The Cup is in the Goddamn Building

Championship Hockey and a Fan's Self-Doubt at Staples Center
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The absurdity of my sports fandom—maybe of sports fandom in general—peered up at me from a waterless urinal in a 100-level Staples Center men’s room

between the first and second periods of Game Four of the Stanley Cup Finals. It took the form of a newish Patrik Elias trading card, placed with apparent precision so as not to be avoidable by even the most discerning of hockey fans. For more than a decade, Patrik Elias has been my favorite hockey player and his Devils among my favorite teams. But this night I was rooting for the Kings, who were on the verge of an unfathomable Stanley Cup sweep, and I was beginning to feel the pressure of a long line building up behind me, spilling out onto the concourse.


Not two hours later, Elias himself would shove a big and unlikely rebound past an out-of-position Jonathan Quick and into the net to give New Jersey a 1-0 lead with 12:05 remaining in the third period. The Staples Center crowd, which had been growing more anxious by imperceptible degrees throughout the night, would issue a sort of muffled collective cough and stare up desperately at the clock. “There goes the dream” a guy sitting in front of me would say. He had flown down from Canada for the game. I knew that the dream he was referring to wasn’t the Kings’ dream. It was his own. He wanted to be there when captain Dustin Brown hoisted the Cup. I felt the same way he did. Then, exactly one minute of hockey time later, Drew Doughty one-timed a slapshot past Martin Brodeur and the game was tied again.


The first celebrity I saw on Wednesday was Lanny McDonald, who, in the United States, only counts as a celebrity at hockey games. But he is a Stanley Cup hero and a Hall of Famer and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Calgary as well as a legitimate claim on greatest mustache in the history of North American sports. Neither the mustache nor the large Stanley Cup Champion ring on his right pinky finger seemed to impede his ability to drink beer comfortably. Then came Michael Strahan, Dave Winfield, Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, and a man in a DIY chicken suit. Pat Sajak was there, sitting near Teemu Selanne, but Pat Sajak is always there right up on the glass. My brother says he saw Strahan talking to Arsenio Hall, but I didn’t see it, so we won’t count him. If Arsenio was present, he was only as present as Will Ferrell and Matthew Perry and Kelly Hrudey, which is to say that he added nothing to my Stanley Cup experience.


I talk about my Stanley Cup experience in part because I can’t quite get over the fact that I’ve even had a Stanley Cup experience. After all, in many ways, Game Four was just like every other Kings game I’ve been to at Staples Center: same Kiss Cam, same dumb trivia contest for free parking at the airport, same jumbotron race between different flavors of Lemonheads candy. Same Pat Sajak. Frank the usher was there to greet us at our aisle like he has been ever since my dad bought season tickets years ago. Even the result, a frustrating and middling 3-1 defeat, felt familiar. But then again, nothing was quite familiar. Outside, it was still daytime when the puck dropped at little after 5:00 p.m. L.A. Live was packed with people wearing black and white. Somebody had outfitted the Magic Johnson and Oscar De La Hoya statues with Kings home jerseys. The E3 show happening next door at the convention center made the scene even more hectic, even more bizarre. The parking lot that we normally pay $10 for had a sign up that said $50, and another sign below it that said LOT FULL. Inside, there were Stanley Cup Finals banners hanging from the rafters. And somewhere beneath us, somewhere deep in the bowels of the arena, was Lord Stanley’s Cup itself, being guarded in a concrete hallway by men in dainty white gloves.


The main difference, so far as the crowd went, was the palpability of the wanting. When Doughty scored his tying goal, angst gave way to a sort of pent up, carnal desire. The Cup was in the goddamn building and so were we. The glorious moment of unblemished triumph was upon us. The rally towel in my hands became like a child’s blanket. I hugged it and wrung it and twisted it, but never thought to wave it. GO KINGS GO chants were abandoned in favor of WE WANT THE CUP, WE WANT THE CUP. The words themselves had a koan-like quality. The way it felt to scream them, and the way they sounded in chorus, were more powerful than any actual meaning. WE WANT THE CUP, we shouted, more intense and focused and sincere with each syllable. And I did want it. I wanted it so badly that even pissing on Patrik Elias felt less like something from a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode and more like a rite of passage. He would understand, I thought. Patrik Elias has taken the Stanley Cup to Prague. He would certainly understand. The coming moment seemed so visceral, so forever, so right there in front of me, and it was only one goal away.


It would only last about 15 minutes. A turnover at the blue line. A cross-ice pass from David Clarkson. A nifty play off the skate, and then a gorgeous shot by Adam Henrique. 2-1 Devils. After the shock wore off, the crowd would will itself back to life, like a bull with a sword in its back, but the Kings would not do the same. Soon after the New Jersey goal, Willie Mitchell would take a high-sticking penalty and the absurdity of the whole enterprise would return to me. Fandom is a selfish thing, I would think, as Ilya Kovalchuck wristed the puck into an empty net, giving us all an excuse to go home with a few seconds still on the clock.


We want our teams to win and this is the most important thing. But we also want very badly to be there when it happens. We want to feel as if we are a part of the winning, even though from all but the most macroscopic of perspectives we are not, and we cannot be. The fellow in front of me would be returning to Canada and I would be flying back up to Seattle, each of us with only souvenir towels and special edition beer cups in hand. For us, and many others inside Staples Center that night, the dream was over. And yet the Kings were still up three games to one in a seven-game series. The glorious moment of unblemished triumph remained very much upon us.


When it comes, it will be perfect. Then it will be gone.

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