I admit it; I'm probably the worst sort of bandwagon-jumper when it comes to hockey. My days of following the intricacies of one-timers, line changes and faceoff percentages ended well into my 20s when I would attend a Hartford Whalers game a couple times a year and followed that hapless franchise.
And - really - I have no time to follow the Flyers during the regular season. I mean, it starts in the middle of college football season, extends all the way through the Super Bowl and NCAA tournament. Where's the time to keep up with W Simon Gagne's performance on the ice?
But when the playoffs happen, I start to pay attention.
Call me fair-weather? Sure. Go ahead; I don't care. But if you had to pick a time and a place to start paying attention, Game 7 against the Bruins at the new Boston Garden last Friday was probably the best time ever to start. (more)
For many in my generation, our connection with the NHL began and ended with EA Sports' NHL games. NHL 94 for the Sega Genesis felt like it was the perfect game - except for my annoying habit of needing to take my "hometown" team, the Hartford Whalers, to the Stanley Cup. (The Whalers were one of the worst teams in hockey at that time, despite the presence of talented youngster D Chris Pronger, and having their anemic offense in NHL 94 work well enough to score consistently against G Ed Belfour took practice. Way, way too much practice.)
NHL 94 was nearly the perfect video game in many respects. It had everything a male video game aficionado could ever want. Quick gameplay that was hardly realistic, but realistic enough. Instant replay to humiliate your friends as your goalie would edge to the right, helplessly leaving the goalmouth open with a shot. High scoring, making 10-4 or 13-6 games commonplace. Fighting, so you could beat up your friends. All it needed was pictures of Carol Alt in their somewhere and it probably would have been THE perfect game. (In a related story, we were single at the time.)
At that time, though, the Whalers weren't long for the dustbin of history. New owner Peter Karamanos bought the team that same year - 1994 - and pledged that he'd keep the team in Hartford for the next four years. Two years later, the slimy weasel was already starting to ooze out of his pledge, accusing the fans of not coming out to support the Whalers. He threatened to move the team unless 11,000 people bought season tickets - and got rid of "mini" season ticket plans, the only way many fans could possibly afford season tickets, to try to make the statistics fit with his narrative. (To put this in perspective, if you wanted to buy a Whalers season ticket package, you'd have to buy tickets to all 41 games. That's something that's unthinkable today in any sport.)
The only problem was creative fans managed to find ways to have 11,000 season tickets be sold - and forced Karamanos to stay in Hartford another season. Even faced with the long odds of making Karamanos' season ticket numbers - and with him changing the rules to make it even harder - the fans pulled through. But the protean slime that was Karamanos had other plans.
After Whaler fans had kept up their end of the bargain - despite the stacking of odds against them - Karamanos then threatened to leave anyway in negotiations with Connecticut governor John Rowland for a new lease for the Whalers, sticking in a $45 million dollar clause in the contract to "reimburse" him for losses in his three seasons as owner. It has to be the first - and only - time in history that an owner actively made horrific business decisions and tried to keep fans from watching the games - and then attempt to cry poverty because he was losing money. Some might call it chutzpah - in private, I call it something else.
After all of that slimeball Karamanos' antics, when the Whalers left for Carolina in 1997 I was very, very bitter. No more NHL hockey games for me, I said. I vowed that all I would root for was for the Hurricanes' to lose every single regular-season game, and hoped that the abandoned warehouse of an area that Carolina played in to collapse in between games, preferably with Karamanos in it at the time. The NHL was dead to me. For a while, anyway
But as tought as it was, it was also a valuable lesson for me in rooting for pro sports franchises. Karamanos was not unusual in the sense that never saw me as anything but a rube who was willing to fork over my hard-earned money to watch his crappy product on the field. He saw his franchise as a business and had open contempt for the community and fans who supported them. And many of the owners are exactly like him in that way.
I'm not so much as a purist as to see that business has no place in sport, but business can't be the only thing that sport is, either. The community and fans are stakeholders, and there are many of them and they have to matter.
It's, unfortunately, something that's also easily seen in many other sports leagues today. Take baseball, where the owners are so frightened about losing money that they continue to allow Manny Ramirez, Andy Pettite, Stray-Rod and Big Papi to continue to play despite their proven past with, and continued playful denials about, steroids. Take the NFL or NBA, where teams look past the antics of players like Ben Roethlisberger or Ron Artest because it "improves the investment" they've had in their teams. Even look at big-time collegiate athletics, where Big Ten expansion is only coldly talked about in terms of TV dollars and potential revenues - and never discussed in terms of academics, fans or communities.
Its one very large reason why I enjoy Lehigh, and Patriot League sports, so much.
I'm a Lehigh guy, so my sports thoughts tend to run towards what I see and experience locally. If you had to quantify the pro sports allegiances of Bethlehem, you could say it's on the fault line between New York and Philadelphia, which makes it a fascinating case study of sports fans. Many displaced New Yorkers take their love of the Yankees and Giants with them to Bethlehem, but as many displaced Philadelphians are there as well, making it a natural battle ground between the irrational love of all things Philadelphia and the unstated hegemony that (nearly) all New York teams have over the rest of professional sports.
New York fans have never been united on anything. It helps that they have so many franchises, which fosters discontent, say, between hardcore Ranger and Islander fans. But it also helps that there are a legion of frontrunners - not only in New York, but around the world - that maybe had a cup of coffee and a bagel in New York and therefore use that to pretend that they are a part of their nation of fans - when they're doing well. If it's 1986, I must be a Mets fan. If it's 2009, go Yankees and A-Rod!
One thing that has always struck me about Philadelphia fans is their great sense of genuine community in their teams. When the Eagles are doing well in the playoffs, it just seems like nearly everyone's happy, from the guys pumping gas to the people in the luxury boxes. You can actually feel it in the city, walking around, and even in the suburbs running your errands. And when big things happen against the Giants or Mets - or Bruins, as the case may be - well, the happiness is even more palpable.
New York fans get all - indeed, most - of the glory overall in professional sports. But they lack that unitedness that Philadelphia has when it does actually win something. They know it too - which is why they hate Philadelphia more than everything. New York gets championships. Lots of them. But they don't have that same inordinate love that Philadelphia delivers when they win. When there's a happy Yankee fan, there's at least one Met fan that wants to rip out their lungs and another who is there for the Yankees today, and the Mets tomorrow. It just ruins it for everybody.
Maybe that's why I do like teams like the Flyers. Yes, it does help to be married to a woman who loves all things Philadelphia. But when you live here, you also live in a community of sports fans that affects a lot more than just who won that day. Since you're a member of the community, you follow these teams, and you can't help at least find out how they're doing. And even if push comes to shove you root for the Red Sox or Saints, your life is better when the Phillies, Eagles or Flyers win because the people in your community (and sometimes your own family) are happier.
(Until they lose, of course, as teams like the Phillies, Flyers, and Eagles have done more often than many, many, many other franchises in professional sports. Then it becomes pretty awful. But I digress.)
I picked things up again with the Flyers because it's playoff time. I watched and followed the games versus the Devils. I started wearing my Flyers Izod shirt to work - and frankly, after G Brian Boucher stood on his head in Game One and Game Four, there really wasn't a large amount of drama in the series. What was crazy was that the Candiens, Flyers and Bruins - the eighth, seventh, and sixth seeds respectively - knocked off the Capitals, Devils, and Sabres with relative ease. The highest remaining seed after round one was the Penguins.
I was paying more attention in the following series, where I had a sense what the Flyers were up against with the Bruins. The Bruins didn't have an elegant offense. They had a bunch of bruisers, so D Chris Pronger (that young up-and-comer I saw with the Whalers, minf) would have his hands full.
I watched the first three games, where Bruin W Milan Lucic was getting away with murder in the first three games and did watch most of Game Four, where it looked for all practical purposes that the same B.S. that befell the Flyers in games 1-3 would simply continue. And yeah, when that freaky goal bounced off the glass and went through Boucher's pads to cut the deficit to one - the same guy who was almost unstoppable versus the Devils! - and the Bruins would tie it in regulation with - Lucic! - I thought that the Philadelphia curse was alive and well with the orange and black.
I admit it; I didn't see Gagne steal the game away from the Bruins later in Game 4, though I say the highlights later. I did see the 4-0 whitewash of the Briuns in Game 5 - and the injury to Boucher, which meant that unproven G Michael Leighton would be the guy who would have to carry the Flyers the rest of the way. The Flyers, already missing C Ian Lapierre and a host of others to injury, didn't seem to be carrying all that much momentum going into Game 6 as a result.
But I did watch game 6, where Leighton actually did carry the Flyers on his back, stopping 30 shots and shutting out the Bruins most of the way until a late goal by - Lucic! - made it 2-1 with about 30 seconds left to play.
