Sports are a fascinating, exhilarating, exhausting and often maddening enterprise. If you allow them to, sports can take you on a dizzying thrill ride, with peaks at the highest reaches of ecstasy and valleys that can plunge you into heart-wrenching depression, while reaching every level of anticipation, frustration and anxiety in between.
And all of this can be experienced while being planted squarely on your living room couch.
Sure, there is a lot that can be learned and experienced from personally playing hockey, football, baseball, water polo or what-have-you; but the incentive and commitment that goes with being a participant is much different than that of being a fan. My own 19-year hockey career was at its core driven by a deeply instilled passion for the game, but it was often directed by a host of different personal variables.
One might get into the game as a hobby and to meet friends, stay in the game to parlay their skill set into a college education (or in rare cases a career) and continue playing the game into old age to stay in reasonable shape. But in any case, the players are integrally connected to the game they play whatever its outcome may be.
So why do people sit glued to couches, bar stools and $250 nosebleed seats every-other night from April to the dawning of summer watching a group of 20 and 30-year-olds they have never met playing a game on a sheet of ice that they have no stake in? Why do people put friendships on hiatus for reasons such as “they are a Blackhawks fan,” and making conscious decisions to cancel on a planned get-together because “we just won Game 6 and Game 7 happens to be on the same night as our date”?
Last night, as I sat in a muddled pile of nerves and anxiousness watching my Kings take on the Chicago Blackhawks in the deciding game of what was one of the most intense playoff series in recent memory, I felt some of the most intense and visceral emotions of my life. These ranged from frustration and unrest when Chicago raced out to an early 2-0 lead, to an almost unbearable, heart-in-my-throat type of tension when the game entered overtime.
Fortunately, this episode had a positive ending, as the night finished in a blaze of incredible jubilance and excitement as Alec Martinez banked in the series-winning goal past Corey Crawford to send Los Angeles to the Stanley Cup Final. A feeling of accomplishment from coming out on top against the defending champions was apparent, as was a sense of opportunity and promise as the quest for the Kings’ second Cup in three years headed for the homestretch.
But neither I, nor the throngs of Kings fans in California and beyond, actually accomplished anything during this playoff run. None of us suited up for warm-ups or played a single minute, and none of us will have our names etched on Lord Stanley’s Cup if Los Angeles finishes the job. But this does not matter, the fans who celebrated Martinez’s goal on Sunday night, whether in solitude, with family and friends, or even at the game (and I don’t mean uttering a “oh neat the Kings won” after seeing the score flash by on SportsCenter, I mean legitimately screaming and jumping and fist-pumping for a considerable amount of time after the game ended), did so because they were personally invested in the series. They were on board before San Jose took a 3-0 lead in the first round and they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, regardless of who will win the upcoming showdown between Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist.
At some point in everyone’s association with sports they have to make a key decision. Will they be an impartial spectator – someone who will watch a game but devoid of any deep connection toward it; someone who can easily turn the channel or walk away from a game if the score gets lopsided since they have no more interest in it – or will they become a fan?
Someone can become a fan by way of their family, friends or circumstance. They can become enamored with a team because their parents raised them to root for them, because they were converted by a group of close friends, or simply because they stumbled across a team or a player and liked what they saw. There are no tests you need to pass to become a fan, or yearly membership fees – a team won’t care or even know if a fan decides to abandon ship and become an impartial spectator.
However, Sunday night reinforced to me why I chose to be a true fan. Despite the harrowing lows and the demoralizing defeats, having a staunch allegiance to a particular team pays its dividends when that team can do the unthinkable, pull off the miraculous comeback, rise from the ashes as a franchise and reach the pinnacle of their sport.
Some fans are luckier than others of course; consider a New England Patriot fan compared to a Cleveland Browns fan or a Yankees fan versus a Mets fan. For every fan who has had the privilege of celebrating a championship, there is another who is enduring a debilitating drought of success. But when the tides turn and it is the current basement-dwellers who reign supreme, the loyal fans who have weathered the bad times will be the most sublime. As a fan, you get out what you put in.
The Kings in 2012 were a great example of a team that had recovered from a long period of futility to finally reach the top of the mountain. While I was not alive for or cognizant of the greater part of their stretch of mediocrity, I was able to observe the sheer joy of those who suffered through it when Dustin Brown lifted Hockey’s holy grail after defeating New Jersey in Game 6 at Staples Center.
This season the Kings are blazing a different trail. Where in their first Cup run they were dominant wire-to-wire, this year they stand as the embodiment of infallible determination and sheer will in the face of incalculable odds. Time-and-time again they have been written off and each time their players find a way to dig deeper into themselves and get the job done.
Watching each step of the playoff run closely and living it as a fan, I have not only received the personal satisfaction and excitement that comes with my favorite team succeeding on the biggest stage, but I have also been genuinely inspired with what I have seen unfold before my eyes. I am legitimately proud to root for Drew Doughty, when after assuming a herculean workload each game he is able to shrug it off and simply say, “Your heart doesn’t get tired.” I am amazed at Justin Williams’ spooky ability to rise to the occasion and deliver when the lights are at its brightest. I am blown away at this team’s utter refusal to back down and concede at any point in any game or series this postseason.
While at the end of the day, for most of us the Stanley Cup Playoffs are pretty inconsequential in the big picture. No matter what happens, it does not change my personal standing in society – the Kings winning another Cup will not make it any easier for me to find a job and start a career. But what it does is give me, along with countless other fans, something to rally around – something to believe in.
So while I could easly make the choice to disregard the upcoming Stanley Cup Final, maybe catching the highlights online and focusing on my own life, I know that will not be the case. Come Wednesday night I will be back on the same spot, on the same couch, being a nervous wreck as the Kings and Rangers square off for Game 1. I know I will be jumping up ecstatically when Los Angeles scores and sulking deep into my seat when New York does. I know I will be in a better mood the day after a Kings win, and in the dumps after a loss. If they win the series I will be on cloud nine and searching for cheap flights to LA to join my friends in celebration at the parade. If they lose I will be depressed for a while but optimistic for the next season.
I accept the fact that I am irrationally attached and invested in a team I have no connection to. But that is what being a fan is all about. Go Kings Go.