Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Best, and Worst, Day of My Life

As some of you may already know, I spent more than $800 to fly out to Detroit on Monday morning in order to see the Detroit Red Wings play in game five of the Stanley Cup Finals at Joe Louis Arena. The Red Wings are my favorite team of all teams, spanning all sports and all franchises. My love for them started specifically when I went with my Dad, and some of his friends, to watch the Red Wings beat the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1995 conference finals; I was seven years old. That was, in fact, the last Red Wings game I had seen at Joe Louis Arena, even though I was in the stands for a few open practices that the team held while we lived in the area. So, this was a big deal. Not to mention that the Wings were up three games to one in their series against the Pittsburgh Penguins and could potentially clinch the Stanley Cup Championship in game five. There was no way I could miss this game. So, I woke up early on Monday, drove down to Manchester, and flew out to the Motor City. I checked into my hotel, threw on my Sergei Fedorov (#91) jersey, and got in the taxi that would escort me to the game.


I showed up three hours before gametime and took everything in. I took pictures. I saw some of my favorite players arrive in their cars (most notably Henrik Zetterberg, Chris Osgood, Kirk Maltby, and Darren McCarty). Best of all, I was surrounded by fans dressed in red and white Detroit Red Wings uniforms, hats, and shirts. There were no Boston Red Sox hats or Celtics' jerseys. With all due respect to those teams, I just don't care about them. At all. Not even a little bit. But here I was, looking around downtown Detroit at men and women in Red Wings attire and Michigan hats and other things I often wear myself. It was nothing short of fantastic. I was finally part of the majority again. Also, as a side note, does a hot girl ever look hotter than when she's wearing a Red Wings shirt/jersey? I certainly don't think so, but I digress. An hour after arriving, while talking with random fans and getting excited for the game to come, the doors opened sharply at 6pm.

I walked in to see the large statue of Gordie Howe. Mr. Hockey. The famous and familiar face of the Red Wings and of hockey itself. Later, I even saw him at the game, signing autographs of his newest book, Nine. After taking a long look at the amazing statue of Gordie, I saw that to my left were lines of people waiting to buy Datsyuk jerseys and Stanley Cup t-shirts and Lidstrom bobbleheads. To my right sat a large Stanley-Cup-shaped-puzzle with only one piece missing, labeled "16." The famous "Cheli's Chili" restaurant, named for veteran Wing Chris Chelios, was just around the corner. Everything around me was not only cool, it was John-Travolta-in-Grease cool. I had clearly died on my way here, because this was heaven.

So, I spent the remaining two hours before the game in awe of everything. I wandered the concourse, sat in my seat, and overlooked the pristine ice of Joe Louis Arena. Every red seat was littered with a free, white towel for fans to wave in excitement. The rafters hung banners of all of Detroit's accomplishments. Stanley Cup Championships. Clarence Campbell Bowls. Central Division Titles. President's Trophies. Retired numbers of legendary players. The banner with the #19 and a "C" printed clearly in the right corner brought back waves of images of my favorite player, Steve Yzerman, and his time with the Wings that ended only two years ago. There will never be another athlete I will idolize as much as I do Yzerman. His effect on the franchise can still be seen, as about half of the jerseys I saw Detroit fans wearing were in his name.

The players came out for warm-ups. My eyes never left the red swarm of jerseys circling below me. Each player looked ready to play and determined to win the Stanley Cup. As they filed off the ice for the final zamboni cleaning before the start of the game, I tried not to envy the fans who caught pucks that Darren McCarty threw over the boards and into the first few rows of the crowd behind the glass. The suspense was potent. Three octopi were thrown on the ice during the national anthem and giant roars from the crowd drowned out the sound from the gorgeous singer in a red dress. Everyone stood and cheered madly for the team they loved as the starting lineups were announced and the players circled around center ice, ready for the first drop of the puck. It was time.


The first period was awful. The Wings came out flat and played without any real idea of what was going on. The Penguins scored twice and took a 2-0 lead into the second period, even though they only managed seven shots on goal in the first. I'll be honest; I was scared. I wasn't panicked because I had seen the Wings come back from two goal deficits before but I was still worried. This wasn't how the experience of my lifetime was supposed to begin.

The second period was better, but still left me with an empty and chilled feeling heading into the third period. Yes, the Red Wings were outplaying the Penguins. Yes, the team I had seen in the previous four games of the series was starting to come back. But they were still down 2-1. And, without any knowledge of what was to come, I had chills. What if they couldn't score the tying goal? What if this colossally expensive trip for a college-student went down in flames? I tried to stay positive and looked ahead to the third and, what I imagined to be, the final period.

