Deep down, I know that sports are just a game. Hell, on the surface, I know that sports are just a business. I work in that business, and people (not me, other people) make a lot of money in that business, primarily because you and I and the rest of the world’s fans don’t always remember that they’re just a game or just a business. My clients spend millions of dollars on sponsorship fees because they know that you feel so passionately about a sport that you’ll buy one product over another simply because they’re the official whatever of whatever league. I know this. I’ve read the research, and I’ve built programs that capitalize off of it.
That doesn’t mean I never forget it myself.
No one, aside from possibly some gladiators in ancient Rome, have ever lived or died because of the result of a sporting match, but it sometimes feels that way. No sporting event feels more that way than the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and no individual game has felt more like life or death to me than last night’s Penguins game.
In case you aren’t a hockey fan, let me set the scene: down 2-0 in a best of seven series after losing the first two at home, the Pens go into Boston to attempt to salvage the series. A third loss won’t end the series, but it’s about as close a guarantee as you can have in sports these days. After blow outs in the first two games, the two teams battle for 95 minutes – an extra half a game beyond the normal – literally breaking bones to try to take control of the series. In the 95th minute, the Bruins break the stalemate and put a choke hold on my Penguins – the #1 seed in the conference and Stanley Cup pick of many, the team that went so all in on this season that anything less than a championship would be considered a massive disappointment.
I know it’s just a game, but it hurt like hell.
It always hurts when they lose, but this year feels worse than most. Yes, it’s the heightened expectations due to a phenomenal regular season and a few trade deadline blockbusters. Yes, it’s the sense that this team full of individual talents is a once in a lifetime thing in the salary cap era. Every Penguins fan is feeling the free fall back to earth after letting our hopes get up so high. But for me, it feels like something more, something so much more visceral and raw. It’s a feeling of attachment to these guys, the sense that (completely unrealistically) they have been playing for me, to make me happy, and everyone else is just along for the ride. For the past six months, no matter what else was going on in my life – no matter how many jobs rejections I got or how utterly hopeless I felt – I had this team to pick me up again.
And pick me up they did. When I moved home in November, the one positive I kept dwelling on was that eventually the NHL would resolve their lockout and eventually I’d have hockey to watch and eventually, for the first time in years, I’d be able to watch every game as long as I was home. I kept that hope in the back of my mind as I struggled to adapt to living with my parents again, and when the season finally kicked off in January, I finally felt like I had the release I’d been needing – a way to get out all of the pent up energy and frustration building inside of me.
I couldn’t go check anyone into the boards. I couldn’t take a slap shot in open ice. I couldn’t punch anyone. But I could watch the Penguins.
I watched the opening game with my brother at a bar outside of Pittsburgh. It was a gorgeous, unseasonably warm winter day, and I downed Canadian beer and felt a happiness I hadn’t felt in months as I watched a dominating 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
I drove to DC a few weeks later to catch a Super Bowl Sunday afternoon matchup against the Capitals, relishing the thrill of being in enemy territory as your team makes it look easy.
I nearly threw my wine glass across my living room and terrified my dog when the Pens squandered a beautiful game-tying goal against those same hated Flyers and let in the game winner just a few seconds later, then felt vindicated as a few weeks later, they erased a three goal deficit to embarrass their biggest rivals at home.
I watched them kick off their 15 game winning streak in my brother’s apartment during a crazy back and forth 7-6 win in Montreal.
The day after I was rejected by a job I really wanted – a job that happened to be in Boston – I went to the Pens/Bruins game with my cousin and witnessed an incredible third period comeback victory. I let the Penguins take out all of my frustration on the city of Boston and the company that had rejected me and the awful things I’d dealt with while living in Massachusetts years before. I felt a release of all of that through a 3-2 win over the Bruins.
And when I finally got a job and made plans to leave Pittsburgh again, I said goodbye to the city on a Saturday night at Consol Energy Center, the final game of the season and the one game I’d been waiting for since June the year before.
Maybe I could have gotten through all of that without the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. That specific group of players, at that specific time… over and over again, it quite honestly felt like they were saving my sanity.
The only other time I felt that way was in 2010.
That year, the hockey season started just a few weeks after my world fell apart. I’d been watching hockey games with my ex for years by that point and the thought of watching a game alone was nauseating. So I invited my friends over – wonderful friends who came despite not knowing or really caring about hockey – and I drank beer and watched the Penguins raise their Stanley Cup banner, and I felt happy for the first time in weeks.
That year I bought the cable package that allowed me to watch games out of town, and I rarely missed a game. I did my homework with the games on in the background. I stayed up for west coast games, because I was on a student schedule and I could. I remember the playoffs starting and me wearing my Sidney Crosby jersey to my friend’s house because there was a game going on, and even if I didn’t watch the whole thing, I still had to feel like I was doing my part.
That year, the Penguins lost in the second round to the Montreal Canadiens. It was a seven game series that, to be honest, I don’t remember all that much about. What I do remember is watching game seven – this time at home by myself, I had already adapted that much in just nine months – and the dread as the clock ticked down at the end. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to that team. I sat on my couch long after the series-ending handshake, my arms wrapped around my legs and leaning my chin on my knees. I just sat there. I didn’t want it to be over. I didn’t know what to funnel my energy into.
I didn’t want to take off my jersey, and I didn’t, wearing it out to meet some friends at the bar. It was a hot spring night, and the game had been over for an hour, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t ready.
That’s how I felt last night. A third loss is not a fourth loss. There’s still a chance – a very, very small chance, but a chance nonetheless – that the Penguins come back and win this series. There’s a tiny part of me, deep down, that thinks maybe they will, that maybe somehow they got the memo that while I have a job and an apartment and am feeling better about my life than I have in years, I still need their help. I still take out my aggressions through their fights and checks, I still need them to defend my honor to the city of Boston, and I still need to feel that there are men out there who won’t let me down.
I know the team will be back in October, but it will be different. It won’t be these players at this point in my life.
It’s just a game and just a business. I know that, except when I choose not to.
I know this sounds silly. I know it sounds fanatical and melodramatic. Sometimes, especially after double overtime back breaking losses, I wonder to myself what it feels like to not care about sports. And then I think about the elation of a win – the way a group of 20 men who don’t know me can make me feel completely on top of the world, even as that world is trying its hardest to keep me down.
I’m not ready to let go of that feeling just yet.