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

Please, Return to Your Seats

As the puck dropped on Thursday, a sudden wave of calm ran over me. I started to take to heart what I wrote in my last blog post. The idea that, regardless of outcome, this had been a magical season that had our Winnipeg Jets storming the gates of hockey superiority.

I was in a bar with fourteen other guys around a large round table we’d reserved for the game. The table had a lazy-Susan that we filled with multiple mini-kegs of beer. Nursing a cold I had caught from the late night on Monday, I decided to drive for my roomate and I. My roomate also happens to be one of my best friends and a major hockey fan, so we’d been through this a few times in the past month. In fact, I’d celebrated Jets wins and lamented the losses with most of these boys. In our apartment, downtown at the street party, we had made (and lost) a lot of memories.

And it all culminated to this moment, this game.

A single game would decide if we could keep doing this every second day. A dead even series between the two best teams in the league had definitely delivered on the hype.

“It certainly lived up to the extremes.” Paul Maurice, when asked if the series had done just that, stated through his normal, calculated squint. “I thought I’d be able to describe the games to you better than — if I had to go back and tell you how they went, they would seem so unusual.”

You could say that again. It was exhausting, honestly. I can’t even imagine how the players on the ice feel. Each game was like a world-class chess match where both Grandmasters had to walk a tight rope while playing. The strategy needed to be sound and the execution needed to be even better. When you first tuned in, you hoped the Jets had the opportunity to play their game. In the case of Game 7, they would need to steal that opportunity.

They did just that.

“Win or lose. We wanted to play our game. It’s what has given us success all year — that was it. Just keep it pretty simple”

Blake Wheeler, normally no-nonsense in a media scrum, gave his Captain’s speech with a sense of disbelief in how successful they were at doing it. I know that disbelief isn’t the word, because this team believes in themselves more than anyone. That belief is the bare-minimum for finding success at a high level in anything. But I think Wheels accidentally let on how special he thought what they had just accomplished was.

Or how special his team is.

For me to attempt to describe the game to you in terms of plays, match-ups, Corsi or any literal hockey term would be dishonest of me. I can tell you that Mark Scheifele set some sort of record and that the Paul Stastny trade looks like it might work out.

In reality, I spent most of the game jumping up and down, screaming in a public venue with fourteen of my friends. It was pure elation. The look in the eyes of every person there is something I won’t forget.

Fans of this team feel like they have played twelve games of post-season hockey, seven against a rival who stood eye to eye, went blow for blow. The weeks of cheering and agonizing, the hits to my body and bank account, the hours of conversation and analyzing every pass had come to a glorious head.

“… we’re just happy to keep playing for them” 

Wait, what? Oh, right. We’re only halfway.

And there’s no time for rest. I haven’t even stopped clapping at the curtain closing on the still frame of our hero standing victorious at the end of the latest battle.

But that’s why hockey provides the best playoffs in all of sports. The decisive grind of baseball, the individual showcases of basketball and football-like physicality, all wrapped into a two month meat-grinder ending with glory for few and heartbreak for most.

Ladies and gentleman, please return to your seats. The second act of the best play yet to be written starts tomorrow evening in our barn, and we will need you to get loud.

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At the Whiteout Street Party. Game 2 of the Wild series. Feels like years ago.

“We did it, we actually did it, let’s go!!!!” my best friend exclaimed in the bar, in the car, in the parking lot of our building, and finally in our apartment.

When the Jets Took Off

October 29, 2017. The sun was just peeking through the familiar autumn overcast in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This has historically been peak season for football fans in the city. The Blue Bombers were looking to close out their second consecutive season as playoff contenders, dropping the penultimate game to the BC Lions the evening prior. Hope among fans of the Blue has ebbed and flowed for years during this time. However, since 2011, a new hope awaits sports fans in the Peg for the winter.

