I Got a Golden Ticket

 

Live playoff hockey is just different. At least, if you are part of a fanbase that understands that.  The terrific performances of Carrie Underwood and Sheryl Crow, the epic image of Taylor Lewan of the Tennessee Titans drinking his weight in Bud Light off  of a catfish. These were spectacles that will be forgotten in time as they do not represent what playoff hockey is really about.

For the players, it is about extreme focus, speed and physicality.  It is moving your feet, your eyes, the puck, and repeating this sequence for sixty minutes. It is the idea that one wrong movement will open the door for your counterpart to strike. It is knowing that any loose puck can save or end your night.

As a fan, you pay to get into the building to feel even a sliver of that intensity. Or if you can’t afford it, you flock to a beer-for-ballot ticket raffle at a local restaurant on a weekday, risking your health and wallet, only to lose (sigh).

I first had my first taste of playoff hockey as a neutral fan in the Pepsi Centre in Colorado. Well, neutral fan may be disingenuous. I wanted the Avalanche to kick the  Predators teeth in.

And if I didn’t on the way there, I did as soon as walked through the door.

That’s a fanbase who understands the implications of playoff hockey. They nuture the  hatred for opposing players that grows as the series does. They swivel in their seats with each flick of the puck. They chant when the boys need a pick-me-up. They scream at the refs when they feel cheated and they explode when the puck goes in the other net.

Most importantly, their entire mood is dictated by the outcome.

If you remember Game 4 of that series, the Avs fell down 3-0 in what was basically a clinic in forechecking and backchecking by the Preds. They rallied late but it was to no avail. I spent most of the time just watching Nathan McKinnon skate around (another perk of live hockey, what a treat). The building was deflated with a realization that would soon be confirmed later that series. They bargained with themselves that the team could steal one in Nashville, but everybody knew what was coming.

They had paid a lot of money to get there, and a great lot of them felt awful by the end of the night.

The concept of allowing your mental health be affected by the outcome of a game played by overpaid, grown men is one that I have struggled with most of my adult life. It is something you learn to deal with as a sports fanatic.

You stop cancelling plans to watch the game (although, what good are plans if they are not to watch the game?), you stop scrutinizing the box scores and the actions of players off the field of play. You learn to be realistic about the outcome of each move your team makes, each play that goes your way and those that don’t.

But all of that realism goes out the window once you are there in the flesh.

Golden Ticket

On Monday I had the divine privilege of being inside Bell MTS Place for the second Western Conference Final game in Winnipeg history. Myself along with two of my coworkers won tickets through a late office ticket raffle that we did not expect to see for the rest of the year. There was practically no time for the excitement to set in as we rushed from work to get to our barn.

I am not sure I will ever have fortune to experience anything like this again.

The energy in the stands when the players take the ice is unmatched anywhere else in the league. The Whiteout shining through the dimmed lights of the pre-game, the power of fifteen-thousand people shouting “True North!” during our anthem. The first “Go Jets Go!” that lasts well through the first shift. To find a comparable scene you would have to go back to 2011, even then you would be hard pressed to find a crowd like that one.

And then, intense silence.

The silence of a fanbase that understands the implications of every faceoff, every movement, pass and puck bobble. Every individual dialed in to the game. All of us trying to tune into the mind of our favourite players, how they see the ice in front of them, why they make the decisions they do.

The silence is broken up by gasps as pucks sail through the crease and rattle off posts. The desperate screaming at a puck that sneaks through the five-hole of Fleury, hoping you can yell the dumb, piece of rubber into the back of the net. Disapproving ooh’s as a pass misses the tape by a millimeter, or bounces off the boards at an incorrect angle.

And it’s difficult. Especially difficult when ten minutes of dominance are wiped away by five minutes of mistakes that leaves your team down 2-0. The teams rely on home ice for two things, the energy of the crowd and the last change. But the former is hard to come by from a group of individuals as intense about hockey as Winnipeg is. They just focus too much on the minute movements of the game.

It sounds like an awful cop-out, I know. I even tweeted out a plea to the crowd to get loud during Game 4 of the Nashville series (one of the really boring, trappy games). I couldn’t understand the idea that you pay to be in that building, have the opportunity to be that energy and cannot contribute.

They want to be that energy. They want to be more than a half-hearted “Go Jets Go” chant, or unearned “Fleury” chirp. But the game needs to allow them to be. Too much of their emotion is attached to the outcome.

Because when Kyle Connor squeaked a shot through the body of Marc-Andre, the building erupted.

I have never heard a building sound like that. Not without the help of several hundred watts of guitar amps. The goal horn was drowned out by deafening white noise. The red-light signalled a man-made earthquake caused by thousands of white-clad bodies shifting their weight to the ceiling at the same time.

It was absolutely electric. The same electricity that I have felt throughout the city for a month, in my apartment, in the bars and the street-party. It manifested into a beautiful ground-fault, surging through 300 Portage Avenue at minute 7:17 of the third period.

And then it was gone. Not more than a minute and half later.

High Ceiling, Low Floor

None of us go to live sporting events to watch our team lose.  Before the game, you are excited just to be there. But nothing can prepare you for the emptiness associated with a loss. Snapping out of the trance of the game wondering what just happened. Leaving a building wishing that you had cheered a little harder. What could have been if the puck moved a couple inches to the left.

That is the gamble you take when you enter that building. You lay your emotional well-being in the hands of strangers who want nothing more than to return it full of memories that make up a victory.

There’s absolutely nothing like it. When the sum of all those electric moments outweigh the deflating ones. When the fifteen thousand of you now share in a moment, trapped in time, that can never be erased by past or future puck-drops. Watching the team on the ice, a band of brothers who created that moment, celebrate with you.

The Jets are 1-2-2 this year when I am at the game, and have yet to beat Vegas, so you can aim the blame at me (but then I also get the credit for our unconvincing 4-3 win against a checked-out Sabres team). But that won’t ever stop me from chasing that high you can’t get from the television or the box score, even if it comes with a lower low.

The series is 1-1. It wasn’t going to be a sweep, shame on any of us for thinking so. Ryan Reaves can take his shots at his hometown crowd for the lack of volume, but maybe he should focus on playing hockey, something he’s struggled with this year. I’m sure the Vegas crowd will be loud, I’m not so sure that it will be in sync with the hockey game.

Envy doesn’t describe the feeling I have for the fifteeen thousand that will enter Bell MTS Place for at least one more game. At the same time, I recognize their potential pitfall. Depth that I avoid by staying on my couch at home.

But as soon as that Vegas red-light flashes. As soon as the camera zooms in on Fleury looking behind him, wondering what happened. I will be shaking my head, longing for that white-noise that consumed me on Monday.

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“Live at the Whiteout.” The calm before the storm. Courtesy of a fellow sports addict: Scott Mandziuk | @scottmandziuk
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Maximum pre-game hype. Everyone out of their seats. Taken by another friend, edited by Scott Mandziuk | @scottmandziuk

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