Saturday, April 30, 2011

In Pursuit of Lord Stanley: Chronicles Volume II

The subtitle of this blog reads: "The triumphs and travails of sports, liquor, and literature." Today I'm experiencing the travails.

Laying in bed, suffering from a wretched hangover induced by a fifth of 75 South whiskey, listening to Robert Earl Keen sing about depressing stuff, drastically overreacting to one game of hockey, I've been thinking about missed opportunities in sports throughout my life. I've been thinking about the NCAA hockey championship that Michigan lost in overtime this year, the game I thought would finally bring me that elusive national championship I've been wanting so desperately since 1997, when I was too young and naive to fully appreciate the value of one. I've been thinking about the 2009 Stanley Cup, when the Red Wings lost in game 7 and I spent hours at a Chicago bar by myself with my head in my hands because I was old enough to fully appreciate the value of those moments in a lifetime. I've been thinking about the 2006 Michigan Ohio State game, when the teams were ranked 1 and 2 respectively, and how I left my dorm that Friday when I heard Bo had died and then went for a walk through the graveyard next to Mary Markley dormitory and cried about Bo, and I didn't really know why I cried because he had been the coach before my time, but it didn't matter. And I've been thinking about this Red Wings team, a team that has really gotten me through a difficult year of my life in Chicago, away from all of my friends and family, and how they've been the one constant in my life that makes me feel like home, about how I love when I get texts from my father during every game, about how I forget about everything else in the world when the puck drops, and I feel like crying over one damn game because I can't even stand the thought of this team being eliminated.

So when I turned on a movie, a non-sports movie mind you, in an attempt to get away from these thoughts, of course one scene featured the Stanley Cup. I was back to square one. This scene featured one of the more interesting stories I've heard about the Stanley Cup. Apparently back in 1996 when the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup Mike Ricci had brought the grail to a party. At the party, a woman who had been trying to have a baby with her husband but had recently been informed that she could not in fact concieve kissed the Cup. That night she concieved and 9 months later a baby named Stanley C. (after the Cup) was born.

And of course that just made me think about the magic of the Cup some more and made me want it that much more. The days after a loss can be some of the worst days ever. Let's hope I'm not feeling this way come Monday morning.

Friday, April 22, 2011

In Pursuit of Lord Stanley: Chronicles Volume I

In the past I've encountered some really great moments amidst Stanley Cup runs. From some of the epic celebrations we had at my college house during the '08 run, to when my buddy jinxed the hell out of the Wings when he bought champagne with minutes left in the potential Cup-winner in game 6 of that same year, to the personal bar crawl I went on in Chicago after the game 7 Cup Finals loss in '09, playoff runs have produced some memorable nights for me. Hence I thought I'd track some of this year's run, which hopefully lasts as long as it can.

Usually when you go to a bar by yourself on a Monday night, wind up talking to a random old man, and the two of you are the last stragglers at the bar when they call for closing time, you're going through some rough times. But the Stanley Cup Playoff's aren't "usually".

Indeed, this past Monday night found me sitting with a stranger I had just met at a bar. But I wasn't in a rough spot. In fact, it was the best night I've had at a bar in quite some time.

Last Monday morning was the best Monday morning I've had in a while. Promptly upon waking up I threw my Wings jersey on, confident that the thought of that night's game would propel me through a long day of class and study. Better yet, the prospect of the Wings taking a 3-0 series lead seemed very attainable, as the Winged-Wheelers had played their best hockey of the year in the first two games of the series (without one half of the Euro-twin connection, no less). And let's be honest, the appeal of a Monday night trip to the bar didn't hurt my enthusiasm for the day.

Originally I had intended to stay at the library until 8:45 p.m., leaving me just enough time to get home and to a bar before the 9:30 puck drop. However, circa 8:00 p.m. my youthful excitement had gotten the best of me and my library stay had devolved into a youtube session of the 1997 Wings - Avalanche brawl, among other classic Red Wings clips. So I soon departed for home, but not before picking up a tall boy of Icehouse which I subsequently consumed with rapidity despite immediately being reminded of its poor taste all whilst listening to my ritual pregame playlist (Crooked Fingers - The River is a staple, gets me going every time).

Half of the reason I had planned to go to a bar for the game was because there happened to be a Chicago Bulls playoff game that evening as well, and I stand as a distinct minority in my apartment being it that two of the four are Chicago born and bred. But sometimes a good trip to the bar by yourself is just in order. Certainly it's not for everyone, but for someone like myself the solitude and the atmosphere can be really enjoyable, as long as you pick the right watering hole (hole-in-the-wall to mediocre quality only).

