Thursday, April 12, 2007

Last Fans Standing, Part One

Written in April 2005 after the Rays’ season ended with a playoff loss to the Everblades at home…...

The game was over, and there was no joy in Mudville so to speak. It was a hard-fought game that ended a hard-fought season. It was a season that saw rookie players shine and rise to professional challenges, and a season that saw adversity befall the team in the form of injuries, suspensions, and sometimes-frantic lineup changes. A season somewhat overshadowed by the player lockout at the NHL level, but sweetened somewhat by seeing some NHL players playing in the ECHL. This year’s Stingrays team showcased rookie talent that will be the future of the Washington Capitals, as well as showing that the old dog veterans still had teeth.

I only missed one game this year that I can recall, and that was due to a wedding. One of my friends left me phone messages on my cell throughout that game to keep me posted on our win. The previous year I only missed four or five games, but this year I became a serious die-hard fanatic. My jersey is covered with autographs from two years’ worth of Rays, and a few stray former players as well. I finally traveled to Florence and Charlotte for some away games too this season, supporting the team on the road. I became a bit of a spectacle in many games shaking my ample tush on the JumboTron. Marty Clapton came to call it my “Mojo Dance”. It was great fun to joke around and chat with the team after the games, whether celebrating a victory or supporting them after a loss.

Of course, I’m not alone in my exploits, by no means. There’s a group of about 20 of us who hang out after the games, win or lose. Some of us get together and listen to road games on the radio and make a party of it. We’ve become great friends because of hockey games. My own fiancée, who had never been to more than a single game in her life before we met, sports an autographed game-worn jersey complete with a few players’ buttons, and knows the rules well enough to catch a lot of the calls that the refs miss. We even got engaged at a Stingrays game. Our home is a shrine to hockey, with bobble heads, MacFarlane figures, souvenir pucks, posters, a helmet from Pee Dee’s last-ever game, official Fitzy water bottles, and a couple of game-played Rays’ sticks decorating the place. With no NHL on TV to watch, we watched both the ECHL and AHL all-star games on TV, and I was reduced to sometimes watching NHL games from last year on ESPN Classic just to get a fix. You know you’re a puck-head when you’ll watch a repeat of a year-old game, knowing full well how it ends, because you need to feed your Hockey Jones. On the plus side, I got to see Jeremy Stevenson playing for the Predators against the Red Wings that way.

Being a fan means more than clapping when the team scores. It also means making sure the team knows they have support even as their run for the Kelly Cup, and the season as a whole, abruptly ends. As soon as the game ended, I was shocked to see the number of people who just stood up and left without looking back. My own group of compatriots stood around for a few minutes before we, too, left to stand by the parking lot to say goodbye to the players. To us it was important that the last view of us that the players had was a good one. It would have been nigh on criminal for their last view of us for the season to be our backs as we dejectedly tromped out of the stadium. No one deserves that, especially after a season like this, a season where they made the playoffs for the twelfth consecutive year. They deserved to leave with heads held high, with the smiles and handshakes of the fans to usher them into the off-season.

And so it went, the players trickling out in threes and fours, some with girlfriends in tow, others with wives, kids, moms, aunts, siblings, or old friends. Somehow in the mix, we managed to say bye to just about everyone. And before we knew it, all our friends had gone home, the parking lot was pretty much empty and quiet, and only a couple players were left to come out.

After 18 years in professional hockey, Ed Courtenay had played his last game. Ed came out to his car surrounded by his wife & kids, and I was glad we stayed to talk to him and his family. After a career that spanned a full 50% of his lifetime, it seemed fitting for Ed to have at least two last fans there waiting to see him off. It just wouldn’t seem right to have him come out to an empty lot.

And then a final figure in the distance…

Wracked with pain from back spasms, Mike Jickling was the final player to leave the Coliseum that night. He actually apologized to us for making us wait for so long. But again, it wouldn’t be right for him to come out to an empty lot either and we told him as much. See, that’s the joy of hockey at the ECHL level. You get to talk to the players and interact with them, and really feel a part of the action. The players are so accessible, and for the most part genuinely friendly and happy to have that fan interaction. If you want an autograph or a picture, you simply hang out after the game, without having to fend off a couple hundred people or waiting for naught as a player runs off at top speed to his limo surrounded by his handlers. I’ve gotten to casually chat with professional athletes who play a sport I love, and they know who I am and recognize me, taking time to talk for a few minutes before heading off into their private lives. It’s a 2-way street of mutual respect. Matt Reid even called my fiancée’s son in Arizona on his birthday after a game. That was class act all the way.

And then, it was over. Just the two of us in an empty parking lot. It was just after 11:30, and we had an hour-long drive home still to go. The season was well and truly over, and we held on to it for as long as we could. We held onto it about 90 minutes longer than the other people in the stadium did, and somehow that made us feel good. We were there at the pre-season exhibition game at the Ice Palace, and here we were the final ones to go. We were among the First Fans Standing, and we were indeed the Last Fans Standing.

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