This one’s for that kid.
That young Nashville Predators fan that stomped off to bed on Sunday night, pissed off at the world after watching the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup in Music City, which wasn’t supposed to happen because, like, the Predators never lose there. The fans for whom hockey life totally sucks at the moment, because Sidney Crosby won all the trophies and that is a cruel sight that not even the most twisted episode of “Black Mirror” could conjure of you’re a Nashville fan.
This is just a note to say that I understand. A lot of us do. We’ve been there. It’s pretty much the worst.
Lemme take you back to 1988. Phones had cords. It was weird.
That was the season when the New Jersey Devils made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. As Peter Laviolette would term it, they were the “last ones through the door,” clinching a playoff seed on the last day of the season. And then they began a playoff run that hooked me for life as a hockey fan: a Cinderella team upsetting opponents they weren’t supposed to beat (the Islanders and the Capitals), all the way to the conference final, where they lost to the Boston Bruins and our Stanley Cup hopes were dashed.
The Devils at that point were a team – stop me if you’ve heard this one, Nashville – many said shouldn’t exist. The greatest hockey player who ever lived called them a “Mickey Mouse franchise,” meaning cartoonishly amateur rather than an indelible brand beloved by millions. And so each win felt like something more than a playoff victory. It felt like a giant pulsating middle finger to everyone who had talked smack about the team for years. Mostly Rangers fans.
As the team pushed further into the playoffs, the bandwagon expanded. Friends who didn’t care about the team suddenly did. The atmosphere at games became decidedly more festive. You saw more Devils stuff wherever you looked, much of it awesome and pirated, like that “WE WANT STANLEY IN NEW JERSEY!” shirt my dad had.
(Admittedly, no pirated merch can touch those sweet-ass SMASH hats everyone was rocking.)
And then they lost. In seven games to the Boston Bruins. And when you’re a kid, you’re not thinking about the puck possession numbers, mostly because Jim Corsi was still playing in Italy at that point. You’re thinking about anger. Straight up anger. Anger at the other team, because they couldn’t be that good and they were just lucky and they didn’t deserve this.
And you’re angry at the NHL, because of course they don’t want your scrappy little franchise to win a Stanley Cup and knock off the black and gold darlings on the other side of the ice. And when Predators fans scream to the heavens about Crosby bouncing P.K. Subban’s head off the ice with no penalty and the absolutely terrible no-goal call in Game 6 thanks to an early whistle, I hear echoes of the Devils’ coach being suspended because a fat referee fell down after a game in ’88.
You feel like the world’s against you. Like you’re invited to the party but never allowed to be the guest of honor.
And that sucks.
So I get it. We all get it – everyone that’s lived and died with their team during that first hashtag-glorious reach at that Holy Grail, only to watch them fall short. While many of us are cool with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ second straight Stanley Cup – a hell of an achievement in the cap era – many of us are also thinking about the Predators fans whose days were dictated by how this hockey team played on the previous night, and who helped turn this Stanley Cup Final into a celebration the likes that many of us have never seen, from catfish to concerts to whatever the hell that balloon guy was.
This is the part where I’m supposed to say it gets better and just be patient and your day will come to watch the Predators hoist the Cup. And yeah, it did get better for young Greg as a Devils fan – I saw them do it in person, in Game 4 in 1995, and then do it twice more. But it took seven long years. It took one of the best general managers in the history of the NHL and the incredible good fortune of landing a few Hall of Famers and any number of other things breaking the right way. It doesn’t happen to every franchise. This might be as good as it gets for Nashville, for a while. (Although given the ages of this team’s core, that’s not likely.)
But abject optimism isn’t the point. The point is that now you’ve gotten a taste of this, you will live every day knowing that they could win the Cup. And this is going to make the foreseeable future really, really fun, until the inevitable cynicism settles in that the team will never win anything. Or perhaps I’ve just spent too much time in Washington.
So cheer up, Predators fans, young and old. Remember that others envy your heartbreak today. Remember how good the highs made you feel. Bank the frustration for later, so if they ever do hoist the Cup it’ll feel all that more cathartic. And just let it be known that you have a community of fans acknowledging all you’re going through after Game 6, and feeling a kinship with you. If only because we also want Mike Milbury fired.
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