Friday, May 1, 2009

Another Level

In the aftermath of Game 4 vs. the Red Wings, my gut instinct was to pounce on the keyboard, vent about the officiating, decry the injustice and gush about the energy and atmosphere in the arena.  Somehow, I thought better of it.  Instead, I decided to take a bit of a breather, let the immediate emotion fade a bit, and try and put some overall context on things before I put finger to keyboard.  The details of the game are a matter of record, and I don't intend to re-hash those here.  Lots of posts coming on the season, the players, what's ahead, etc.  This one is all about the experience of Game 4, and what it means for the future.

I happened to watch Game 4 from the Press Box, as part of my free-lance writing for Inside Hockey.  It was a fascinating venue from which to view this particular game, for a lot of reasons.  FIrst,  I was more physicaly removed from the action than I am in our customary lower bowl seats, about 8 rows up.  The bird's eye view of the game is conducive to a more analytical approach, as you can see the ebb and flow as forechecks succeed and fail, goalies scramble for position, and calls are missed (or ignored) by the assembled officials.   Of course, no rooting is permitted in the Press Box, which was more agonizing in this game, due to the emotional tugs as the ice tilted dramatically, first in one direction, then the other.   However, a periodic nod, a clenched fist, an exasperated squinting of the eyes -- these tiny gestures betrayed the allegiences of those around me, and as the game wound down, the tension thick, with no outlet or release possible.

One thing you miss when you are in the midst of the crowd is the magnitude of the crowd response as a whole. Sure, we always know when the place is rocking, but this particular Thursday elevated the experience to an entirely different plane.  From the relative silence of the Press Box, the entire arena is visible, and the sound appears to cascade upward from all angles and crash down again, magnifying the impact.  I have been to many, many events over the years, ranging from the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck  to the infamous "Earthquake Game" -- Game 3 of the 1989 World Series between the Giants and A's, disrupted by the 7.2 Loma Prieta Earthquake.  I have never, ever experienced a sound quite like that emanating from the Army of the Ohio on Thursday.  Combined with the vision of 18,889 people standing for the entire third period, it was a jaw dropper.

The brutal suddenness with which it all ended was jarring.  The whistle, the goal, the debris flying on the ice --- done.  Elation turned to anger, then back to appreciation as the team saluted the fans from the ice.  The press contingent was unusually quiet while filing out and down to the locker room for the post-game interviews and press conferences.  Even for many of the jaded veterans, it was difficult to process what they had just witnessed.  

The contrasts extended to the locker room, where Chimera and Peca were demonstrably agitated.  Kristian Huselius sat solemnly, staring straight ahead.  Steve Mason, the focus of a throng of reporters, responded graciously, in a voice barely audible, seeming to take the weight of the entire series on his shoulders.  The counterpoint was provided by Mike Commodore and R.J. Umberger, both of whom readily shared their pride in the effort the team put together and the prospects for the future.  Befitting a Captain, Rick Nash entered the room and sounded a middle chord -- disappointed at the loss, but proud of the effort and anxious to attack the future.

Through all of this, Ryan Salmons and family took in the entire experience from the perimeter of the room.  In turn, virtually every player spent some time with Ryan and his family, setting aside their own temporary disappointment to bring some measure of comfort to someone whose thoughts they could scarcely comprehend.  

The final contrasts of the night were provided by the coaches.  On the one hand, Detroit's Mike Babcock presented an ultra-confident, bordering on arrogant, presence in the conference.  Some would argue this is the demeanor of a champion.  Others might be less charitable.  However, whatever the view, it was a glaring contradiction to the understated, contemplative Ken Hitchcock.  Despite the contrasts in demeanor, it was apparent that both coaches shared a deep and abiding pride of their clubs and the efforts that were made on the ice that particular Thursday night.

It is easy to dismiss the playoff experience, and this game in particular, as just another loss to a superior team.  Pessimists might argue this was business as usual.  I submit, however, that this was markedly different -- that the run to the playoffs, and in particular the last 4 periods of hockey--- represented an elevation to a different level for the Blue Jackets and their fans.  They overcame fatigue and awe, stared down a champion hockey team playing in top form, and went toe-to-toe for the duration.  

The Jackets underwent an education in 4 short games -- they saw the other gear that is needed for championship playoff hockey.  The character they developed incrementally during the course of the season was jolted to a higher level.  Down 3 games to zero, and down twice by two goals, the team found another level to reach.  Though disappointed at the outcome (and the unfortunate role of the officials), you could see in everyone that they were pleased and proud that they found that fifth gear.   

Game 4 also served as the culmination of a transformation of the fan base and the community.  For the stretch run and the playoffs, the fan base was energized, the community engaged in a way not seen since the inaugural season.  Finally, in Game 4, the glass ceiling was broken and the  Jackets' fan base reached its own new level.  While the bandwagon jumpers have now climbed off, and others will now be satisfied with nothing less than a Stanley Cup next year, there is an enhanced core of fans that "get it."  They appreciate the value of effort for effort's sake.  They have now glimpsed the possible and are tantalized by the prospects for the future.  While the CBJ may never unseat Ohio State as the primary fall attraction in town,  this season, and Game 4 in particular, firmly established the Blue Jackets' place at the table.   There will be good seasons, and bad seasons, elation and disappointment, but a new foundation has been laid.  

As of last Thursday, the "old" Blue Jackets were laid to rest.  The team has thrown off those old shackles, and the core fans have done the same.  Having seen goal, and now understanding that it is attainable, neither the team nor the fans can look back.  

This year, there was no fairy-tale ending for the Blue Jackets.  In the final analysis, that may be the best thing that could have happened.  Ken Hitchcock is methodical -- he is a marcher, not a sprinter.  Perhaps that explains his attraction to Civil War re-creations.  Scott Howson is the same -- careful, almost surgical, in his approach.  For the Jackets to have some sudden flash of brilliance would have been out of character for this group.  They grew step by step this year, learning to play together with half the team brand new.  Learning to play in front of a 20 year old phenom in net.  Learning to overcome injuries and the most arduous schedule in the NHL. Learning to squeeze out vital points in the playoff chase.  Learning what playoff hockey is all about.

Given all of this, it was only fitting that the playoff attendees in Columbus found flags draped on their seats.  They said -- "March On".  We will.

No comments: