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Hockey, love, and grief: Why we do this

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Another hockey season has ended without the Crunch winning a championship. If winning it all is so elusive, why do we do this?

Syracuse Crunch players congratulate goalie Eddie Pasquale (80) after a win over the Utica Comets in an American Hockey League (AHL) game at the War Memorial Arena in Syracuse, New York on Saturday, March 23, 2019. Syracuse won 6-2.
Scott Thomas Photography

I have to start out with a potential trigger warning: Those of you who know me are aware that I lost my father on April 2nd, 2019. He had a sudden heart attack that morning, and was gone without me getting to say a last goodbye. That event is going to play a part in this entry, so please make sure to take care of yourself. If you want to read a discussion of the Syracuse Crunch season, Justing will have one out shortly. This is my own personal meditation on the game of hockey and why I watch it, season after season.

Originally, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do this kind of entry this spring. I’m usually the one that publishes a more emotional goodbye to the AHL hockey season, but I wasn’t confident in my ability to sit down and do it this time. Last season’s entry remains one of my favorites, mostly because I got to reference Peter Hollens and Middle Earth, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to write an entry this season without sounding similar. But, as usual when it comes to me and blogging, it isn’t a matter of “can’t” so much as it is an idea just not being ready yet.

I’ve been pretty quiet on the topic of the Crunch’s first round collapse against the Cleveland Monsters. I learned a few years ago that my mental state very much influences my emotions towards my team in both good and bad ways, so I’ve been careful not to let some of my darker, more angry thoughts out into the world. I know that most of it isn’t actually coming from the team’s loss, it’s coming from my grief over losing my dad, so spewing it all out on Twitter or on here wouldn’t be fair.

These guys on my team are hurting. The Crunch’s YouTube is full of players and coaches trying to come to terms with their feelings over this unexpected, early playoff exit. This isn’t unusual or special or anything, of course. Most media day exit interviews aren’t exactly the happiest of affairs as those being talked to just start to come to terms with an end.

A meditation on grief that I’ve listened to a lot this past month tells me that all grief stems from a loss of something that was loved, and, honestly, I think that’s why this time of year is so hard for us all. We lived with and loved our teams, our seasons, our players. We will never quite get that same group of guys, that same feeling, that same season back again. Even the team that wins the championship will, eventually, no longer be the champion.

For many of us—fans, players, coaches, and staff—grief is at least a little bit involved in the end of every season because it’s gone. We’ve lost it, and there’s no possible way it can or will come back.

So, why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we invest our emotions in something that, by its very function and definition, will always involve at least of a little bit of loss? At the end of the day, I think we do this for two reasons: The love of the game (and all that involves), and the relationships that result because of that love.

My dad’s funeral was the day before a regular season Crunch home game. Although nothing was really riding on that game - the team was pushing to get to the top of the North Division, sure, but nothing was being determined that night - there was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to that game. Following my dad passing away in the hospital, my mom and I traveled an hour to get to my apartment so that I could scramble together enough stuff to get me through the week I’d be spending back home. I don’t remember much from those first few hours, but I do remember this:

As I was getting things together, some of the first stuff I threw on the pile was my game ticket and my jersey. I couldn’t help it. I knew we had a game that weekend. My instinct was automatically set to going to that game.

Over the next few days, as the numbness wore off and the grief started to seep in, waves of support started coming in for my mom and I. Some of those strongest waves for myself came from the hockey community that surrounds me, and I will be forever grateful to those who were immediately there for me.

I did end up at that game, even though it was only a day after my dad’s funeral. Everything seemed too bright and too loud, but I went. I cried through part of it (not because of the game itself, although it kind of was worth crying over), but I went. I needed to be among those relationships, I needed to be with my best friend, I needed to sit in my seat and be in my home. I appreciated the hugs, I appreciated the words of sympathy, but I also just needed hockey.

Being honest, my dad, who gave up fighting against the hockey schedule years ago, would have expected nothing less.

I love this game. Win or lose, I love it. But what gets me through the frustrating games and the awful moments is the same thing that gets me through the frustrating, awful moments of real life: those in it all with me. I’ll freely admit that this entry is also a way to publicly thank them all. Those relationships got me through a very dark time, and many of those same relationships are ones I wouldn’t have had if not for hockey.

At the end of the day, I think this is true for a lot of of us. It’s why we do this, and it’s why we’ll do it for seasons after this one, too.