Low and behold as I arrived at the bar to request the hockey game on one of the televisions, the bartender directed me to a corner of the bar where one lonely Wings fan already was seated. In our own small corner of the bar, like the cast-off's of the bar social structure, we immediately shared a common status. And we shared a common plight, our plight being the difficult predicament of being an out of town fan in enemy territory, a long way from the friendly confines of your home team's town. A few pints of Wisconsin's cheapest lager later, the lonesome gentleman and I were clanging our beers together celebrating goal after goal.

By games end it felt as if I had known this stranger for years. And that's one of the miraculous things about sports: its ability to unite complete and utter strangers in pursuit of a common goal. In this particular instance, fond memories of winters long ago spent playing pond hockey, pining visions of Joe Louis Arena, and above all, a dream of a Stanley Cup for our beloved Wings, united us.

The game continued after the bar had shut down and all the other patrons were given the boot. But a sympathetic manager fortunately allowed us to remain in our small corner of the bar until the last second had expired, when we celebrated a win and rejoiced with the last sips of our beers. Some people complain about the hassle of late night games on the west coast, but without them when else would I be closing down a bar with a complete stranger at 1 in the morning with an alarm clock set to wake me up in six hours?

Go Wings.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Thoughts On Boyhood Summer Days

"Every day in the summer [the gas station owner] filled the cooler with big blocks of ice and the bottles of pop just floated there in the melting ice, making it the coldest and best-tasting pop in the world. That cooler of pop was a mecca for kids on a hot day". - Richard Brautigan, So the Wind Won't Blow it All Away.

Decades of good old American greed may have destroyed the days when a gas station owner would dare lose out on a buck and put out a cooler of soda's for kids wandering aimlessly on a summer day, but time has not destroyed the essence of that passage -- the limitless bounds of a child's summer day.

I can picture the scene now, picking out nickels from dad's change jar on top of the dresser, slamming shut the back porch screen door, sprinting through neighbors' backyards (and not thinking twice about it) with a pocketful of pennies and nickels jangling with each stride, darting between sprinklers and finally arriving to the street corner where you and your buddies had promised the night before to meet bright and early. We began our trek to purchase slushees and candy bars from the gas station just as the last of the neighborhood vehicles departed for work and as the sun slowly ascented, getting hotter with each passing minute. Though the distance was only a mile or so, it seemed like a grand expedition to us, as any trip outside the world that is your neighborhood seems to a kid.

The distractions along the way were endless: an ant parade down the sidewalk, an empty coke can to kick, an errant potato chip laying in the sidewalk that someone would undoubtedly be dared to eat, a fence to climb, a stretch of "lava" on the sidewalk that needed to be avoided at all costs, conversations about things that seem important when you're young -- baseball card collections, how to beat the next level of Mario, ways to earn money to buy that next video game. Each distraction presented a journey in and of itself, but at last we arrived at our destination.

As we slurped our slurpees on the journey back we pondered the possibilities of the day. What shall we do? One of us suggested building a bridge over the river out of logs found in the woods. Another wanted to play capture the flag in the neighborhood yards. One was hell-bent on the idea of a all-day basement quest to finally beat the video game that had been eluding us for so long. The only conclusion we could come to was that we couldn't decide on what to do.

Yet the point is not what we would do that day, but what couldn't we do? We had full authority over the streets of the neighborhood, save for an occasional invading car. We had full roam over the yards of the neighborhood, as we treated them as if they didn't belong to anyone but us, not to mention a vast expanse of forest at the edge of the neighborhood. And we had an array of basement hangout's to choose from, with limitless supplies of fruit snacks and kool-aid to top it off. No two days were the same.

As I'm buttoning my shirt, tying my tie, and brushing my teeth day after day in a monotonous routine this summer, those days will be lurking somewhere in the back of my mind.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Where Were You in 1986?" (or 1997?) (or 2008?)

One of the best sports clips I've ever watched. If you do one thing today, watch it.

The above Master's video begins with a deep Mississipian voice asking "where were you in 1986?" He answers, "I was a nine year old boy..." In 1986 I was only a distant thought in the back of my parents' minds -- a glimmer of hope in my mom's and a speckle of skepitcal fear in my father's, most likely. And before this past weekend, I probably couldn't even have told you that Jack Nicklaus won one of the most memorable Master's tournaments ever that year.

These minor facts mattered not in my watching of the video, though. For my mind didn't hear "where were you in 1986?". Rather, my mind heard "where were you on August 26, 1995? -- the day my dad took me to my first game at the Big House. My mind heard "where were you on that Saturday night in December, 1997?" -- the night my brother and I jumped up and down like hooligans on our living room sofa in our Michigan sweatshirts when they announced Charles Woodson's name on the television set. My mind heard, "where were you that June night in 2008?" -- one of the most memorable nights of college for me, as my buddies and I sprayed champagne off of our front porch and spray-painted 'Red Wings Stanley Cup' on Ann Arbor streets. My mind heard these things just as I'm certain many others who watched that video heard other moments particularly special to them.

