Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The 20th anniversary of when heartbreak hooked me

Hockey is a central factor in my life these days. If you know me, you know this. You know I watch an inordinate amount of games each season and that I work in the industry however small or ineffectual the capacity. When people meet me and find out what I do, the question I almost universally receive is, "Have you always been a hockey fan?"

Have I?

I suppose in a literal sense the answer is no. After all, I'm fairly certain that when I emerged from the womb the only things I was really a fan of were napping and breast milk. The team from which I draw the most central core aspects of my peculiar brand of optimistic pessimism didn't draw me in until a few weeks before my fifth birthday. The Giants didn't absorb me until the Leon Lett game in 1993, in which the team didn't even play. While I watched the 1994 NBA Finals, the Knicks didn't become my team until I was mesmerized by Latrell Sprewell and the '99 Bockers' unexpected run to a conference title.

As for the Devils, it seems foolhardy to imagine they pre-dated all of these teams, but I'm fairly certain that not only do I know the moment when I became a fan, but that it happened on this day 20 years ago.

I knew little of hockey as a child beyond the Mighty Ducks movies, though like so many American children, they certainly played a part. The earliest relic I have of any real Devils fandom came courtesy of a poster my sister got at a game featuring the 1992-93 squad, they of Dave Barr and Craig Billington. But this didn't suck me in, even if the black-and-white player photos and the pixellated Devils logo were dazzling. I hadn't yet attended a hockey game at this point and my first Devils game wouldn't even be until Dec. 7, 1995.

But one lonely night as I sifted through TV channels I happened upon the New York Rangers facing the Ottawa Senators in the "Rangers in 60" replay on MSG Network. This was almost certainly on Feb. 18, 1994, though my memories are hazy, and the next game I remember clearly was when the Rangers faced the Dallas Stars on April 1, 1994. On neither time would I claim to have been won over entirely, but the game certainly intrigued me.

As the 1994 Stanley Cup Playoffs began, I kept track of who was advancing passively, tuning in for a game here or there, but not really feeling an emotional draw. By the time the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers, owners of the second and first-best records in the League that season, respectively, ended up meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals I saw a reason to pay attention. But who was I to root for? I had no particular distaste for the Rangers yet considering the other sports teams I cared about were from New York, and Devils games weren't even broadcast on a channel we got on our cable package. I wasn't entirely sure whom to pull for, but ultimately I assumed that considering I lived in New Jersey -- and let's not forget that poster -- it made sense that I would root for the Devils.

What followed was what I still consider to be the greatest postseason series I've ever seen, about which I have written at length before. I still remember the morning after Game 1, when I was not allowed to stay awake to watch double-overtime and eagerly asked my dad who won and he held out on me for precious seconds before revealing that New Jersey had surprisingly taken the first game of the series at the Garden. The first six games would lay the groundwork of an epic showdown in Game 7, with two double overtime games and, of course, Messier's guarantee in Game 6.

I still recall watching Game 5 by myself in my neighbor's sons' bedroom while our families ate dinner and was marveled not just at a huge night for Bernie Nicholls, but at the Devils being a mere one game away from winning the series with Game 6 at home. I remember sitting on my parents' bed on the night of May 25, 1994 and watching as Sports Channel's distorted feed miraculously came through clearly so I could watch Messier single-handedly save New York's Cup hopes. It was a New Jersey collapse that, even with three Stanley Cup titles in the interim, would not be exorcised until Adam Henrique's series-clincher in overtime 18 years later to the day.

And I remember Game 7. Anyone who watches hockey remembers Game 7.

It was a Friday night, on May 27, 1994 (coincidentally, 20 years later to the day the Rangers are looking to clinch their first berth in the Stanley Cup Final since that season). I sat in my basement with my father, my brother, my friend Matt and his brother Nick, and we watched. It was the same, tight angst-inducing kind of game the Stanley Cup Playoffs are wont to produce. New Jersey trailed late and its season appeared to be ticking away until, much like had happened in the first game of the series, the Devils somehow tied it in the final minute to force overtime, this time courtesy of Valeri Zelepukin with just 7.7 seconds remaining. Nobody scored in the first overtime period. As I sat there, I was entranced, though I admit today that eight-year-old me did not grasp the significance or the ramifications.

And then it happened.

What is amazing about Stefan Matteau's double-overtime winner is not that it ended New York's 15-year Final berth drought, that it kept alive their hopes of eventually ending the Rangers' 54-year Cup drought, nor that he was the man who scored a double-overtime winner in Game 3 or that it ended the greatest postseason series of all time. It's that I remember it all so well and that I've relived it in my brain so many times since.

And that it hurt. For the first time in sports I felt a swing of emotion punch me in the gut instantaneously. Overtime playoff hockey is capricious and cruel mistress and for the first time ever I fell victim to it. As I look back on it, I'm thankful I was only eight years old because at my current age with the time and emotion I have invested in my teams over the past two decades, I might be able to bury my pain better, but I would feel it much more deeply knowing how rare those moments are. Looking back, however, I know it was one of the first times I felt pain at all.

That's how you know. When you can't just move on and you know you hurt, that's how you know you cared. Today is the 20th anniversary of when I knew my fandom was set in stone and I was hooked, and that in and of itself is a certain odd kind of joy. After all, roots matter, don't they? May 27, 1994 is when my roots took hold and I know it. The logical, rational part of my brain knows and the memories of sitting on the long-gone brown sectional couch and watching on my parents old wood-paneled 25-inch swivel TV confirm it.

The memories aren't always pleasant. But as I've said before, it's always important to remember where you come from.

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