Friday, June 15, 2012

Life and Loss with the Red Wings

"It's a chicken-and-egg kind of thing. How your team plays echoes your innermost feelings, what you already "know" — but what you feel and know to a large extent comes from your team, because how they do is if nothing else a weird running pantomime of a fan's life. Their play is in your earliest memories and reflections; it challenges how you look at things." - Kent Russell, via Grantland

In some of my earliest memories, I am sneaking into my living room where my dad is watching the Red Wings on the television set on frigid February nights. Darkness fell early on Millwood Village on those two-dog nights, and us kids were called in from play before the last dinner plate was cleaned off. This phenomenon left me restless and curiously snooping about the house. Dad throws logs onto the fire during stoppages of play - the crackles of the fire and the low drone of Mickey Redmond's voice composing the soundtrack of those wintry evenings. "Number Nineteen," my dad says - I didn't know he'd seen me - "he's the heart of the team". And like that, Detroit sports are passed down from generation to generation on those cold, dark February nights. 

Little did I know that it would be upon those red uniforms that I would begin to formulate my identity in this world; it's funny how those small moments can blossom into something much bigger. Fandom is a hobby for some people. A passion for others. And for some, it is the marrow of life. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I curiously snuck a glance at what my dad was doing on those winter nights.

As Kent Russell illuminated to me, "how [your team] does is if nothing else a weird running pantomime of a fan's life". Like a best friend, we've been through everything together, the Detroit Red Wings and I. Through the happy moments, when you seem to be walking on airs, that make life worth living: the Darren McCarty breakaway goal in game 4 of the 97 Finals, or the moment I yelled "Ozzie" at the top of my lungs in my college house when they replaced Hasek with Chris Osgood, my all-time favorite Wing, in the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs - a move that would prove fateful. And through the tragedies in life: my first taste of reality when I woke up one morning in June to hear about Vladimir Konstantinov's limousine accident, or in 2009 when the Penguins took game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals and the other interns I worked with in Chicago that summer couldn't quite understand why I had to be by myself that night. 

Growing Up

Before Detroit became the capital of the hockey world, Hockeytown was but a fledgling civilization. Names like Probert, Yzerman, Coffey, and Fedorov were fighting - Probert quite literally fighting - to erase decades of futility. As the Hockeytown video goes, "In the early 1990's the Red Wings seemed to assemble a team that could challenge for the Cup, but the following seasons only brought more heartbreak". 

It was on those nights in the early nineties that I was leaving my coloring books behind and sneaking a peak into the living room to see what my dad was cheering about on those February nights. And it was on those nights that he started to explain to me, piece by piece; "Number ninety-one, he can score some pretty goals"; pretty soon he said, "If you're so interested, we've gotta get some tickets so you can get to see a game in person". Any fan has those fateful moments, when the life-changing moment of fandom comes into focus. Those were those nights.

In my own mind, the Wings didn't win a Cup in '95 or '96 because of lack of talent. They didn't win because they were waiting for me to grow another year or two, so that I would be that perfect age in which I was just old enough to appreciate that magic, just old enough to remember that night forever. In that way, the Wings and I were growing up together, building up to something really special.

The Golden Years

In episode 1 of The Wonder Years, the narrator remembers, "In a way, those really were the wonder years for us there in the suburbs. It was kind of a golden age for kids." He was talking about the sixties, but he may as well have been talking about the nineties in Millwood Village, the place where I grew up. 

To this day, when I hear the word summer, my mind harkens back to June nights in Millwood Village. June nights are like a Bruce Springsteen song - there's an intoxicating feeling in the summer air and anything seems possible. Neighbors gather together in a backyard lit by tiki torches, the smell of charcoal cooking hot dogs and hamburgers sifts through the humid air, and a Jimmy Buffett song plays from the stereo. The adults sit out on the patio drinking bottles of beer talking about things that don't make sense to us kids, while neighborhood boy chases neighborhood girl, and vice versa. We laugh and run and play, stopping to catch fireflies every so often, our energy level never running low thanks to a limitless bucket of soda.