19 minutes and 25.3 seconds of the third period were absolutely awesome. Detroit kept up the pressure and completely dominated the Penguins in every way. They scored to tie the game and then, they scored to lead it. Pittsburgh was doing everything they could just to keep the Red Wings from turning the game into a rout. Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins goalie, was standing on his head and making plenty of unbelievable saves to keep the different at one. Every time the Wings almost scored to take a two-goal lead, I brushed it off; they could hold a one-goal lead like they did last game. Momentum started to build. The Wings began playing a prevent defense and even then, they stopped the Penguins from creating any sort of offensive attack. The crowd began to chant "We want the Cup!" over and over for minutes on end. Time ticked down. Five. Four. Three. Two. One minute remaining. Pittsburgh still couldn't generate anything. This was it. At that moment, I remember feeling so happy, so giddy, so unbelievably thankful for my life that looking back, I honestly don't think I have ever felt anything quite like that in my entire life. And then, 34.7 happened.

Maxime "Girl's Name" Talbot hammered away at Chris Osgood's left pad and put the rubber disc across the goal line before any Red Wings player could stop him. The puck crossed with 34.7 seconds left in the game. The clock stopped with 34.3. No one in the stands was angry. No one was anything. The chanting stopped. The frantically waving towels lay flat. Every emotion was drained out of the building. Tie game. No Cup. Overtime.

The overtime periods flew by in what seemed like a matter of minutes while the 15 minute intermissions seemed to last forever. I was absolutely drained. My heart had been racing since I came to the arena at 5pm. It was now past midnight. I can't imagine that even a doctor could give me a tougher stress test. Every fiber of my being was exhausted. But, I wanted to see a Stanley Cup winning goal. I could see Brett Hull's winner in triple overtime for Dallas when they beat Buffalo in 1999. I could see Jason Arnott's winner in double overtime for New Jersey when they beat Dallas in 2000. I could visualize any one of the Red Wings doing the same hurried celebration: jumping around, throwing off gloves, letting loose an incredible cry of joy. With that in mind, I geared up for a third overtime session as another 20:00 was put up on the clock and the period number changed from 5 to 6.

Suddenly, everything was in fast forward. Jiri Hudler's stick flew up. Rob Scuderi's mouth bled. Petr Sykora's shot flew in. Mass exodus. Unlike the previous two penalties against Detroit in the other overtime periods, this call was inarguable. A high stick is a high stick. The blood is the evidence and the rule is a four minute penalty. The Penguins scored. They won game five. It was over.

As odd as it might seem, the winning goal was not nearly as heart-breaking as the tying goal. Before 34.7 happened, I was absolutely full of excitement. The Cup was coming. Captain Lidstrom was going to hoist it. I was practically licking my lips in anticipation. Then, when "Girl's Name" scored, all of those positive thoughts and happy emotions left my body with unmatchable quickness. I was completely empty. When the winning goal was scored, I was so tired and strung out from five and a half periods of wild screaming and cheering that I had barely enough energy left to stand up and leave when the Penguins scored. All of the remaining energy drained slowly out of me as I walked out of the Joe with the rest of the zombie-like fans. Everyone was shocked and depressed. I sat in silence on the cab ride back to the hotel. I rubbed my fingers through my hair and massaged my temples, trying to comprehend what I had just witnessed.


As the definition describes, purgatory is a temporary place of suffering or torment. That was today and that is tomorrow until 8pm. Until the Red Wings take the ice again to try and redeem themselves for losing a chance to celebrate in front of their home fans, I remain in a torturous state of the unknown. How will the Red Wings respond? Will the Penguins find new life and force a game seven? Can the Red Wings come back from such a mentally draining loss? And if they can, will they still win? The Penguins proved in game five that you don't have to be the best team to win the game, so what will happen in game six? I can't stand the suspense. All I can hope for is that the Red Wings get their act together, win the next game, and put the series to bed. So what if they have to celebrate at Mellon Arena? Detroit has already proven that they are a better hockey team than Pittsburgh. The only thing that matters now is whether or not they become champions. If so, the pain from the tragic game five will melt away in a sea of happiness and gratitude for a great season. If not, they will be remembered for a historic collapse and the horror that I saw in game five will haunt me forever.

1 comment:

Peter Kittle said...

My tweet (on twitter.com) after the goal to take the lead: "Redwings ahead by 1 with 5 minutes left. My nephew's probably going wild!" I had no idea you were in the stadium, though. Then, a few minutes later: "Shit. Penguins just tied it up."

Great write up.