The 100th Goal I Never Saw
2:45 PM EST on December 8, 2021
Welcome to Infinite Replay, a recurring feature about the plays we can’t stop seeing over and over and over again.
The strangest thing happened last winter: I became a Vancouver Canucks fan. I have never been to Vancouver. I don’t know anyone from there. I spent the great majority of my life not thinking about the Canucks, and then one day—I think in February—I almost always was.
Bandwagoning’s not the right word for this; no happiness lay waiting on the other side. Around the same time, I began rather intently following my hometown Red Wings. I hadn't ever before. But a vision came to me, of the Wings rebuilt, hoisting the Stanley Cup again after years in the basement. The particulars, like which players were on the top line or what year it even was, figured less in this vision than its hero: me. The dues I’d paid, the bad games I’d seen, how I’d been drawn to a team only after its decline, all for this moment. I imagined telling people what I’d endured in the lean years, and of course, they would find my journey extremely noble and interesting.
My one issue with the Red Wings was that the actual hockey most nights felt incidental to the long-term rebuilding at work. It’s fulfilling, in theory, to get in on the ground floor of something; it is less fulfilling to watch a bunch of guys who won’t even be here next year attempt the record for worst-ever power play in the entire history of the world. The Canucks demanded no such faith in a far-off future. “We live day-to-day. Like, we live with, you know, today—we’re in today’s world,” general manager Jim Benning said. He’d designed the team, very crudely, to compete now. The Canucks were what they were, which was not so good, but their present felt at least somewhat urgent. As I remember it, I caught the last few minutes of a Canucks game late on TV one night, had fun, made a note to watch the next one, and never stopped.
I grew to see what foreign exchange students find valuable in the simple drudgery of a different life. Just inhabiting a new space—pressing my face up against an unfamiliar glass—offered its own thrills. I liked the references and bits of lore that filled idle moments in the broadcasts. I liked listening to a Canucks podcast with mid-roll ads for local businesses I'd never heard of and would never patronize. A portal to some uncanny second world had opened up to me, filled with all this new stuff to be angry about. In this world, you pronounced things like proh-cess and organ-eye-zation, as in Jim Benning's roster-building proh-cess has been terrible, and the Canucks organ-eye-zation is a disgrace and should be sold. Sometimes while working, I’d play Vancouver sports-talk radio on the kitchen speaker and listen as calls came in from the likes of “Bill from Burnaby” and “Maple Leaf Dave.” A man who went by “Detroit Brian” called in a few times and I wondered what his deal was, and whether it was much different from mine.
On two or three occasions, my family has gathered in my grandparents' living room—they have these fraying cane dining chairs old enough to be en vogue again—and shuffled through negatives on my grandfather's slide projector. A kind of collective annotation takes place, everyone straining to bring alive a photograph, to convey its particular meaning. Remember we once went to that guy's house? So, this guy is that guy's uncle. Typically, I don't recall ever going to anyone's house and am instead left with the peculiar, humbling feeling that one's life is only a brief intrusion on some long, long timeline.
I guess this makes Alex Edler the slide projector, a conduit to a past that interested me, but never felt within reach. The alums of the last great Canucks team, the ones who went to a Cup final in 2011, gradually left and retired so that by the start of last season only Edler remained. I gathered that he'd put up points at a decent clip early in his career, but with age and wear retreated into a role as a reliable defensive defenseman. One running joke took his talent for shot blocking to mean that Edler harbored secret dreams of playing goalie. He looked tired and grizzled all the time, which was not a hockey skill, but gave the fans something like an avatar: the disappointment of the season, written plainly on his face. A COVID-19 outbreak knocked out half the team in early April and led to several postponements. When the Canucks were eliminated from playoff contention, first spiritually, then mathematically a couple weeks later, all hopes turned to a potential milestone. Edler had scored his 99th career goal in February of 2020, so the next one was now long overdue.
This, I thought, watching miserable players in makeup games nobody paid any attention to because they'd been rescheduled for after the playoffs started, is what team sports are all about. We'd found a hidden game within the game. The players and fans had shrugged off the cold, limiting truths of points and standings and chosen something far more meaningful to rally around. Everyone's energies—our mental, their physical—were being channeled toward The 100th Goal. The coaches threw Edler onto the first power play unit. His shifts became longer. Passes made their way to him when they otherwise wouldn't. The inside joke got funnier the longer it lasted. Once, Edler had a good look but his stick broke on the one-timer. Another time, he passed up an empty-net goal, let someone else score it instead, and his teammates couldn't believe him. I noticed, or maybe was imagining, that he looked grayer than usual.
In one of these makeup games, the Canucks are down four goals to the Flames to start the third period, and then they're roaring back so late and so suddenly I am sure this means the goal will happen tonight. Sometimes you just know. Then I see it. On a late power play, the Canucks now down one, J.T. Miller worms his way around the perimeter and eventually finds Edler, who launches a shot from the point and it's in. There being no crowd noise, I can hear someone's cry of relief—I'm not sure whose, maybe Miller's. "Finally!" the broadcaster John Shorthouse is saying, and Finally!, I am thinking. Also I am thinking that it was everything I'd dreamed it might be, the levels of drama and desperation so exactly calibrated. And then Brock Boeser is skating sheepishly beside Edler, telling his teammate something. The replay shows the puck was headed wide until Boeser's stick redirected it in. So never mind. The goal belonged to someone else.
Edler left the Canucks and signed with the Kings at the end of the season, which had gone so sourly you could hardly blame him. I was sad to see him go and more than a little haunted by the oddity of the number 99. Then I wondered if I had any business being sad. Without seeing goals one through 99, what did 100 matter anyway?
Growing up, I sometimes caught glimpses of my parents' lapsed fandoms. My mother would mention something about Bobby Bonilla on the Pirates; my dad would describe the Knicks playoff game that happened on their wedding day. Whenever I think about this—the lapsing, I mean, that my parents were totally different people with totally different concerns before I knew them—I can't help but scrutinize my own interests. The teams I love and the people I spend time with and my usual routines feel crucial to who I am, but are they so special they won't just fade into trivia one day, overtaken by other someones and somethings? One year ago, the Canucks and Alex Edler meant nothing to me. I'm sure I believed very firmly in that version of myself. Now I can't remember what I did with all the time I spend on the Canucks, though I know there must have been something. This stresses me out, even if it should be liberating to know that who you are now isn’t who you’ll be forever.
He did it, finally, last Wednesday. I wasn’t watching the game live, but I saw the clip online a couple minutes later. The apparent ease of the goal annoyed me. It suggested something along the lines of "a watched pot never boils," and the opposite always seemed truer in sports. All the fun is in the reciprocal energy between watching and boiling. The broken stick, the deflection, these failures had convinced me this goal would be scored in some extraordinary circumstance. But it happened in regulation and in the second period, against Calgary, on just some night. Edler streaked into the zone, the late man on the rush, received the pass and shot it. I admired the goal and kept scrolling.