Nights That Won’t Happen
“The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind
When the here and the hereafter momentarily align
See the need to speed into the lead suddenly declined
The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind
And as much as we might like to seize the reel and hit rewind
Or quicken our pursuit of what we’re guaranteed to find
When the dying’s finally done and the suffering subsides
All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind
All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind
Nights that won’t happen
Time we won’t spend
Time we won’t spend
With each other again”
“If outrage ends, what is life”
It’s been over a year since he passed, but I still spend a fair amount of time thinking about Jason Botchford.
Having said that, I must admit that I did not expect to be thinking about him at 12:05 yesterday afternoon, when I received the news that the coroner had finally released his cause of death.
Anyone who has followed me for a decent length of time will be well aware of the fact that I consider myself among Botch’s chief admirers. I was also lucky enough to correspond with him on an infrequent basis for a couple of years. Today has been hard on me. I cannot imagine how hard it has been for others.
I miss Botch for a lot of selfish reasons. He was such a monumental figure in Vancouver sports media that it has been tangibly worse to cover the team this season without him. I did not know him particularly well as a person, so I’m left feeling the loss mainly when something crazy happens or when someone has an awful take he almost certainly would have dunked on. I miss the stories, obviously, and the inside jokes. I miss the way he could put a bad talking point to bed with a couple of well-timed paragraphs. But most of all I miss his unflinching willingness to rock the boat.
I had hoped, foolishly, that some of Jason’s colleagues would make up for his absence by committee. In some ways, they have. Drance, Harman, and Wyatt have done an excellent job with the Armies; and Patrick Johnston continues to do an admirable job covering Jason’s old beat at the Province. But unfortunately there hasn’t been anyone around to channel his contempt for authority. Few hockey writers have the platform or influence botch did. None possess the joy he had for pissing people off.
Botch once told me to never let the mopes win. Well, it’s been almost a year and a half and I can say with confidence that the mopes are indeed winning. Or at least it feels that way a lot of the time.
I’ve written about Jason once before, and I think I did an okay job of channeling what he meant to the Vancouver hockey community, but I was still constricted by the boundaries of my platform, the expectations of the market, and good taste. None of that is the case now. It’s been over a year, I have nothing to lose anymore, and I feel that I can now speak more candidly about why Jason’s death hit me so hard.
There were a lot of things I loved about Botch, but the thing I loved the most was that we hated all the same things: double standards, nepotism cases, journalists who are more interested in Standing Near Athletes than in telling a story that might qualify as compelling or even *gasp* critical. His writing also revealed a deep resentment of laziness. Not the charming, slacker, Jeff-Bridges-in-Big-Lebowski kind of laziness, but the kind that can only be manifested when a person has been so devoid of accountability for so long that they don’t think twice about spending more time looking at the spread in the press box than at the game. Nothing sets me off more than an unearned sense of accomplishment, and while I can’t say for sure, I suspect Botch felt similarly.
I went for drinks the other night with a couple friends who are part of what could loosely be described as Vancouver’s hockey media scene. We spent most of the time talking about all the stuff we know to be true, but can’t say in public, engaging in the kind of petty media gossip that informs all the best sports content. It was the kind of life-affirming experience that reminds you of everything COVID has taken from us, and of how easy it is to take something like a dinner date with a couple of friends for granted.
Botch inevitably came up multiple times throughout the evening, and as I walked home that night, I thought about a Purple Mountains song that I’ve been listening to a lot recently: Nights That Won’t Happen. I thought about how I never got the chance to have a night like this with Botch. Then I thought about all the other friends I’ve made who knew him much better than I did who were potentially deprived of decades-worth of nights like these.
As someone who has always treated hockey less like a hobby than a pathology, Botch’s writing was to my tortured psyche what a lighthouse is to a capsizing boat: not quite enough to save you in and of itself, but enough to make you believe you have the strength to carry on and save yourself.
I’ve always laughed at the idea that hockey could be an escape from the problems of the world. After all, a small group of out-of-touch old white men getting recycled in and out of positions of power with little to no accountability isn’t exactly a problem that’s unique to hockey.
A year or two ago, when I first got a bug in my brain about trying to discuss the intersection between hockey and politics and the way one arena often rhymes with the other, I felt like a crazy person. As the sport becomes increasingly politicized, however, I have felt increasingly vindicated. Today, when the sports world collided with the opioid crisis, (an issue I had been deliberately pushing out of my brain because it was too depressing,) I was angry and upset, but my conviction that hockey can be a useful vector for meaningful change given the right circumstances had never been stronger.
When you spend as much time obsessing over politics and culture as I do, it can be easy to come to the conclusion that the problems we face are so entrenched and complex that untangling them will take multiple lifetimes. What makes the overdose crisis so frustrating is that it’s an issue with a simple, straightforward solution. The end of prohibition and a safe supply are the masks and social distancing of the opioid epidemic, and yet we’ve seen none of the urgency or action from the federal or provincial government that has been applied to the COVID-19 pandemic despite the fact that its effect on British Columbia has been deadlier and longer-lasting.
I didn’t know Jason Botchford well enough to know whether or not a safe supply would have saved his life. But to paraphrase Stephen Jay Gould, I am somehow less interested in this question than in the near-certainty that people of similar talent have died preventable deaths from overdosing on contaminated drugs.
Whenever someone passes, mourners open themselves up to being accused of making the death “about them”, especially if the passing is unexpected and the deceased is far too young. I know I am opening myself up to those same accusations, but the truth is that the real suffering is done by those who are left behind, and I refuse to feel bad about how angry I feel at the moment. I refuse to let this moment pass without at least acknowledging the possibility that myself and countless others were robbed of the work and company of a great man because of a policy failure. One of the things Botch taught me is that if you aren’t outraged, you are missing out on a basic part of the human condition. I am outraged. I am alive.
I don’t know how to end this fucking thing so I’m going to break one of my only rules and conclude by quoting someone much smarter and more accomplished than myself. I turn once again to the inimitable David Berman, another genius gone long before his time:
“‘Course I’ve been humbled by the void.
Much of my faith has been destroyed.
I’ve been forced to watch my foes enjoy,
Ceaseless feasts of schadenfreude.
And as the pace of life keeps quickening,
Beneath the bitching and the bickering,
When I try to drown my thoughts in gin,
I find my worst ideas know how to swim.
Well, a setback can be a setup
For a comeback if you don’t let up
But this kind of hurtin’ won’t heal.
And the end of all wanting
Is all I’ve been wanting
And that’s just the way that I feel.”