Please Wear Blue to My Funeral

I should not have been thinking about hockey at my dear friend’s father’s funeral. However, on May 4, 2014, at age 44, I publicly declared myself a New York Rangers fan, and today, 120 sad, speechless hours after their elimination from the Stanley Cup Finals, I still can’t remember what else I used to think about.

It’s not like I woke up bored one day, or in need of a broken heart. In fact, I’ve watched Rangers games fairly regularly for the last two years. But at some point during the first round of the 2014 playoffs, my constant internal hockeylogue became impossible to ignore, and if I didn’t share it outside my head – knowing full well I’d be accused of bandwagon-riding – I was going to lose my mind. So, in the middle of Game 2 of the Rangers/Penguins series, I posted a comment on the team’s Facebook page. They were 0-29 on the power play at the time, so I suggested that they try something different: “How about the teams stay at 5 on 5, but Lundqvist gets a gun?”

That was a start. Still, in spite of a gratifying number of likes, I knew that Facebook was essentially house league. If I wanted to play on the Fans Travel Team, I needed to be on Twitter. Twitter, where if you can’t say something perfect you shouldn’t say anything at all. Twitter, where defenseman Dan Girardi’s name trended because so many fans thought he should kill himself after a bad – OK, awful – clear that led to an overtime goal. If I couldn’t make it there … well, I wouldn’t make it. And I needed to make it; I just wasn’t sure why.

So, yes, I was thinking about the Rangers at a funeral. My friend’s father was a retired NYPD detective, a member of pretty much every Irish Catholic organization in the city, and the only active-duty cop ever to serve as Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The church was full of dark blue uniforms and the green blazers of the Emerald Society, the altar was packed with priests, and not one but three bagpipe bands had assembled to play him home. After indulging in some traditional solipsistic wondering about what my own sendoff might look like, all those visible allegiances got to me. This was the celebration of a man who knew exactly who he was and why it mattered, and everybody there knew it too. My life felt fractured and factional in comparison. What color would people wear when I died? Would everyone show up in boring black because I never picked a side?

I was vulnerable to green for a reason. You see, my grandfather was also a Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, although he earned it not so much through charity and police work as by being a Tammany boss on the Upper West Side. For my family, that pinnacle of Irish-Americanism has devolved from an allegiance into an anecdote, and nothing, as far as I can tell, has really taken its place. That sad little epiphany, plus genuine grief for the family of the deceased, kept me crying for most of the service, yet through it all, the Rangers radio in my brain kept playing. It was June 6th, and we had just lost Game 1 of the finals in double-overtime. Would I be feeling this empty and unaffiliated if we’d won? How about if The Broadway Hat had favorited some of my tweets?

I had reason to be anxious about my status. The further the team advanced in the playoffs, the more I saw terms like “bandwagon jumper” leveled at latecomers like me. If I was going to be a Rangers fan, I had to work at it full-time. Luckily this task jibed nicely with the end of my spring semester. I was supposed to be finishing a book proposal about mothering and mental health; instead, I spent my days online falling down hockey rabbit holes: Gordie Howe hat tricks, the origin of “Potvin sucks.” Besides, it’s not like I had nothing going for me, cred-wise. My brothers and I all played hockey, which is not a sport you casually dabble in. I grew up in a house with a room dedicated to sweaty gross equipment we grew out of every ten seconds. We had a picture of the Miracle on Ice over the fireplace in our den, and John Vanbeisbrouck’s and Brian Leetch’s sticks lay like antlers across the mantel. My girls’ team even shared practice ice with the Rangers at Rye Playland; my friends and I beamed sweatily at the players until Tomas Sandstrom flipped us a puck. (For a more entertaining account of the Rangers at Playland, read Tony Gervino’s “When Rangers Roamed the Halls.”) More recently, I turned down a chance to be interviewed on NPR so that I could watch Lundqvist play – and lose – in the men’s Olympic final. I’d like to think this makes me a Rangers fan, but it probably just makes me an idiot.

