BY STEVE WINSTON
Reprinted from my blog at fiftyisthenewfifty.com
In a world of unpredictability, there’s always been something weirdly comforting about the Florida Panthers, our National Hockey League team.
For example, over the past decade, they’ve been the most consistent team in the league – at missing the playoffs (they’ve missed it ten consecutive seasons – an NHL record). Without a doubt, they’ve also been the most consistent at breaking their fans’ hearts. So many of their losses have come by one goal, in overtime, that some fans have been known to leave when there’s a tie at the end of regulation … figuring they’ll save the heartache of losing in overtime, and, as a bonus, beat the traffic.
For the past ten years, watching them try to score goals has been akin to a visit to the dentist … long and drawn-out and tortuous, and generally frustrating. For the past ten years, we’ve gone into the season with the hope that “this is the year” … only to have our hearts broken again within the first few weeks of watching other teams skate faster, pass more smoothly, shoot better, block shots better. You get the picture.
Yet, for those same ten years, my friends and I have been dedicated attendees at the games. For one thing, hope springs eternal. For another, there’s always – no matter what the score – a good time, with good conversation, damn-the-cholesterol goodies, and a beer or two. (And for a third, since the owner of the team is Cliff Viner, with whom I’ve been friends for 35 years, I get great seats!)
Prior to this year, sometimes, during the games, we’ve asked ourselves whether we’re masochists, whether there was some weird piece of us that looked forward to, what for years, was the inevitable heart-breaking winning shot by the opponent with just a minute to go. But we’ve laughed while we’ve talked about it. The fact remains, for a bunch of middle-aged guys who work too hard and play too little, it’s a great night out. It’s a chance to howl. It’s a chance to hope. It’s a chance to ring the cowbells and rejoice in the Panthers’ goals, and commiserate about the opponents’. It’s a chance to release that good old primal scream at the Panthers’ goal with three minutes left, and to slump silently in our seats if the opponent scores with two minutes left. It’s a chance, once or twice a week, to see the same faces we’ve grown accustomed to over the past years. It’s a chance to chant “(name of opponent) sucks!” (And, again, truth be told, let’s not leave out the chance for damn-the-cholesterol goodies, and a beer or two.)
And, maybe the bottom line is that it’s a chance for hope. Because – especially this year – things have been different. It’s often been the Panthers who’ve grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat with a minute to go. On a couple of occasions, they’ve actually been the ones to score the winning goal in overtime. And, this year – finally! – there’s even real hope that we’ll actually make the playoffs.
I don’t want to jinx my beloved Panthers. But, as of this writing, they’ve got a whole new team, with shooters who can shoot, defensemen who can play defense, and skaters who can skate.
As of this writing, the ‘Cats are in a bit of a slump…hanging on to first place in their division by a thread. But I’ll be there tonight to root them home. These days, the arena is rockin’ and rollin’, with big, roaring crowds. The cowbells are clangin’. The fans are starting to allow themselves the luxury of thinking playoffs. The chants of “Go, Cats, Go!” can be heard outside the arena at the end of the game, as the fans, for a change, leave happy. And the players and fans are bonding as if in a joint effort.
During one game, the “Cats” fell behind by three goals. The old Panthers would have just lay down and died. But the new ones kept scrapping. And even when no one in the crowd believed they could win, they believed it. They actually scored three goals to tie the game. And then, in the last minute, unbelievably, they scored the winning goal. I’ve never heard a Panther crowd roar like that. Then, spontaneously, the players all skated to the center of the ice and raised their sticks up, saluting the roaring crowd. It’s a scene that hadn’t been witnessed down here in many years.
It’s fun again. In our cocoon of the arena, with 20,000 of our closest friends, my crowd of middle-aged men suddenly has reason to act like young guys again.
And, for a group of guys whose hairlines are heading north and whose waistlines are heading south, it just doesn’t get any better than that!
Steve Winston (www.stevewinston.com) has written/contributed to 17 books, and his articles appear in major media all over the world. In search of “The Story,” he’s been shot at in Northern Ireland, been a cowboy in Arizona, jumped into an alligator pit in the Everglades, trained with a rebel militia in the jungle, climbed 15,000-foot mountains, flown World War II fighter planes in aerial “combat,” rafted Class V rapids (suicidal!), trekked glaciers in Alaska, explored ice caves at 10,000 feet in Switzerland, and been thrown out of a party given by the Queen of England.