I remember a particular one of those June nights, when the neighborhood flocked to my house, all dressed in red and white. We barbequed, tossed water balloons, and played outdoors in anticipation of game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals. There was a sense of quiet, though; everyone was calmly giddy with the idea that something truly special could happen that night. I don't remember much of the game, but I remember, quite distinctly how, as the seconds ticked down on the game clock, shouts and screams of joy echoed throughout Millwood Village, adults rejoiced like little kids, and beer glasses clanged against one another in a toast of celebration. I don't think it really affected any of us kids as we played the rest of that night; we were just happy we were allowed to stay up past midnight as the celebration continued for the adults. And it's funny the way those moments work. There are no voices that call out to savor every second of the night, or that it will be one of those few moments in life that remains forever etched into your memories. The night just goes on, and only later on do you look back and realize how special that moment was. 

Center ice at Joe Louis Arena still reads "Hockeytown". Yet it's not quite the same. During the magical 1997 run, Detroit reached fever pitch: you couldn't take a 5 minute drive without seeing 2 or 3 Red Wings flags waving from other vehicles, Yzerman, Shanahan, and Fedorov jerseys engulfed Southeastern Michigan in a sea of red, and frenzy ensued while octopi danced upon ice with each passing day. Those truly were the golden days of Hockeytown. 

The Lost Years

The early aughts were a strange time for both me and the Red Wings. I guess that's the way adolescence goes: at one point you're basking in the glory that is pure, unadulterated life and before you can stop to tie your shoelaces you are a couple years older and starting to recognize the unfortunate realities that accompany us on this journey. 

I don't remember a lot about the early 2000's. I don't know if that's a subconscious choice or just the fact that a teenager's mind is racing too quickly for it to really stop and grasp much. Either way, it was a time of identity crisis. That's just the way it goes. I was searching for the person I was supposed to be; I look back on those early teen years and sometimes wonder just what the heck I was doing. Chalk it up to puberty. 

The Red Wings were going through an identity crisis of their own. Stumbling through the Stanley Cup hangover period, the Wings played musical chairs with a number of goalies through those years, always looking for the franchise goaltender but never finding him. In the early aughts, they shuffled through Curtis Joseph, Ty Conklin, Manny Legace, Joey MacDonald, and Dominik Hasek. And that's the thing about growing up: what the Red Wings didn't realize was what they were looking for all along was within themselves in the first place - Chris Osgood. 

Detroit won a Stanley Cup in 2002. Yet it's the Cup I remember least and appreciate the least. It was sort of a phony year. Taking advantage of the pre-salary cap era, the Wings assembled a conglomerate of veteran superstars and easily glided towards the Stanley Cup in '02. But when I think about the Red Wings, none of those guys are true Red Wings in my mind: all-stars like Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Chris Chelios, and Dominik Hasek all pale in comparison to grit players such as Darren McCarty, Kris Draper, or Joey Kocur, for me. But I guess that is the way those junior high and high school years are. You try hard to impress people that don't matter, try and be someone you aren't, until you realize what's truly important in life.


I will never forget the exact moment when Mike Babcock yanked Dominik Hasek from the goaltender's net in game 2, round 1, of the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Red Wings trailing the Nashville Predators two games to none. I was in Ann Arbor in my college house, watching with my best college friends. It was springtime on campus, one of those beautiful May days with the flowers blooming and the girls walking around in sundresses, a collegiate day perfectly suited for day-drinking and playing cornhole outdoors. I had just finished my sophomore year and was living the free and pure lifestyle of a college student yet to worry about the realities of finding a stable girlfriend, a paying job, or of anything, really. Chris Osgood skated towards the goal and patted Hasek on the back as he skated towards the bench. 

I have only had one real dream in this lifetime; I don't think I will ever really have another one quite like it. That dream was to attend the University of Michigan, mostly so that I could be a face in the crowds that I watched on Saturday afternoons as a boy with unrivaled passion. I took a lot of AP classes in high school, some that were a bit above my learning level. I joined various clubs such as the yearbook staff and played as many sports as possible. I passed up a lot of afterschool hangout activities so that I could hit the books. I didn't do those things because I wanted to, but because I had resolved that I would get into Michigan, no matter what it took.

