I want to tell you about two of the best experiences I’ve had watching hockey, and what I saw. I’m not going to bore you with the minutiae of good defensive positioning, powerplay efficacy, and the shots that did or didn’t hit the net. I saw those things too, but what happened on the ice was more of that, and given the uproar over Lias Andersson’s behavior last night I felt I’d be remiss if I didn’t recount what I saw.
I’ll start at the beginning: in 2015 I had the privilege of attending the NCAA Hockey Final in Boston. It was an exceptional game, filled with the kind of tension and athletic performance that we all love to see in a hockey game. At first, the BU team led by Jack Eichel dominated Providence, scoring 2 goals in the span of four seconds and seemingly securing a national championship title for themselves on home ice. Something crazy happened, as it so often does, when Providence cleared the puck out of their zone with just over 8 minutes to go in the third period. Rather than scooping up the puck or playing it with his stick, BU’s goalie Matt O’Connor dropped the puck behind him into his own net, tying up the game at 3 goals a piece. From there, Providence played with a fire like I’d never seen, and sure enough two minutes later following an offensive zone faceoff win Brandon Tanev roofed it and took the Friars up 4-3 on a shot I’ll never forget.
As the clock wound down the noise level steadily increased, and the Providence fans who made the trip up cheered and cheered until the buzzer sounded, when the Friars threw their gloves into the air and mobbed their goalie, winning a championship everyone said was BU’s to lose. What I saw though was more than that – it was a group of young men on the edge of adulthood suddenly transformed back into the purest childhood existence. This was a dream they had all harbored since they first laced up their skates, and now it was a reality.
Of course, there’s always winner and losers in sports, and last night, 13 rows behind the Swedish bench at the gold medal game of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo, I saw something different in its aesthetics, but substantively the same. This time, after the buzzer had sounded, as the Canadian fans who had made the trip screamed themselves horse but before the trophy was handed out, the silver medals were awarded. Captains go first in these procedures, which meant that Lias Andersson, the Rangers’ 7th overall pick this past draft, was awarded his first. What he did next has apparently scandalized the ever virtuous, genteel conscious of the average hockey fan. After receiving his silver medal Andersson promptly took it off and tossed it into the crowd.
Dreams were on display here too, only these ones remained shattered on the ice as the ghosts of the children who once dreamed them retreated into the locker room. Before Andersson left the ice however, the Canadian fans around me (who vastly outnumbered all Americans and Swedes in crowed by a ratio of almost 9 to 1) booed and taunted him while he sobbed into the embrace of one of his coaches. These same fans called Andersson’s act classless and loudly sang the Canadian goal song all through the streets of Buffalo, with a simmering faux-indignation at the medal toss only motivating them to sing louder. By morning it was all over; Andersson had given his quotes to the media, the twitter wars were waged, and most fans had made up their minds about Lias Andersson without knowing anything about him other than that he threw a silver medal away.
I keep coming back to dreams because I think that they’re at the crux of what happened last night. As children, we’re taught to dream big by our parents, teachers, and role models. We’re allowed to believe that anything is possible, that if you work hard enough you can be the best at what you do and maybe even accomplish something truly meaningful later on in life, as an adult. By that point though the world has sent a much harsher message: that dreams are unrealistic if not wholly ridiculous, and that we need to make compromises if we even want a snowball’s chance in hell at keeping those dreams alive. For a select few those dreams stay within reach for some time, but almost always are snuffed out at some point further down the road. It’s one of the brutal tragedies we experience as we come of age, but one that for whatever reason we seem to accept and move on. When you’re in a gold medal game however, those dreams remain standing, with the chance at becoming an incontrovertible reality.
Although the fans at this tournament were overwhelmingly Canadian, there was a proud Swedish contingent seen around the arena at most games (on one occasion I actually sat behind Elias Pettersson’s family, grandpa included, and watched him beam as his grandson netted one in an eventual victory over Team USA). These people had traveled halfway across the world to watch a bunch of teenagers wearing the famous Tre Kronor of Sweden compete on behalf of their entire country, and there’s no doubt in my mind that those feelings of pride were reciprocated by the team on the ice. What greater honor could there be than bringing home a gold medal in a World Championship tournament? What better way to make all of the people who had nurtured them and watched them grow into NHL hopefuls proud? With their family and friends in attendance but amply outnumbered, these kids gave it their all day in and day out, with Andersson leading the way. He had an exceptional tournament, making smart plays, taking tough shifts, and scoring 6 goals all while playing injured. All that was left for him to do was win that one last game with his friends and teammates, but with a little under 2 minutes to go in a tied 1-1 game, Tyler Steenbergen scored what would be the game winning goal and it was Canada, not Sweden, whose dreams would be actualized.
I don’t mean to take away anything from the Canadians, who played an excellent tournament and regardless, won the game. I certainly don’t mean to imply that these Canadian kids didn’t also work hard, aren’t also surrounded by friends and family, and don’t also dream. All I mean to do here is put you in the headspace of Lias Andersson, in an attempt to explain why maybe him throwing his silver medal into the crowd last night wasn’t quite as bad as it may have seemed. Contradictions abound in the arguments against Andersson but above all, they lack a human element. We so often forget it, but these are people out on the ice in front of us playing hockey, and in this case they were just barely older than children. They were in the process of doing something so profound in representing their nations that they likely can’t even comprehend it. They were pitting their dreams against each others’ all for our own entertainment. They were simply beating back against the current of adulthood, the tides of which will one day sweep almost all of us, and them included, into the sea of cynicism and compromise. Lias Andersson was simply drowning in the moment, and his last gasp for air was throwing that medal into the crowd. Can you really blame him?