I grew up playing, watching, and talking about hockey.
Since we lived in a little fishing village far enough away from everything as to not really have a home team and I was enamored with New York City, even planning to move there as a grownup, the New York Rangers became my team. I loved them then, love them still, and that’s why I suffer annual playoff pains.
It can be hard when you love a team this much, regardless of the sport. You become personally invested to such a degree that your mood soars to the sky when they win, and falls to the deepest depths when they lose.
Years ago, when my team would finish with a loss, either not making or being eliminated from the playoffs, it would dampen my spirits for days. Many a drunken bender would follow yet another disappointing finish. That would lead to a hangover, some hair of the dog, and a dour look on my face for an extended period of time.
At night, I’d stare impotently at the ceiling, playoff pains throbbing ceaselessly about within my skull: “No more hockey. No more hockey. No more hockey.”
Another year, another playoff disappointment
Yet every year I’m right back there with my team, cheering them on relentlessly, thinking this year will be the year! I fall back in love with the Blueshirts all over again, once more going all in for my team.
This year, once again, was supposed to be the year. In the first round of the playoffs, the Rangers were up against the Montreal Canadiens, who were absolute monsters this year, and heavily favored to beat us. Yet the Rangers pulled out a Series win in six games, sending Montreal packing. Next, they faced what seemed to be a much more palatable opponent, the Ottawa Senators, who virtually no playoff pundits picked to beat us.
The excitement around the city was palpable. This was going to be easy, we were going to sail through to the Conference Finals!
My son only added to my excitement. Liam, now 4, seemed genuinely interested in the sport as opposed to just being a mini-me I dressed in Rangers gear on game days. He had a hockey stick, a toy hockey rink of his own, and a habit of chanting “Let’s Go Rangers” as we kicked around the city. How wonderful was it going to be to watch our team excel together!
Which is, of course, not at all what happened. Ottawa kept finding ways to tie games in the dying seconds then taking them in overtime. My beloved Rangers, who would have taken the series easily if they could have just held on for a few more minutes in three games, were shown the door.
That last night was awful. As much as I held out hope, the writing was on the wall. My team, who had continually been unable to hold on to a multi-goal lead, now was in a deficit in the closing minutes. Our goalie went to the bench in a last-minute gamble to get a desperation goal, tie the game, and send it to overtime, where maybe we could win it.
I mean, we were due! How many times do we have to put up with the indignity of having victory snatched away from us at the last minute? It’s way past time that we got even with —
And then Ottawa put one in our empty net.
‘It’s OK, Daddy.’
It was late, but I was already restless with playoff pain. I decided to take a walk, let the cool night air try to clear my head, knowing it wouldn’t. I passed a sports bar on the next block, with fellow Rangers fans spilled onto the sidewalk, cursing, smoking or saying their goodbyes to each other. A few noted my jersey, exchanging glum nods with me as I passed. They also were now beset with playoff pains.
I returned home in time to kiss my wife goodnight. I would stay up. Sleep would not come soon, and another beer was in order. I settled on the couch to watch the talking heads tell me about what went wrong for us and what went right for them. Like I didn’t already know.
Liam doesn’t make much noise when he gets up in the middle of the night, and this occasion was no different. Suddenly he was just standing there, looking up at me.
“Daddy? Did the Rangers win?”
“No, buddy, they didn’t. They’re all done now.”
“Oh. Are you sad?”
“Yeah, buddy. Yeah, I am.”
My son reached his arms up to me. I picked him up for a hug. I realized he was gently patting me on the back in our embrace, the basic human expression of sympathy and empathy.
“It’s OK, Daddy. It’s OK.”
After he was asleep again, I realized he was right. Yes, my team had lost, and yes, I was disappointed, but things were OK.
I was lucky to be married to a woman who put up with my playoff craziness. I was lucky to have a son who wanted to be involved in that craziness. I was a lucky man.
In light of that, playoff pains seemed rather insignificant. There would be another season. I will get just as excited about it as I’ve done in the past, and this time, I’ll share it with my son. And watching the Rangers win together will be sweeter than it could ever have been to watch them win alone.
So I watch the Stanley Cup Finals, starring two teams I don’t care about, and I don’t feel playoff pains like I did before. I still love hockey. I still love the New York Rangers. But I love my family even more.
Bring on next season!
All photos contributed by the author.