Now for the minus side of my account. Yes, I played hockey, but badly and briefly – for just three years. I started at 16 with no reason to believe that I would suck as hard as I did. I’d been skating (on figure skates – shudder) for ten years. I excelled at every other sport I tried, starting on highly competitive varsity teams since my freshman year. For some reason, though, I. Just. Could. Not. Skate. I couldn’t work up any speed. I tottered on turns. My backwards crossovers blew; I couldn’t even stay on the circle. Hours spent with a street hockey stick were for naught, since a slap shot isn’t worth much if you fall over when you try it on ice. The only safe place to put me was right wing, where I excelled on the forecheck as long as the other player was kind enough to wait for me to get there.

But that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is this: I didn’t watch the 1994 Cup Finals. Not a single game. I was living in Maine at the time, but for a real fan I know that’s no excuse; I’ve read recollections of that series by folks who were around the globe from Afghanistan to Iceland. And guess what else: until a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t pick Mark Messier out of a lineup (HAHA lineup! Get it?). So, no matter how much research I do or how many pithy tweets I tweet, I can never consider myself a real Rangers fan, any more than someone who has received no sacraments can call herself a Catholic.

Photo by Andy Marlin, USA TODAY Sports

Still, come on. Shouldn’t it count for something that I wept for joy when they beat the Habs in Game 6, or that I literally fell down when that double overtime in Game 2 of the finals went to the Kings (and not solely because I’d drunk four and a half periods worth of beer)? My husband has marveled for years at how quickly I get sucked into whatever sport I’m watching, in the same way that, if I put money in a jukebox, I will stay in that bar until I hear those songs. But watching the Rangers no longer feels like entertainment. It feels like religion, a transcendent obligation. I used to mock fans and players who prayed for victory, as if God actually cared whether Los Angeles beat Chicago. (As far as I’m concerned, that earthquake in the third period could be interpreted either way – apocalypse is not an exact science.) Yet there I was, scanning online arcana, hoping to discern the teleology of a Rangers victory that wasn’t to be.

Even for a fresh new fan, the playoff season is long. I ordered too many pizzas, drank too much beer, stayed up too late too often. My children learned to speak to me only during period breaks. My devotion paid off, though, because watching hockey started to feel a lot like reading fiction, something I’m actually sort of qualified to do. I can identify references now, pick up shifts in form: the story of Marty St. Louis’ heroic play after the death of his mother is a sentimental sequel to and rewriting of the very realist circumstances surrounding his arrival after the trade of Captain Ryan Callahan. John Moore’s late hit on Dale Weise in Game 5 was a clear and costly allusion to the earlier run by Brandon Prust that broke Derek Stepan’s jaw and resulted in a ten – then six – game suspension for Dan Carcillo, who never touched game ice again for the rest of the season. Even so, if my life depended on passing a test on either the Rangers or, say, Ulysses, I’d go with Ulysses. Joyce’s epic may be intimidating and unwieldy, but at least it has a beginning and an end. Unlike the orgasmic acquiescence of Molly Bloom, the “YES!” of the sports fan is never an ending, just a brief agreement in a conversation that flows across seasons and years.

That funeral was ten days ago; the Rangers died in the finals last Friday. I miss my friend, who now lives out West, and I miss his father, even though I hadn’t spoken to him for twenty years. I didn’t even know he was sick, which suggests that maybe I should stop obsessing about the Rangers and try to stay in closer touch with people I love. That right there may be why I finally became a real sports fan. Maybe at 44 I need to care a lot about something that doesn’t matter, because these days everything seems to matter so goddamn much. I can’t just quit and go do bong hits if I suck at the grownup equivalent of backwards crossovers – and parenting is all backwards crossovers. When the Rangers lost, I screamed at my TV, sobbed, and got on with my life. Or did I?

My bemused friends gently suggest the World Cup or baseball as a sort of methadone, but I just can’t make myself care. Hockey may be the least popular of professional sports, but it is also the most difficult, the fastest, and, when played well, the most beautiful. Watch Mats Zuccarello for one minute, and he will do a hundred things on ice that you couldn’t do on land, even without anyone trying to smash you. I love the Rangers because they fall apart as completely as my daughter’s PeeWee team when the first line decides to bail for a bat mitzvah, but they almost always come back in some gloriously breathtaking way. Game 3 of the Finals, which, in spite of fierce, magnificent play and several heart-stopping chances, my boys not only lost at home but were actually shut out, crushed me like a cartoon anvil. In Game 4, on the other hand, puck luck, or what coach Alain Vigneault called “the hockey gods” finally worked in their favor, leaving the Kings’ tying goal nestled gently in a tiny snowbank, out of Lundqvist’s sight, right on the red line. Suddenly it all seemed possible again, even though it wasn’t.

