11 OCTOBER 2013
Let’s face it – hockey is a passionate game. From the players on the ice to the fans in the stands, everyone tends to experience a vast array of emotions from the moment they step inside the arena. The home opener, in particular, is one of the most emotional nights on the sports calendar – it’s a chance for the local fans to welcome their team back from their summer vacation and bring about the dawn of a new season: Hockey Season.
Earlier this week, I was fortunate enough to attend my very first home opener, as the Los Angeles Kings hosted the New York Rangers at Staples Center. Little did I know that I would be witness to a three-hour display of a wide range of human emotion, which began from the moment I took my seat…
A pretty basic emotion, for sure, but one that should always be present. We arrived inside the arena as the Kings were being introduced to the crowd, with each player receiving a warm round of applause as he skated out toward center ice. It was a nice moment, and showed the passion of the home crowd.
One of the loudest cheers came for Willie Mitchell, the popular defenseman whose knee injury forced him to miss the previous season in its entirety. In fact, the last time he played a meaningful game in Los Angeles, he had his hands full:
Another loud round of applause occurred when Jeff Carter skated onto the ice during the pre-game ceremony. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Columbus Blue Jackets and their fans, as they’ve endured more than a decade without winning a single playoff game in team history. When they acquired Carter in the summer of 2011, that was supposed to change. Unfortunately, he never really quite fit in with the team, and suffered some injuries that limited him throughout the season. After playing only 39 games in Columbus, he was traded to Los Angeles the following February in exchange for defenseman Jack Johnson and a 1st round pick (the Jackets would later try to erase all memory of Carter’s stay in Columbus with a rather unique promotion). I couldn’t help but feel a bit dismayed on behalf of Jackets fans as I watched this crowd embrace Carter in a way that Columbus fans had hoped they would. (A similar feeling occurred to me later while watching another Columbus castoff, Rick Nash, skating for the Rangers – however, my feelings of RESENTMENT would be quickly replaced by OPTIMISM for the future of the Blue Jackets, as the players and draft picks they received in the Carter/Nash trades seem to have them set on a positive course).
Once the player introductions were complete, a carpet was rolled out to center ice with two people following soon after. The first was a veteran of the US military, who was a longtime Kings season ticket holder (my sincere apologies for not remembering his name). The other was Pia Toscano, popular American Idol cast member, who delivered a stirring rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. It may seem like an arbitrary moment at the beginning of every sporting event, but as the son of a veteran, I’ve always taken a certain amount of pride in the performance of our national anthem. I generally do my best to hold my hand over my heart and gaze at the American flag hanging from the rafters. However, as the song was finishing, I made the mistake of shifting my gaze to an adjacent spot above which led to…
Yes, there’s really no other word for it: situated to the right of the American flag was another significant monument to this team, their 2011-2012 Stanley Cup Championship Banner. Of the five NHL teams that still exist from the 1967 Expansion, only two had yet to win the Cup before that season: the Kings and my St. Louis Blues. It was a shared misery that I had with those friends I knew that supported the Kings, and when the two teams met in the second round of the 2012 Playoffs, you had the feeling that the winner of that series had a very good chance to leave the loser as the only one without a Cup. True to form, the Kings overwhelmed the Blues in a heart-breaking (for me, at least) four-game sweep, and captured the Cup a month later. Sure, I’m happy for their fans and all, but damn if it doesn’t sting a bit to look up and see that banner, knowing there isn’t a matching one in St. Louis yet.
On to the game itself…
My friend Allan hooked us up with incredible seats, which were 15 rows behind the Rangers bench. I’ve been to numerous hockey games in my life, but I’ve never sat that close to the benches before – it created a totally different perspective and led to an amazing experience! Throughout the game, I could hear the New York coaches shouting instructions to their players as they skated by. I watched intently as the players communicated with each other both on the ice and on the bench, something I could never really notice from the upper deck. It was also nice to see those visiting players interact with the Rangers fans who were sitting near the runway that led back to the locker room.
