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:

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