But dammit it was! The Rangers were up by one in Game 5, having finally broken the curse of the dreaded 2-0 lead that had failed them twice in LA. The Garden was trembling with ecstasy, and the Cup remained safely outside the arena, until a completely egregious tripping call on Zuccarello – who the replay showed had clearly been tripped himself, by Jake Muzzin – gave the Kings a power play goal and sent the Rangers to their Bad Place. The Kings had been outshooting them in the third period throughout the series, but this time it looked as though they’d used up all their luck and had their backs against a wall – a wall named Henrik Lundqvist. Only Lundqvist still seemed to believe, and played to prove it, blocking a record 48 shots – and with no help from the ice this time.

Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Over the course of the second double overtime of the series, my Twitter feed started to split between Rangers commentary and the collapse of Iraq, putting the significance of a puckball contest in pretty clear perspective: Again? How many dead? Am I going to march about this for a third time? Then Alec Martinez scored the Cup-winning goal off a sloppy rebound, and Lundqvist, too, collapsed. His stricken expression, the way he waved off the comfort of his teammates, unable to speak, made it hard to argue that the loss didn’t matter. In the realm of things that didn’t matter, it mattered immensely, as Lundqvist, the rest of the Rangers, thousands of blue-shirted people and I suddenly found ourselves at a funeral instead of a hockey game.

I still can’t quite accept that the Rangers’ Cup run is over, and that the team I fell so hard for will no longer exist in its current form; it is being dismantled and dickered over in conference rooms as we speak. (This, I discovered, is called “Break Up Day,” just in case I wasn’t broken up enough.) The Rangers will emerge in the fall as something else – maybe better, but not the same. Still, there will be another season, and I will watch again because I no longer know how not to. (Seriously, what did I used to talk about?) I’ll wear blue, of course. My husband bought Brian Boyle’s jersey for me last year because the gangly forward and I share a name. Today, I feel as if Boyler and I have shared a lot more than a shirt: a few awkward fights, some brilliant penalty kills, and the golden goal that should have won Game 5 but now means next to nothing (except perhaps in terms of his salary – Boyle is a UFA, and may leave the Rangers for a team that plays and pays him more).

Not that it matters what I wear or do, really, or what any of us wear or do. I learned the hard way over the last few weeks that the first and foremost truth of being a fan is that we are helpless. Our cheers and tweets and waving towels may feel like psychic contributions to the success of our team, but they don’t mean dick compared to what actually happens on the ice. So why am I doing this to myself? Is this a productive use of my time? Shouldn’t I join a book club, or work for Doctors Without Borders, or strategize about how to get my sixth grader into college? Don’t I have enough anxiety in my life? Don’t we all?

Probably. But the adrenaline, the nausea, the disappointment and second-guessing are nothing next to the big dumb love I feel for this goddamn team. I want to see Rick Nash spin and score like he used to. I want to watch Carl Hagelin’s Prince Valiant hair stream behind him on a game-winning breakaway. I want Brad Richards to score a billion goals so they let him play out his contract. I want to see Lundqvist forget his Kingness and hop like a drunk Muppet, the way he did when they beat the Habs and he realized they were going for the Cup. I want to see the Rangers win, and then I want to rejoice about it on and offline with a bunch of blue-clad people I barely know.

I’m old enough to understand that I probably won’t get what I want, but at least in NHL hockey, as opposed to my life, it probably won’t be my fault. Fandom is the most frustrating and the most rewarding form of faith; its efficacy or lack thereof is often immediately apparent, and ritual and fellowship are its only sure rewards. Faith alone will not alter whatever turns out to be true; it just helps us to live with a little more color, and maybe to die in peace.

A perfect internal monologue about the anguish of fandom, for which there is no cure. And which, mysteriously, is its own healing reward.

—    Jun 19, 09:44 AM    #

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