One of the first players I noticed for the Rangers was defenseman Marc Staal – it was a very pleasant sight, after his horrific eye injury from the previous season. He skated fluidly around the ice with confidence, now wearing a visor to protect his repaired orbital bone. It’s always uplifting to see a player return after missing significant time, but Staal’s presence wasn’t even the most satisfying of his team.
Missing games due to injury is hard enough, but Rangers center Dominic Moore’s absence was even more devastating. A journeyman forward who has been traded SIX times, Moore missed the entire 2012-13 season to take care of his wife, who had been diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer (sadly, Katie Moore would pass away at the age of 32 in January 2013). It was a story that shook the NHL community, leaving fans to wonder if he would return and with which team, as he was a free agent at the time. The Rangers stepped up and offered him a one-year deal in July, and here he was on the ice in front of me, providing solid defensive coverage for his new team.
During the first intermission, I witnessed a unique sight: many of the New York Rangers fans in attendance were huddled around a TV screen in the concourse to watch the Monday Night Football game, featuring the New York Jets against the favored Atlanta Falcons. The Jets were attempting a game-winning field goal as time expired, and once the kick went through the uprights, the fans spontaneously burst into their patented “J-E-T-S! JETS! JETS! JETS!” cheer. Passions tend to run deep across the sports landscape, and I would see it on display from the home fans a little later that night.
Halfway through the second period, Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin committed a turnover in his own zone that led to a goal that gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead. As soon as it happened, the annoyed fans around us voiced their displeasure at the young defender – this goal would be the eventual game-winner, though Muzzin would get a small measure of retribution by scoring less than two minutes later. Kings head coach Darryl Sutter wasn’t thrilled, and neither were the bloggers, and it was no surprise that Muzzin was a healthy scratch for the team’s next game two nights later.
If I had to pick one player on the Kings to consider my favorite, it would be Trevor Lewis. I couldn’t help but notice him throughout the night, as he combined fierce forechecking in the offensive zone with steady defense at the other end of the ice. He seems to embody everything I look for in a hockey player, and has a tenacious work ethic that all young players should emulate. He was a 1st round pick in the 2006 Draft, which seems rather high for a player that has still yet to score more than 5 goals in a given season. But I guess I wasn’t the only one who took notice, as Lewis was invited to the US Olympic Team orientation camp in August. He’s still a longshot to make the team, but it was great to see him get the recognition.
The final period of the game would present a bizarre series of events, starting with one of the more unusual goals I’ve ever seen…
How else to describe goaltender Jonathan Quick’s feeling after this:
This, of course, led naturally to…
As fans, we were all stunned by this goal, which seemed to deflate the spirits of everyone around. It was such a harmless play that many of us were not even paying attention, and I myself only noticed what was happening right as the puck was crossing the goal line. Everyone was stunned and waiting for an instant replay to show what had happened, but there was none coming.
But rather than end on a negative note, I’ll point out the silver lining to the dark cloud of the Kings’ eventual loss to the Rangers…
Midway through the third period, a large roar came from the fans seated in the luxury suites behind us. Slowly, the buzz crept its way throughout the arena until many of the fans were cheering spontaneously. It couldn’t be from the hockey game, as the Rangers were protecting their lead – but what about the Los Angeles Dodgers? Like the Jets/Rangers fans earlier, the Kings fans also had another local team to cheer for on this night, as the Dodgers were playing in the MLB playoffs at the same time, with a chance to eliminate the Atlanta Braves. Throughout the hockey game, the Dodgers score would flash intermittently on the scoreboards circling the arena. The last time I had checked, the Dodgers were trailing 3-2 in the 7th inning, but once I heard the ovation I knew something was up. Immediately, fans reached for their smartphones or asked those standing next to them, “What happened in the Dodgers game?” I glanced at the scoreboard and anxiously waited for the scores to rotate. Finally, there it was:
ATL 3 LA 4 Bottom 8th
All at once, the FRUSTRATION of this Kings game was replaced by the ELATION of the Dodgers game, and when the baseball game ended moments later (with the same 4-3 score), the fans in attendance burst into cheers. It was a bittersweet moment, under the circumstances, but it was nice to see some joy come to these fans at Staples Center on this evening. To me, it marked a fitting conclusion to a rather emotional night – not bad for my first ever home opener.