for more unfunny jokes ("Thomas let in five goals because that socialist Obama wanted to redistribute the scoring.") See, not that funny.
Still, I worry that after the jubilation of a big win wore off, I'd have nightmares of Michele Bachmann and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker clinking cans of Busch beer and toasting a win for "real American patriots." But I think I could live with that vision as long as it's accompanied by another: the sight of thousands of Leafs fans celebrating in Yonge-Dundas Square after a playoff victory.