The Winnipeg Jets were suiting up for a home game against the reigning Stanley Cup champs, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

My cousins from Kelowna, one of whom is a Winnipeg ex-pat, were visiting for the weekend. We enjoyed food, drinks and some football. I could feel his excitement to watch live Bomber football again, eat a nip at Salsbury House and of course, snag tickets to a Jets 2.0 home game. I struggled to share in his excitement about the latter. In fact, I passed on purchasing a ticket.

I had just sat in Bell MTS Place to watch my favourite hockey team drop a 5-2 loss to Columbus where you would need a microscope to find a shred of positive hockey. Between that experience, and the early shellacking by the Leafs and Flames, I was pretty apathetic about the prospects of the 2017-18 Jets, despite their winning record. It was the same core roster, the same poor defense and the same seemingly lack of urgency by the leaders of the team. The issues that had plagued the team since they returned were not fixed. The draft and develop would need another year, and I would patiently wait, head in my hands.

But something changed that cold Sunday, watching the game on my couch.

Suddenly, the Jets took off. My phone exploded with texts from my cousin and parents, astonished by what they were witnessing. This team was absolutely decimating the defending champions. The stars were scoring, the fourth line was scoring and there wasn’t an inch of ice for legends like Crosby or Malkin to find a way back into the game. My first thought was, obviously, regret for not buying the ticket. My second thought was, this team might be something to watch this year.

That is the moment I saw the potential of the Jets, for this year and beyond.

As the weeks passed, and Connor Hellebuyck continued to swallow up pucks, the image became increasingly clear. The city caught on fire with Jets mania, but that was the easy part. This city has never lost the love for their team, back from dead, despite the slow process. Then it was the media. Rolling four lines of big, fast, hard-on-the-puck hockey will catch the eye of any sports journalist, stat-junkies and story-tellers alike.

And the Jets continued to deliver.

Finishing second in the NHL and rolling their way through the first playoff game and series win in franchise history. Eventually, even the Toronto media came around. You can’t turn on a national sports broadcast without hearing a quick-witted quip from Paul Maurice, or about the new and improved Winnipeg Whiteout. They even caused the playoff format to come into question by running into the President’s Trophy winners in the second round. The Nashville Predators, another deserving team who have rose to dominance in seemingly a heartbeat.

As I sit here on the eve of Game 7, too anxious to worry about losing, I reflect on this season of metamorphosis. The ceilings for players like Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers look infinite. Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little and Dustin Byfuglien are being rewarded for their leadership and patience. Connor Hellebuyck’s growth has paid off dividends.

Kevin Cheveldayoff had been slowly pulling back the curtain on his masterpiece, and now he has ripped it clean off. It may be raw, it may need some polishing, but it is fundamentally sound and has the personality and the foundation to become a long lasting monument in our city, and the hockey world. Success is fleeting, and nothing can be taken for granted in this league…

But regardless of the outcome tomorrow, the Jets have come of age, and Winnipeg is good.

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Cheering in a Crowded Empty Room

Welcome to Kosty’s Corner!

No, I don’t have a sharp-dressed, veteran national treasure on the left for comedic relief. Or the smooth, calm narrative voice of the guy on the right. But we can all aspire to find a voice as iconic as those two.

Sports are the last form of pure, unfiltered reality entertainment. They are an infinite source of characters, story lines, plot-twists, happy endings and tragedies. For the less dramatic, they provide a wealth of statistics, ripe for analysis, trending and predicting future outcomes.

I’ll be posting my opinions, analysis and stories on baseball, football and hockey in the form of raw ramblings on this site, and hopefully find my feet as I go. Along the way, I hope that you find something you can relate to or enjoy.

To quote Grapes himself:

“A million comedians starving to death and you’re trying to be one” – Don Cherry

Well, there’s a million people talking sports on the internet, but I need to do it. My girlfriend would really like to talk about something else.

If you want to comment on something, chat, argue, or scream at me your best bet is @kKostyy on Twitter!