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Rivalry Week: Can a Rivalry Ever Be Fun?

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What is “fun” these days, anyway?

NHL Prospects Tournament Washington Capitals v Nashville Predators Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

A lot of sports rivalries seem to boil down to hating the other team, their fans, their uniforms (though I will point out, again, that there are more reasons than just rivalry to object to the Blackhawks’ logo), their name, their city or state/province of origin... It’s exhausting work, and when your team’s rival meets with success, it’s the proverbial gall and wormwood.

So, what’s the upside to rivalries? Why encourage them?

Some of it is just that it can be nice to really pour your feelings into sports, when the rest of your life isn’t going the way you want it to. Entertainment is an important distraction, and sports are a very community-oriented form of entertainment; getting invested in a game—especially with other people—can be a great way of distracting yourself. And when you’re not just cheering for something, but against something else...well, there you are, distracted. The narrative drama is absorbing (which is why networks like to push rivalry games) and getting invested is even easier than usual.

Rivalries, whether they be official recognized ones or just about that one team you personally really hate, are also a great way to bond with fans of other teams if you need to find common cause.

There’s a great story from the 1940s about how the Rangers were driven out of their own arena during the playoffs by the circus and got to play two games of the Stanley Cup Final in Toronto instead of all up-to-seven in Detroit, because the Maple Leafs and the Red Wings, well, they didn’t get along. (Does any O6 team tolerate any other O6 team?) Whether the whole story is as simple as that makes it sound is unlikely—logistics and Toronto’s spot as the Center of the Hockey World™ were probably bigger factors than “enemy of my enemy”—the story is still great.

Similarly, if your circle of friends features fans of different teams, having a good common enemy is always good for getting everyone back on the same metaphorical couch to watch the game. Penguins fans and Capitals fans can unite in cursing out the Flyers, as long as the playoff structure doesn’t mean that one of them already eliminated the Flyers (I sat through this, in the metaphorical middle of the metaphorical couch). And I’m petty enough to have been able to take some joy in the Blackhawks’ utter dismantling of the Wild in 2015—which worked out for me, since I was watching those games with a couple of Hawks fans anyway. Might as well get some joy out of it.

But really, the biggest joy in sports rivalries is to crush your rival, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their fans.

Whom among us doesn’t feel some portion of our withered and frozen hearts begin to beat again at the sight of Sad Corey Perry? It’s delightful. The payoff for sitting through Ducks games, fearing for everyone’s safety, has been the Predators’ squelching of the Ducks’ postseason hopes. Sure, the Ducks have returned the favor, sending a battered Predators roster on to defeat in the next round, but we’ll still always have Sad Corey Perry.

Pekka Rinne shutting out the Blackhawks in back-to-back games at the United Center en route to a sweep was practically medicinal. Pekka Rinne scoring a goal at the United Center a couple of years after that? Distill it and bottle it; we’ve finally found a universal panacea.

Besides, if sports didn’t have rivalries, we’d have to invent them anyway.