To these memories I will hold/With your blessing I will go/To turn at last to paths that lead home/And though where the road then takes me/I cannot tell/We came all this way/But now comes the day to bid you farewell.
~”The Last Goodbye”
I heard a metaphor the other day that very accurately describes what it has felt like for me as a Syracuse Crunch fan this past week. Casper ter Kuile and Vanessa Zoltan, hosts of the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, were discussing transitions in one of their earlier episodes. One of them likened a life transition to leaving a movie theater after a particularly long movie, one that took you, as the viewer, from late afternoon to evening without you even realizing it.
Basically, you entered the theater when it was still light outside, but you find that the darkness you encounter upon leaving makes it that much harder to transition back to your world, the “real” world. This is exactly how I have felt this week. The transition from daytime (from light, from hockey) to nighttime (to dark, to no hockey) that happened while I wasn’t looking, while I was being entertained, has been particularly disorienting this time around.
It could be that this is due to how it all ended. Unexpectedly swept in the second round of the playoffs, the Crunch started at the bottom and clawed their way, win by win, to second in the AHL’s North Division by the end of the regular season. Their season was improbable, made even more so by both the young average age of the roster and by the amount of general roster juggling the coaches had to do weekly. For instance, usually seasons that necessitated Syracuse dressing seven goalies throughout seven months of hockey end in disaster.
Not this season.
No, this season certainly did not end in disaster. Any season where a hockey team makes the playoffs generally deserves to be labeled a success. But this season deserves that label even more so.
In nearly every way, the 2017-18 regular season was the best in Crunch history. The team ended the season with a .658 points percentage, their highest ever. To put that number into perspective, last season’s team, the team that stormed the league as underdogs, exceeded expectations, and forced their way into the Calder Cup final, ended 7th in team history with a points percentage of .592.
It was more than just the numbers, though. What made this season great was, in a lot of ways, what makes the AHL great.
I’ve made the claim before that the AHL is not for the faint of heart. AHL teams are, by design, a jumping-off point for tomorrow’s NHL superstars. Players here aren’t meant to stay. Even vets don’t usually stick around with one team for more than two or three seasons. Rosters shift and move like the ocean, and sometimes it seems that the situations teams find themselves in are as heartless as a hurricane.
But the AHL is also a place for a level of hope and excitement that just can’t be found anywhere else. Roster ages generally lean towards the young side, and that youthful exuberance can easily revive even the most burned out fan (not that I’m speaking from experience or anything here, nope, naw, not at all). Fans get to know their players, get to see them as human beings and not just as untouchable superhuman “stars.” We might feel the victories and defeats of our teams a bit deeper because of that, sure, but it’s worth it.
Players come to this league from all pedigrees, from creams of the crop like Matthew Peca and Mitchell Stevens, to older, lesser known surprises like Olivier Archambault (or, you know, Yanni Gourde). If teams are lucky, they get veterans like Erik Condra and Michael Bournival, guys who are clearly the heart and soul of the dressing room, who will uphold expectations by example. Sometimes, even seemingly impossible situations eventually turn out okay, like being able to nab a guy on waivers that you previously lost on waivers (Gabriel Dumont, it is so good to have you back).
It is all of this, I think, that makes it even sadder that this season won’t be remembered in banners or in engraved trophies. The Crunch didn’t manage to nab first in the North Division, and didn’t make it to the Eastern Conference final. This team won’t have any physical reminders of what they accomplished hanging from the rafters of the Onondaga County War Memorial or kicking around the AHL’s offices. We all - fans, players, everyone - only have our memories.
But what memories they are.
To all of the players - those we will still see next year, those we will see graduate to the NHL, and those we will see move on - I just want to say one thing:
I bid you all a very fond farewell.