Thursday, July 18, 2013

June 7, 1997

I've been doing some extensive writing this summer, largely expounding on the original Life and Loss with the Red Wings post from about a year ago. This piece is from a particularly memorable day for me: Saturday, June the 7th, 1997.

Part I

To this day, when I hear the word summer, my mind hearkens 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 grown ups sit out on the back patio drinking bottles of beer and sipping cocktails through umbrella straws, 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 on ice.

All summer days in the suburbs are magic. In a way, I remember them all. There's the whir of lawn mowers; the pitter patter of sprinklers raining on immaculately groomed front lawns; the yelps of the dogs barking at eachother through the backyards; house-wives in blue bonnets bent over flower gardens; kids meeting in the front street in the early morning sun, the possibilities of the summer day ahead of us truly boundless.

But I remember a particular one of those June nights most of all. 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.

The neighbors slowly trickle towards my house through the backyards or on the front sidewalks, everyone dressed in festive Red and White, kids wearing Yzerman and Shanahan and McCarty jerseys. The dads congregate around the grill out back, taking turns flipping hot dogs and painting barbecue sauce on slabs of ribs. The moms carry homemade dishes of potato salads and fruit salads and nacho dip into the kitchen. As for us kids, we toss water balloons in spite at Philadelphia Flyers logos plastered onto the front driveway, compete in an egg toss competition, and craft our own Stanley Cup replicas out of plastic tupperware and tin foil. There's a sense of calm that distinguishes the night from other summer barbecues, though. Everyone is tranquilly giddy with the idea that something truly special could happen that night. The dads understand it better than us boys do: having weathered a forty-two year Cup drought, they understand full well the implications on the line in the impending Game Four of these Stanley Cup Finals.

They say men are children sometimes. I know that's the way it was that night. All the adults were children that night. Here were mothers and fathers who had watched with a careful eye over my play in their backyards, who had taken me on trips to the swimming pool in their mini-vans, had lovingly bandaged my scraped knees in their bathrooms, had invited me to dinner and served me spaghetti at their own kitchentables, had tucked me into sleeping bags on weekend sleepovers; here they were, gathered round my living room television like kids for one more time. Gone were the faces I had grown accustomed to in my seven years in Millwood: faces of toil and sweat on dads pushing lawnmowers or peaking from underneath a kitchen sink, faces of weary mothers stirring up yet another batch of Kool-Aid or mopping up muddy footprints from a hasty jaunt through their pristine kitchens; for one night, at least, there eyes were wide as childrens, voices exuberant as the kids they reared.

Just when a lull emerged in the game - people getting up to refill drinks, mothers checking on daughters in the sandbox out back, dads taking cigar breaks to ease their nerves, fingernail gnawing commencing as the game clock couldn't tick fast enough - Darren McCarty broke free to open ice. A Red Wing dug the puck out of the boards and sent it center-wards to open ice, where it found Darren McCarty's stick as he darted from blue line to red line. Only the orange of Jaani Niimina's Flyers jersey stood between the gritty McCarty and Philadelphia goaltender Ron Hextall. The announcers' voices reached fever pitch, in the way that announcers can silence entire sports bars in an instant, like a prophetic gong from the sports gods. Bodies perched up from the living room couches around me, half-standing and half-sitting. McCarty dekes to his backhand, and Niimina stumbles towards the ice. Mano a mano now. The couches in my living room are vacant now, anticipatory 'oh's' mouthing from lips.

And I will never forget that calm before the storm. I know there was no way, in those mere seconds, that Steve and I had time to shoot each other that glance. Yet that's just the way it was: Steve and I sharing that one special moment, the coming on of a smile between best friends at those crucial junctures in life the way they do before your first round of spin the bottle, as you both step onto the stage at high school graduation, or as you nod to your best man in your wedding. Time seemed to stop, giving Steve and I that moment to forever cherish. That's the way I remember it, at least.

Hextall lunges out from his crease, and McCarty pulls back to his forehand with an open net before him, and that's all she wrote, folks. And before McCarty leaps into the boards - mouth roaring - before Stevie Y and Vladimir Konstantinov and the other Red Wings pile onto McCarty in his corner of the boards, the television screen disappears behind the hands of jubilant fans at the Joe. Hands reach into fists in front of the camera lens, releasing forty-two years of pent up hockey frustration into the rafters of the Joe, where the ghosts of yesteryear seem to be watching on. More than that, the living room about me had swallowed my own television screen hole, as bodies much larger than mine erupted into pandemonium. My father and Steve's father jump up and down gleefully, other bodies are embracing one another, sending beer mugs jostling against one another and drops of beer spilling onto the carpet - but for once the grown ups are the ones who don't care. We were all kids in that moment.

The rest of the game seemed a blur. The anticipatory celebration was already underway in Detroit, my house being no exception. The party forty-two years in the making was on. I remember my dad pulling me tight to his leg and leaning in to whisper in the closing minute, "Watch this," he said, "You'll remember this the rest of your life". Steve's dad did likewise, holding onto Steve's shoulder tightly from behind. I remember the faint glimmer of a tear sparkling in some of the dads' eyes - no doubt thinking back to the games they watched with their own fathers a long time ago, thinking about how dearly they wished in vain to share this moment with their dads, and the long, painful Dead Wings era they had experiences first-hand. I remember we chanted "Stevie! Stevie!" along with the crowd at the Joe, just before our captain showed that toothless smile and took hold of Detroit's long-awaited silver grail.

The night sort of just went on for us kids. We were just happy we were allowed to stay up past midnight as the celebration continued on for the adults. School had let out but a few days prior, and there seemed an electrifying spirit in the newly found summer twilight: fireflies lighting the wooded trails out back like flickering candle lights, the night life - creepy crawlies in the earth, bats buzzing in the branches, other critters rustling in the brush - was refreshed from a long winter's hibernation, and the stars above shimmered with renewed zeal. Even the distant sounds of fireworks exploding into the night toasted the night's victory.

I remember laying in the thick grass of Steve's front lawn, panting and out of breath from a game of flashlight tag. I took a moment to soak it all in, looking at the craters in the silver crescent moon high above me, thinking it all grand. A couple houses down the street, I thought I could make out the faint echo of a song playing through the night:

Late December, back in '63
What a very special time for me

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