Friday, June 06, 2014

Game One

"I'm just happy to be in the building."

In my four decades of rabid, obsessive sports fandom, I had never--EVER--been in the stands when one of my teams played for a championship. I've been to A's playoff games, like the 2000 ALDS, where I saw Gil Heredia--of all people--out-duel Roger Clemens at the Coliseum. I've seen the Kings during early Stanley Cup rounds and felt the intensity, the increased buzz, that one doesn't get during the regular season. But never a Final.

Until last Wednesday.

Thanks to the good graces of former soccer teammate and Times colleague AC Ligamente, that gaping hole in my experience was filled at Staples Center for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. And oh man, it better than I could have imagined.

That feeling is at least 50% results-oriented, thanks to the Kings' OT win, but even prior to that, even when they stumbled their way to an early deficit, the pure energy and depth of emotion was a new experience. We sat in the very last row, which was absolutely fine, because, for one, the 300s at Staples Center are great seats for hockey, the level is really steep so you're looking right down on the ice. Also because we paid face value (a kind season-ticket holder provided AC the tickets), which was nearly four times less what the kids sitting a row in front of us paid on Stub Hub. We joked a bit about being up against the wall (A.C. and WAG had been to one other Stanley Cup Final game, in 1993, and also sat in the last row), but as I settled into my seat, I uttered the sentence at the top of this post. "Yep," said one of the kids in front of us. "Bucket List."


These playoffs have taken a lot out of me. That is not hyperbole. I imagine most Kings fans feel the same. Three Game 7s on the road. The 3-0 deficit against the Sharks. OT in Games 5 and 7 against the nemesis Blackhawks. All seven games against the hated Ducks (I mean, Kings fans hate other teams more than the Ducks--Vancouver and Phoenix--but the idea of LOSING to the Ducks in the playoffs was a reality none of us would ever come to grips with). Twenty-one games of madness, sprinkled with moments of sheer terror, and, at the end of it all, the most honest and reliable group of professionals I've ever had the pleasure to follow.

I don't want to get all Lovey Dovey on you, but dang, there is so much to admire with this club. Hockey players always talk about "The Room" and you know the Kings are as tight-knit and focused as a team can be. Full of belief, as they say, which shows not only in their worst moments but in every moment.

All the more remarkable when you consider the Kings history, littered with, well, almost nothing in the way of success. There is no way ANY Kings fan could have ever envisioned having this type of team (which makes it hilarious when I see them criticized on Twitter, etc; don't you people know how lucky you are?).

Back when Salk and I used to have 10-game plans for the Kings (before he moved away and left me bereft of a hockey buddy until Emet came along), we sat in the 300s. There were some glimmers of hope back in those days (Palffy, Deadmarsh, Allison) that didn't come to full fruition (concussions), but the upper deck was populated with die-hards who mostly just sighed and criticized the players on the ice. And it was funny the way they did it. It wasn't screaming and vitriol. It was resignation. I'll never forget the guy who used to say, matter of factly, "You're terrible, Modry" five or six times a game, as if he was simply muttering to himself.

I like to think those same people are as deliriously mystified by the current success as I am. That they cried like I did in 2012. That they stuck it out and have cell phone videos from Game 6 that they'll never erase. And that they don't call anyone terrible any more. Except Regehr.


AJ was at my Mom's house during Game 1. Mom and my brother have gotten caught up in the excitement and watched some of the Kings playoff games. "I don't know how you can handle it," my Mom said after Game 7 of the Conference Final. "It's so nerve-wracking." She said AJ couldn't sit during the game. He stood in the middle of the living room with his arms crossed, dipping and weaving and jumping with the bounces of the puck. Occasionally, he'd disappear down the hallway. "I can't watch this," he'd say.

"He's your son," Mom would say.

Surprisingly, I found my nerves were tempered for Game 1. Plenty of butterflies and mad anticipation since I was going. But no need for breathing exercises or Xanax. I theorized that, even in the top row, being able to see the whole ice left less room for guessing during those times when the puck slides out of the frame and I scream "WHERE ARE WE?!" at the TV. That's part of it, I guess. The other part is there were 18K-plus in the room with me, a shared psychosis evenly distributed amongst all of us, one we could combat with cheering, releasing the tension in us.

It was the shortest three hours of my life. All blurred. The only part I can recall with any real clarity is the winner, which happened at our end, right below us. The turnover, the pass and the entire section standing as Williams turned toward the net. When it went in, the noise was deafening. I couldn't scream any louder. I could hear myself over the goal horn. There was a roughly 25-foot ledge between me and the next section and I sprinted across it--and back--pumping my fists, shouting, smacking proffered high fives from strangers. I stopped to see the celebration on the ice. Again, I screamed. I would do so a few other times on the way out of Staples. And on the street. And on the subway platform.

It was a long train ride home, but I was buzzed the whole way. I got home and watched the highlights, saw Doughty's stunner in slo-mo, Stick's celebration, happy fans screaming in the background of the NHL Network set. Too amped to sleep.

I finally crawled into bed an hour later. A sleepy Emet asked, "Did you have fun?"

I did. I was happy to be in the building.