Sports fandom is, inherently, weird. You put all this time and energy into watching, cheering for, and sometimes even writing about, a team of people you don’t know. What you do has no affect on them whatsoever, and yet, they have an affect on you.
At least in fiction, in books and television and movies, you know there’s someone behind the scenes controlling everything. Even if you don’t like what happens, there was a purpose behind it.
That doesn’t exist in sports. They just are, and you take what you’re given. And you keep coming back for more without even questioning it. Because you’ve chosen your group of guys to cheer for, and you just want good things to happen to them. As a team.
As individuals, too, because it’s easier to emotionally connect with a single person as opposed to an overall collective. You can co-opt an individual’s experiences as your own when you’re watching from afar, and if you look hard enough, see some of yourself in them. It’s what makes fiction possible. You’re given a main character to root for, and because he or she is the guy, you can.
In sports, though, there are way more than main characters. And the problem is, sports aren’t fiction. The filler characters? They may not be your focus, or your reason for cheering, but they’re still real people with real lives. You can boil them down to just numbers, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still more than that.
Fictional background characters can be brushed aside. Real people cannot.
Yes, this is about Ladislav Smid
The reports of Ladislav Smid’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
That is, to say: there’s a very real chance the Flames will not be able to place him on the long-term injury reserve for the remaining two years of his contract. As the off-season has progressed, we’ve gone from thinking his career was over to realizing he could be back on the ice in an official playing capacity this season.
And that official capacity? It – and the $3.5 million cap hit it carries with it – is for the Flames.
On the one hand, this is excellent news. I can’t imagine how distressing it must be to work your entire life towards something, pour all of your passion and being into it, and succeed all the way to the highest level, only for it to turn on you and destroy you. It’s a reality that happens to several professional athletes – the game is capable of turning back on them – but it’s not something you wish on anybody.
And certainly not a guy like Smid who, it seems like, is a great guy. Look at the above noogie he’s giving Mikael Backlund. Here’s him giving one to TJ Brodie. Here’s him dancing. He seems awesome, probably a really fun teammate to be around, and you don’t want his time in the game to be over at just 29 years old.
But at the same time… Smid’s recovery is bad for the Flames. It’s awesome for him as a person, but for the team and all the business that goes into it, not getting a free pass on Smid and his contract hurts. The Flames are, in all likelihood, far better with Smid off the ice than on it, and they’re definitely better off without his $3.5 million taking up space.
With LTIR, you could hand-wave him away. With him healthy, you can’t.
Luckily, as fans, this really isn’t something we have to worry about. We don’t have to think about how to fit Smid in, how to try to manage his contract, what to do with a subpar expensive player. All we really have to do is figure out how you marry these two ideas: to be happy for the person, but less so for the team.
And Ladislav Smid is not Daymond Langkow
When healthy, the Flames opted to go with a bottom pairing of Smid and Deryk Engelland. With Smid shut down for the season, they turned mostly towards Raphael Diaz and Engelland, and were all the better for it.
Diaz is gone (and David Schlemko is now too, for that matter), but the acquisition of Dougie Hamilton has changed things on the blueline. Even if healthy, it’s hard to find a place for Smid. There’s one spot actually still free in the lineup, and he’ll have to contend for it with at least two or three other guys.
Smid is, simply, not talented enough to make a positive impact. The on-ice product didn’t miss him.
When a puck hit Daymond Langkow in the back of the neck and caused spinal cord damage that kept him off NHL ice for a little over a year, the on-ice product felt it. This was a time the Flames were lacking in centres, but it wasn’t just that: Langkow was a positive possession player and excellent linemate. And sure enough, when he came back, it didn’t even take him a full game to end up on the first line, centring Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay despite starting the game on the fourth line.
Langkow’s return was easy to celebrate. To overcome that terrifying injury and be able to step back on the ice, take contact, and return to the game – that’s a story anybody can appreciate. But it wasn’t just that which made it easy to be thankful for his return: in addition to overcoming extreme adversity, he also made the Flames a better on-ice product.
His return was good for him, and it was good for the team.
You can’t say the same for Smid, which results in these more mixed feelings. Barring a miraculous surge of improvement, Smid’s return is bad for the on-ice Flames. You want to celebrate his return as an individual, but this is a sport and culture that really doesn’t like individualism. Everything is about the good of the team – and Smid is not good for the team.
Meeting in the middle
Sure, I have my favourite players. You probably do, too. We all have our favourites for whatever reason – but ultimately, we’re here because we want to see the team, as a collective whole, do well. Some individuals contribute more than others, but it’s team success that stands out the most.
I mean: yes, I really, really want to see Iggy win the Cup, Flame or not. Yes, I was really happy when Robyn Regehr won the Cup, even though he was playing for Los Angeles. They aren’t Calgary players, but I still wish(ed) them well.
But ultimately, I want the Flames to win.
A major reason I can still cheer for Iginla, or why I could cheer for Regehr, is because before, they were huge parts of the Flames. They may not be the actual Flames anymore, but they once were. I developed a one-sided emotional connection with people I don’t know because they were a big part of the team I want to see win.
Smid is not a big part of the team I want to win. I don’t have that same desire to see him, individually, succeed. As a Flames player: yes, I want him to exceed all expectations and contribute at a level higher than he was ever capable of before. If he were on literally any other team in the league, though, I wouldn’t give him a second thought.
I’m empathetic. I’m really, really happy it looks like Smid’s career will resume – but it gets ruined when realism butts its head in, and I remember his career resuming is not good for my first priority: the team he plays for.
Which leaves me stuck, and trying to work out my feelings in a public forum that hopefully others can relate to.
Smid probably actively hurts the Flames more than he helps, and that sucks, because again: he seems like a really awesome guy. He didn’t deserve all of these injuries he’s been saddled with throughout his career. He didn’t deserve his career being threatened. And he certainly doesn’t deserve people preferring he be unable to play.
But he does not contribute to the good of the team, and that’s my priority. That generally is the priority in hockey.
This is where sports fandom gets callous. I can emotionally invest in sports because I pick up on favourite players. I want to see them do well. The want to see certain individuals succeed really dominates so much of the fandom – but only when the individuals are convenient.
Smid is not convenient.
I wish he was. I really, really wish he was. I wish his return was a cause for celebration on the business side of things; that bringing him back into the fold would leave the Flames with a better defence and a more formidable on-ice product. I wish I could celebrate his improving health and work back towards contact the same way I could for Langkow.
But I can’t. I don’t want him on the Flames, because he doesn’t bring the Flames a better defence or more formidable on-ice product. I don’t want him to never play again – but I don’t want him to play for the Flames again.
I wish I did.