Conflating the business and personal sides of sports fandom

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.

  • RedMan

    I will reserve judgement.

    Smid/Petry 2010-2013, a period largely spent as the Oilers’ top pairing:

    47.3 CF% / 49.2 OZS%

    Petry without:
    48.6 CF% / 48.2 OZS%

    Smid without:
    46.1 CF% / 48.3 OZS%

    Now that’s not a great stat, but considering the 2015-16 Flames have Giordano/Brodie as a shutdown pairing to take the tough minutes, and Dougie is an upgrade over Petry, that leaves two remaining possibilities:

    A) Smid-Hamilton as a middle pairing
    B) Smid-Wideman as a bottom pairing

    Option A could very well work as the drop in QoC could see Smid be much more effective.

    Option B could work for the same reason to an even further extent, though it wasn’t the best pairing in 2013-14 that was a different deployment.

    Now, the 2016-17 Flames have to clear Wideman, Smid, Engelland to make cap space. But if these guys can have good 2015-16 seasons it will only boost their value in the final years of their contract. Despite possession stats saying otherwise, guys like this always have buyers.

    Just look at the Penguins trading away Simon Depres for Ben Lovejoy.

    Simon Depres for Ben Lovejoy.

    Simon Depres for Ben Lovejoy.

    Man, saying that is still hilarous, though it screwed us over here in the Pacific division.

    • beloch

      Smid’s 2011-2012 season was ended by a neck injury, and he seemed a step behind the following season. That may be why he was traded to the Flames. As a Flame, he was clearly not the same player he was when playing with Petry. He didn’t have major foot-speed problems when he was on the first pair in Edmonton, but in Calgary he was one of the slowest skaters on the ice. He also looked to be in serious pain far too often.

      There’s a chance, a very slim one, that the neck surgery Smid had this year has corrected a long-standing issue. If so, it’s not impossible he’ll return to his former self. He could still be a useful player if that happens. If that doesn’t happen, he’s going to finish his contract in the press box or the AHL, barring call-ups to fill in for injured players.

      Smid is a pro. He wants to play. The last I heard of this (a couple weeks ago) the doctors had still not signed off on full contact for him. To me, that says he’s pushing it, and the Flames really have no incentive to let him push it. Make him slow down and take every precaution to ensure that his recovery is as full and complete as possible. If he needs to go to the AHL for conditioning, he’ll pass waivers. There’s simply no incentive to risk aggravating his injury again.

  • beloch

    Wow, is this world becoming harsh.

    When did “he’s a great guy but, since I don’t consider him useful any more I hope he just goes away” become acceptable?

    Every day I see and hear people express opinions and act in ways that are incredibly callous and selfish. Apparently common courtesy and empathy only apply these days when it’s convenient and/or profitable.

    Having this article appear right after the post about new rules for trolling and posting (the “don’t be an ass” principle) just makes me sad.

    I certainly hope that you will not apply the principles you have written about today when it comes to dealing with aging family members…

    I apologize if this offends, but how can we look at ourselves in the mirror with any self respect if we don’t speak when we see something that just screams “THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU JUST SAID!”

    • RedMan

      Oh come on. She spent the entire article explaining that there’s a difference between personal and business sides of a sports team. She’s happ he’s healthy. The reality of the situation though is that he does make the team objectively worse. Hockey is a business first and foremost. After that the humanity can come in as well.

      • RedMan

        I both understand and agree that hockey is a business first and foremost.

        I objected solely to the fact that this article did not come from a “hockey business” reference point but clearly from a “fandom” viewpoint.

        Hockey is indeed a business first industry, but as a “fan” I can’t agree with a viewpoint which explicitly states that this fan can’t support Ladislav Smid’s recovery simply because it doesn’t (in her opinion) profit the team.

    • Derzie

      I understand the sentiment but he is a young, healthy, wealthy family man with or without our empathy. An aging relative is none of those things (maybe wealthy). The article is about reconciling those human feelings that most people have about family and friends and humanity in general with the semi-fictional millionaire’s playground that is pro sports. Apples & oranges. Writing the article shows compassion at or beyond the norm. Not caring would be writing a 50 reasons why Smid should hit the trail.

  • SmellOfVictory

    I think we can learn to live with his contract, painful though it may be. I do really wish he’d never been traded for, though. I didn’t realize how bad his skating had gotten.

  • BurningSensation

    Before we get too Debbie-downer about Smid let’s remember that the guy has been hurt forever and that the Smid we saw in Cgy was not likely representative of his abilities. If he comes back REALLY healthy, he might be a decent 3rd pairing guy for us.

    Or maybe even better.

    We won’t know what we have till he hits the ice. If he’s slow and terrible then by all means let the pearl clutching and wringing of hands commence. Until then no point in not being optimistic.

    • RedMan

      I’m with you, for now. Hoping he comes back a new man, fully healthy, and able to be one of the best 3rd pairing guys in the league. He is big enough to handle clearing the front of the net during the PK, and this is important.

  • RedMan

    My position has always been I hope he gets healthy and remains healthy for his families sake. If he is cleared by the Drs and allowed to play then I hope he competes for the position and if he earns it and can stay healthy then great. a healthy Smid will be an improvement on the fellow we have seen the last two years. If he is healthy and can’t win a job then he will be an overpaid AHLer unless someone wants to take a chance on him. If he is not cleared to play then I wish him the best in all that he does.

  • Scoring_guru

    I feel torn as no one wants to see an athletes career end early and unfinished (winning the Cup), but over the next two years Smid will make $7 million dollars, so I don’t feel that bad. He is set for life and has the opportunity to pursue other passions in life. For regular “Joes”, it would take us 70 years at $100k a year to make that kind of money, and that doesn’t include the money Smid has already made in previous years.

    I agree that it is more disappointing that by him joining our team again does not elevate our chances at winning, it actually reduces our chances. Hopefully Hartley deploys Smid in situations that allows the team to succeed. LTR would be the best thing for the team and it is the team that ultimately matters.