Sunday, March 02, 2008

Scribblings of the Scribes of Sport: Gare Joyce's reflections on a tragedy

The recent death of Windsor Spitfires captain Mickey Renaud hit pretty close to home for me: when an apparently-healthy young athlete inexplicably collapses at the breakfast table, it's tough not to think about both your own mortality and the role athletes play in our lives.

Writing about a tragedy like this is a tough task, and it takes a special talent to portray someone accurately through the reminisces of friends and teammates.
It's also an incredibly difficult topic to tackle, especially given the insular nature of sports in general and junior hockey in particular: these already close-knit communities tend to close ranks even more after this sort of tragedy. Fortunately, Gare Joyce has what it takes to do the job, and turned out a tremendous piece for ESPN's Page 2, more than worthy of further analysis here.

Consider the title, "O captain, our captain," an allusion to Walt Whitman's poem about Lincoln's assassination, which was later famously referenced in Dead Poets' Society). It's more than a surface allusion, in my mind at least. Whitman's poem talks about how the ship's achieved its goals and come back to port safely, but the captain isn't there to see it. As he writes, "The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done/From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won...But I, with mournful tread/Walk the deck my Captain lies, fallen cold and dead." There are certainly similarities to the Renaud situation here: the Spitfires are doing well (35-15-11, third-best in the OHL's Western Conference) and have already clinched a playoff berth, but their captain won't be there to see any success that comes from his efforts.

The article continues on from this promising start in good fashion. Joyce begins with a poignant image of Spitfires' GM Warren Rychel shakily lacing up his skates while discussing the situation. As Joyce points out, it's interesting to see a former tough-as-nails player so deeply moved by this situation. "He had been a tough guy in the NHL, 400 games and dozens of brawls against the league's heavyweights, and now he was fighting back tears," he writes. "Again. No counting how many times over the past 10 days." This brief glimpse past the usual gruff and solid facade put up by many hockey players powerfully conveys the uniqueness, emotion and tragedy associated with this story─coming so early in the feature, it's a perfect answer to the ever-present question often leveled at sports features, "Why should we care?" The unexpected reaction shows there's a crucially important story here, and draws the reader's attention to what's to come.

A particularly interesting segment of the article focuses on one of Renaud's legacies: a pair of enormous work boots he came up with the idea for, to be awarded to the hardest-working player on a given night. The boots provide an insight into Renaud's character, as a leader, motivator and scrappy player, always looking for a way to give his team the edge.

Leadership is absolutely crucial in major junior hockey, perhaps more so than at any other level. At lower levels, many of the players are local, and the game isn't taken as seriously. At higher levels, it's a group of professionals. Sure, captains are still an important element in the NHL, but motivational speeches and inspiration likely don't play as big of a role among adult pros. University hockey needs leaders as well, but there's much less of an uprooting effect: many university players choose their school for other reasons than hockey, and those from out of town are often in the same boat as many other students. Hockey's also only part of their lives, as academics and social events occur outside the team bubble as well.

In major junior, as Joyce points out, the majority of the players have to leave their hometowns, their families and their friends at the age of 16. Hockey becomes a huge part─many would argue the central part─of their lives, and their social networks and day-to-day routines adjust accordingly. Also, most of the guys probably have the all-consuming desire to do well individually and attract NHL attention, perhaps spurred on by the knowledge that only a few of them will succeed. Synthesizing these diverse uprooted personalities, each with their own dreams and goals, into a cohesive unit is a difficult task for anyone. It's made even more difficult when the captain, expected to keep the team together and on the same page, is an adolescent himself dealing with many of the same issues.

Joyce shows that Renaud had his own set of unique issues to deal with as one of the few to play in front of his hometown crowd. As he writes, this brings its own set of challenges. "You get home-cooked meals, but that doesn't help with the unrelenting pressure of performing in front of those who know you," he writes. "Some struggle with it but Renaud thrived."

Joyce then uses some quotes from Spitfires' coach Bob Boughner to illustrate what an exceptional person and leader Renaud truly appears to have been, able to unify his fellow players and turn a group of individuals into a dynamic team.

"He was pulled in a lot of directions," Boughner said. "He had his friends on his team and his friends from his neighborhood. He had the kids he went to school with, too. As the captain, he tried to do things in the community -- if there was an event that a player had to attend, if someone had to get up and speak, it was Mickey. And he wanted to do that. If a player was traded to the team, he was the one who picked him at the station and drove him to his billets' house and introduced him to his teammates. Mickey looked for a way to lead."

That's a fantastic description for a 19-year old, particularly coming from a former NHLer of Boughner's reputation. No wonder the Calgary Flames wanted this guy. It's incredibly tragic that his life was cut so short, but he certainly made an impact on his team, his friends and his community, as the outpouring of support from those he touched demonstrates.

Joyce finishes off the story with a unique touch, an interview with Spitfires' centre Matthew Bragg, who was given the boots after the Spitfires' first game without their captain.

"It was Mickey who was in charge of the music and I used to get on him," Bragg said. "He used to play this awful rap or hip-hop or whatever. I'd get in there and try to sneak on some of my music. Some Irish stuff. Some Newfoundland music, like the band Great Big Sea. I might take over the music in the room from now on. Maybe that's what I can do."

The conclusion follows on from this perfectly, summing up the article neatly and again demonstrating the irreplacable void Renaud's left in the organization.

"At practices and before games there'll be music the rest of the season and maybe Bragg will put on Great Big Sea," Joyce writes. "But no one is going to replace Renaud, their captain -- someone will wear his boots but no one will put on the Spitfires' C."

A fitting conclusion to a great piece. Stylistic analysis can only take you so far, as great elements don't of their own always make for a solid whole. Joyce injects more than this, a cohesive soul to the piece that deeply moved this reader at least. There's heart in this story: it's not an abstract tale, but rather a strongly personal one that relates the true significance of Renaud. Joyce makes you realize the human tragedy here, and shows how this will forever affect everyone who coached, played with or was just friends with Renaud. It's moments like this that break the barriers between athletes and the rest of us, that force us to step back and see the person as a whole, not just their on-ice personality. The music has fallen silent for the moment, and even if Bragg puts on Great Big Sea, it will never again be an ordinary day for the Windsor Spitfires: on the deck their captain lies, fallen cold and dead.

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