It's memories like those that make me wonder if I put too much stock into the actual outcomes of the games I live and die for. Perhaps it's true, as some people say, that it's just a game, and that the moments spent with the people we care about while watching those events are the things that really matter. And of course it's true that watching sporting events with those people is just as meaningful, if not more meaningful, than the outcomes themselves.

But then I think about 1995. I couldn't pick out any other single date besides August 26 that I remember so vividly. And I think about 1997, and how I couldn't tell you one thing that happened that December other than the night Charles Woodson took college football's great prize. Do I remember any night from December 1997 if Peyton Manning takes that trophy? Nope. And I think about that June night when the Wings won the Cup. Any other day that summer? I've got nothing except generalizations; but that night I remember distinctly.

Without sports, those dates probably fall into obscurity, much like any other normal day where nothing significant ever really seems to happen. Can you even pick out a date from this month that you really remember that vividly?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Stanley Cup Fever

Around this time each April I grow antsy in anticipation of the best sports stretch of the calendar year: the NHL Playoffs. Stockpiles of Labatt's Blue and Molson Canadian beverages accumulate in my refrigerator. My Red Wings jersey emerges from my closet on a regular basis. And the above video plays on repeat in the nights leading up to the onset of playoff action, with the 25th viewing being just as magical as the first.

The NHL Playoffs get my vote for best period in sports because of its ability to consume everyday life. I first experienced the phenomenon of playoff fever consuming everyday life in 1997, the pinnacle age of Hockeytown. My memory probably exaggerates the figures a bit, but I remember a sea of red engulfing the streets surrounding Motown, as at least 1 in 3 vehicles flew Red Wings flags from its windows, and every other person walking the sidewalks seemed to don an Yzerman, Fedorov, or Shanahan jersey.

Over the years I've fallen into some traditions of my own suggestive of the playoffs ability to engross everyday life. In 2008, perhaps my personal favorite playoff season, I began wearing an old Red Wings jersey as the playoffs began. It seemed only natural that I had to continue wearing the jersey without washing it as long as the Wings kept winning. Mind you this was the beginning of summer post-sophomore year of college. Needless to say, a few weeks later when the Wings were hoisting the Cup, that jersey stank to high hell and looked like someone had drug it through the mud, as bourbon spills and celebratory beer-pours found their way onto that jersey on many a night that spring (although the jersey probably got off easy compared to the walls of my college house's living room, which got doused in champagne the night the Wings won it all). The following year, in 2009, I began the excellent tradition of getting good and liquored up in the hour leading up to the game whilst watching the 1997 Red Wings Stanley Cup VHS video. I must have watched that video, at least the beginning of it, 40 times that spring (I suppose that tradition never really ended, as I have a tendency to throw in that video whenever I'm inebriated).

The far-reaching influence of the playoff spirit is not limited to outward manifestations, though; it can exert a firm grip on the psyche, as well. If you're an avid fan like I am, the every-other-night format of the playoffs requires you literally to schedule your own work life around the games. Early 6 o'clock start times (here in the central time zone) mean waking up at the crack of dawn to get that homework done early so you can watch the game in the evening. Games on the West Coast mean late nights biting your fingernails until 1 a.m. Sudden death overtime means intensely hanging on each shift in the wee hours of the morning until a hero is born (in Yzerman's case, a legend; he scored that game 7 winner over 4 hours into the game). A goal scored by the bad guys in one of those sudden-death nailbiters that drawls well into the night means a wretched hangover the following day; a sudden-death goal by your team on one of those nights means a hangover as well, but a much more tolerable and even enjoyable one, as the memory of a heroic goal monopolizes your thoughts.

Swallow a dosage of that routine on a bi-nightly basis for 2, 3, 4, or if you're lucky, well over a month, and the drill starts to consume you. As the vicious cycle wears on you, your team's journey becomes your journey as well. It's an experience unlike any other in sports, when you as a fan begin to feel as if you've transcended the barrier between player and fan. While you might not truly feel like you're playoff beard measures up to the Kris Draper's or Johan Franzen's of the world, and while you might not feel like you're taking the physical beating that your team is in the form of black eyes and missing teeth, you certainly feel the emotional grind of the journey. And you certainly feel the ecstasy of another win and the steadily-increasing tension that accompanies each new series. And you certainly feel the agony of a defeat and the utter fear of elimination and a very long baseball season. It's that distinct emotional grind, unique to the NHL Playoffs, that seperates hockey's postseason from the rest.