In my community - which, admittedly, is made up of a lot of very passionate Flyers fans - there was bedlam. That quickening in our area that seems to happen when the Eagles humiliate the Cowboys was definitely in play. Folks made plans to cut work early on Friday to drive up to Boston to see the game. Some planned to head to the Wachovia center. For my wife and I, it meant making sure to come home in time to see it on TV. But we could smell it. The Flyers could really do it.
We heard C Marty Briere say that he felt the first ten minutes of the first period would be crucial for the Flyers' chances. If that were true, the Flyers were in trouble early. After a high sticking penalty (?) called on W Scott Hartnell, Bruin W Michael Ryder proceeded to electrify the building with a rebound with Leighton sitting like a statue. And then - Lucic, dammit! - proceeded to ride that momentum with another power-play goal on a Briere penalty for high-sticking (?) and a beautiful breakaway past a stunned Leighton to make it 3-0.
It seemed like a replay of the firs three games. Lucic hooking almost every play - no call. Flyers getting ticky-tacked for two questionable penalties - converted into goals. My wife wanted to turn off the TV but - and I swear on my life that this is true - I told her, "I'm not convinced this game is over yet. I don't think we've heard the last of the Flyers yet."
Then, a timeout by head coach Peter Laviolette with 5 minutes to play. Perfectly timed, it seemed to settle the Flyers down and focus them on what's important. 3-0 is not impossible to come back from; claw one back before intermission, and keep working hard. Flyer W James van Riemsdyk just kept working, and just kept the offensive pressure on and got what can only be described as a fluky goal which bounced off of Bruin G Tuuka Rask. The Flyers would go into the first intermission with a daunting - but not impossible - two goal deficit.
Early in the second, Philadelphia got another "dumpster dinner", as Comcast Sports Net's announcers said during the series, when Briere laid himself out on an attempt on a wrap-around chance and Hartnell slammed home the second goal of the comeback. You could feel the mounting dread in the building, and when Briere next tried a wrap-around goal, he punched it off of what, three different Bruins? - in making it 3-3 with ten minutes left in the second period. The Wachovia center, loaded with Flyer fans watching the game on the jumbotron, went bananas.
The game changed after that, with Laviolette and Boston head coach Paul Julien playing more of a chess match on ice after that. One puck hit the post - and almost seemed in for the Flyers - but didn't cross all the way. Another dumpster goal seemed to be in hand for the Flyers - with something like three Bruins and three Flyers surrounding the goal - but after some review, it was ruled that the puck never completely crossed the line. Though it looked like it did from the replay, it wasn't conclusively proven to have crossed goal line. No goal, and a 3-3 tie at the second intermission.
You hate to pull out Rocky references - especially since Briere looks uncannily like the 1976 Italian Stallion in Rocky I - but the beginning of the third period seemed like, yes, the 15th round in Rocky II, with both fighters barely able to stand. Both teams were pounding each other like crazy. The refs were letting them play. There were few breakaways, and both teams were working incredibly hard for shots. The Flyers were doing an incredible job blocking the lanes in front of Leighton. Pronger was doing a number on Lucic and the rest of the Bruin forwards.
With 10 minutes to play in the game, the Bruins would make the goof of the century. Six men on the ice was a penalty that had to be called - maybe the only penalty that would have been called in that third period to boot.
And the power play - expertly killed by the Bruins most of the series - didn't start out well. A full minute went by and the Flyers didn't even get a shot off. Leighton faced three - three! - short-handed shots from the Bruins that had me wondering who had the power play.
But the Flyers worked. And worked. And worked. Until W Simon Gagne finally got a solid smack off at Rusk - that made it into the net. The Bruins' three shots didn't matter. The Flyers' one shot did.
They continued to work. A demoralized Bruin team allowed valuable time to be wasted in their own end as W Claude Giroux (I think) kept control of the puck for more than a full minute. Leighton fought off a late barrage - and he, Pronger, and the rest of the Flyers managed to kill the game and secure the improbable comeback.
The celebration started then, and didn't actually stop. The 6-0 whitewash of the Canadiens this Sunday felt like an extension of the party that started Friday night.
Sports will always be populated by cads, and sports also seem to be able to survive the worst cutthroat business instincts of their owners. But every once in a while something happens that causes everyone to forget about the B.S. and rally around their team, their community, their city. That happened last Friday, and now it feels like almost everyone has a bounce in their step. I'm as fair-weather a Flyer fan as they come - mostly a passion brought on by my family more than anything else, after being screwed out of my original hometown team - but it doesn't matter. My celebration isn't as sweet as some folks I know, but it tastes pretty sweet nonetheless.