The springtime of 2008 found me quite literally living in that dream. But with Michigan football performing poorly, I was clinging to the Red Wings more than ever. And a resurgent team led by names such as Datysuk, Franzen, and Zetterburg made that spring a season to believe in. 

As Chris Osgood - a guy no one will ever replace as my favorite Red Wing of all time - heard Babcock tell him to go in, as he put on his goalie mask and opened the bench gate to skate out on the ice, as he did his goalie warmups in that blue crease, surely somebody a block away from 933 South State Street heard the cry, "Come on Ozzie!!!". The rest is history. 

End of an Era

"And if people are allowed to grieve when they are passed over for promotion, or when they fail to win an Oscar, or when their novel is rejected by every publisher in London - and our culture allows them to do so, even though these people may have only dreamed these dreams for a couple years, rather than the decade, the half-lifetime, that I had been dreaming mine - then I was bloody well entitled to sit down on a lump of concrete for two minutes and try to blink back tears after the Arsenal loss". - Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

In June of 2009, I found myself alone in the maze that is the Chicago nightlife. I was lost with no idea how to get back to my dorm and didn't care. I tried to hide my tears from passersby, but after about a minute I stopped caring and let the tears fall. And they fell onto my Red Wings jersey. 

Earlier that night the other interns of my pre-law program agreed to go out with me for Game 7 of the Wings game. After a couple of weeks with me, they had started to grasp what these playoffs meant to me after seeing me come home drunk on weekend nights and rabble on about how this could be a special year. They grasped some of what it meant to me, but that night they would grasp just how much it meant. 

In the closing seconds I mumbled to my new friends that I needed to take a walk. A couple of my closer friends from that summer internship group tried to follow me out; they saw me starting to cry outside the bar. I said I just needed to be by myself that night. 

I guess I should've realized then that it was the end. The end of an era. The end of college approaching. The end of a Red Wings era approaching. But I didn't.

Last summer I said goodbye to Chris Osgood, as previously mentioned my favorite Red Wing ever, and Kris Draper, another staple of the Red Wings glory days. This summer I said goodbye to Nick Lidstrom, the last remaining piece of those glory years. The Red Wings I had grew up with were gone. Gone forever. It didn't seem right.

This past year has been a year of goodbyes for me, too. My best friend from college moved to Virginia. Most of my other college friends moved elsewhere, as well. The proverbial "one that got away" got away. Life as I knew it was over. I looked to the Red Wings to tell me that it wasn't over, but I should have known better. A five game loss to the Predators in this springs 2012 Playoffs told me it was over. Over forever.

The Next Chapter

"At some point you are not what you were, and then you are nothing. It's at this point people start putting themselves together, once you have had that year where you do too much of something—drink, play video games, feel sorry for yourself, brick threes, fumble—feel terrible after, and then do too much of that something again." - Brian Cook, writer of Mgoblog

Sometimes good things end. I don't believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do believe that things tend to work themselves out in the end. I've done a lot of soul-searching this spring and summer; I sort of lost who I was this past year. And I'm learning to redefine myself. I've started going for 10 mile hikes down the trails of Hines Park. I've started to appreciate those times I get to hangout with the guys I grew up with a little more. And I can't lie, during those times I've thought a lot about the golden years, when Michigan football won a national title and the Red Wings won a Stanley Cup in the same year. I've hoped that I could go back to those days, those simpler days. 

But time marches on. And you have to roll with the punches time throws. The Red Wings are going to have to do the same. The nucleus of the golden years is gone. They are going to have to redefine themselves if they wish to keep "Hockeytown" written at center ice. Supposedly a new hockey arena is in the works for Detroit, which almost makes sense looked at in terms of my life. I didn't want to rebuild, but eventually you just have to leave the Joe. 

24 years or so of fandom has taught me a lot. I know that there will be another 2009 moment of sadness. I know that I will turn to the Red Wings when a close family member dies or some other tragedy strikes. But I also know that there's another 1997 moment somewhere up ahead. And I know that somehow, the Red Wings will be peaking on the day I get married. And somehow they will be doing good when my first child is born. 

Because how your team does is, if nothing else, a weird running pantomime of a fan's life. 

Here's to the next 24 years.