If you are not: a.) an avid hockey enthusiast; b.) a die-hard Red Wings fan; c.) a Canadian or d.) crazy like me, then you probably can't really relate to what you just read (if you made it this far) and you most likely think I'm a bit off my rocker to top it all off. Fair enough. In truth, I spent a good deal of time thinking about how anyone possibly could describe the wondrous mystique of the playoff spirit. I figured I would give it a shot, but ultimately I concluded that no words could possibly do justice to the awe-inspiring feeling that accompanies the journey of watching your team all the way to the hoisting of a Stanley Cup. So I leave you with this, which will undoubtedly do a much better job than I've done in a few paragraphs:

Friday, April 1, 2011

All My Rowdy Friends are Moving On

"I bought a small bottle of beer for fifteen cents and sat on a bench in the clearing, feeling like an old man. The scene I had just witnessed brought back a lot of memories -- not of things I had done but of things I had failed to do, wasted hours and frustrated moments and opportunities forever lost because time had eaten so much of my life and I would never get it back."

- Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary

In my college days I taped that quote to a "Blow" movie poster which hung in my room. I wanted to put it somewhere I would see it everyday, so that I would remember each day to experience college life to the fullest, because I knew that someday college would be over. And I knew, pursuant to all the cliched advice they give at orientation, that I would never remember the petty assignments, the yawn-inducing lectures, or the hours spent boxed up in a library cubicle. Rather, it would be random Tuesday night trips to the bar, spur-of-the-moment choices to skip class and drink all day on the lawn, and spontaneous Friday-morning-hangover decisions to make a weekend road trip to Dayton, Ohio, that I would remember down the road.

Despite my best efforts -- looking at that quote everyday and legitimately modeling my decisions off of it -- that quote haunts me in my post-grad life. It does not haunt me in the sense that I wasted my time in college, but rather just in the sense that time has eaten so much of my life and that I will never get that time back.

Not until this past weekend, when I returned to Ann Arbor during my Spring Break, did I truly feel that I would never get college back. It hit me like a revelation, and it hit me pretty hard. Upon graduation day, I knew that I was done with the classes forever. And when I departed for Petoskey last summer, I knew I would never again be living in the college home I loved so much. Even this fall, when I returned to Ann Arbor for football games, I knew that I wasn't one of the students tailgating. I knew these things, but I never felt them. I guess I always felt that I was just on some sort of college hiatus, and that someday soon my buddies and I would be back at our favorite bar drinking 2 dollar pitchers on Wednesday nights.

As I walked on campus amongst the undergrads last week, though, I felt for the first time that the students looked younger than me. And as I looked out my tiny window from the sixth floor of the grad library stacks, I felt for the first time that the town outside the window wasn't my home. Most distinctively, as I lay in bed the morning after a long night out drinking at my old watering holes, I felt that I couldn't keep up with the hard-drinking lifestyle I had adhered to from weekend to weekend throughout college.

Perhaps the revelation occurred because my remaining college pals will be graduating in a couple of weeks, thereby effectively exterminating my lingering ties to college. Add to the equation the fact that my best friend from college just moved to Virginia to begin a new job, and it all really hits home: College is over forever.

What makes the whole thing difficult is the transitional phase. When I threw up my cap in the Big House during graduation I knew that college was over, but no lightbulb went off in my head instructing me to act any differently. In the previous year the real world has been thrust upon me, but I don't feel quite mature enough to call myself a true adult. I always had just assumed that I would become a responsible adult upon graduation, but no one in college ever tells you that it just doesn't happen that way.

Hank Williams Jr. painted an accurate picture of my college buddies and I when he wrote the song "All My Rowdy Friends (Are Comin' Over Tonight)". Later on, he sorrowfully depicted the aging process when he wrote "All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)," lamenting that "no one wants to get high on the town. . . and cornbread and iced tea took the place of pills and ninety-proof." I wish Hank had written a song about the in-between. Maybe then I would know how to feel as all my rowdy friends are seperating but not quite settling down. Maybe then the transition from nightly ninety-proof to the occasional iced tea would be a bit smoother.

Knowing that "All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)" suggests the ultimate destination is a sobering thought; in fact the forecast can appear quite dreary in these transitional times. Still, when I think about the finality of college, my mind reminds me of the annual camping trip my father and his college buddies take to a remote cabin. I've never seen any photos from those trips, and I've never actually heard any stories about those trips (probably for good reason). But I know from the cautionary looks my mom gives my father whenever he starts counting down towards the trip that college is revived during that one weekend. Those cautionary looks provide hope that college never dies, but rather it just appears less often as we grow older.

Then I think about next fall's Michigan v. Notre Dame game, the first night game in the history of Michigan football, which is serving as sort of an unofficial reunion for all of my college buddies just because no one wants to miss an event of that enormity. And I know that when all my college buddies converge upon Ann Arbor for that weekend, college will live again.