I should not have been thinking about hockey at my dear friend's father's funeral. However, on May 4, 2014, at age 44, I publicly declared myself a New York Rangers fan, and today, several sad, speechless days after their elimination from the Stanley Cup Finals, I still can't remember what else I used to think about.
It's not like I woke up bored one day, or in need of a broken heart. In fact, I've watched Rangers games fairly regularly for the last two years. But at some point during the first round of the 2014 playoffs, my internal hockeylogue became impossible to ignore, and if I didn't share it outside my head, I was going to lose my mind. So, in the middle of Game 2 of the Rangers/Penguins series, I posted a comment on the team's Facebook page. They were 0-29 on the power play at the time, so I suggested that they try something different: "How about the teams stay at 5 on 5, but Lundqvist gets a gun?"
That was a start. Still, in spite of a gratifying number of likes, I knew that Facebook was essentially house league. If I wanted to make the travel team, I needed to be on Twitter. Twitter, where if you can't say something perfect you shouldn't say anything at all. Twitter, where defenseman's Dan Girardi's name trended because so many fans thought he should kill himself after a bad -- OK, awful -- clear that led to an overtime goal. If I couldn't make it there... well, I wouldn't make it. And I needed to make it; I just wasn't sure why.
So, yes, I was thinking about the Rangers at a funeral. My friend's father was a retired NYPD detective, a member of pretty much every Irish Catholic organization in the city, and the only active-duty cop ever to serve as Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick's Day parade. The church was full of dark blue uniforms and the green blazers of the Emerald Society, the altar was packed with priests, and not one but three bagpipe bands had assembled to play him home. After indulging in some traditional solipsistic wondering about what my own sendoff might look like, all those visible allegiances got to me. This was the celebration of a man who knew exactly who he was and why it mattered, and everybody there knew it too. My life felt fractured and factional in comparison. What color would people wear when I died? Would everyone be dressed in boring black, because I never chose a team, or picked a side?
The further the Rangers advanced in the playoffs, the more I saw terms like "bandwagon jumper" leveled at latecomers like me. If I was going to be a fan, I had to work at it full-time. Luckily this task jibed nicely with the end of my spring semester. I was supposed to be finishing a book proposal; instead, I spent my days online falling down hockey rabbit holes: Gordie Howe hat tricks, the origin of "Potvin sucks." Besides, it's not like I had nothing going for me, cred-wise. My brothers and I all played hockey, which is not a sport you casually dabble in. We had a picture of the Miracle on Ice over the fireplace in our den, and John Vanbiesbrouck's and Brian Leetch's sticks lay like antlers across the mantel. My girls' team even shared practice ice with the Rangers at Rye Playland; my friends and I beamed sweatily at them until Tomas Sandstrom flipped us a puck. More recently, I turned down a chance to be interviewed on NPR so that I could watch Lundqvist play -- and lose -- in the men's Olympic final. I'd like to think this makes me a Rangers fan, but it probably just makes me an idiot.
My husband has marveled for years at how quickly I get sucked into whatever sport I'm watching, in the same way that, if I put money in a jukebox, I will stay in that bar until I hear those songs. But to me, watching the Rangers no longer felt like entertainment. It felt like religion, a transcendent obligation. I used to mock fans and players who prayed for victory, as if God actually cared. Yet there I was, scanning online arcana, hoping to discern the teleology of a Rangers victory.
That funeral was a month ago; the Rangers died in the finals one week later. I miss my friend, who now lives out West, and I miss his father, even though I hadn't spoken to him for 20 years. I didn't even know he was sick, which suggests that maybe I should stop obsessing about the Rangers and try to stay in closer touch with people I love. That right there may be why I finally became a sports fan. Maybe at 44 I need to care a lot about something that doesn't matter, because these days everything seems to matter so much. When the Rangers lost, I screamed at my TV, sobbed, and got on with my life. Or did I?
My friends gently suggested the World Cup or baseball as a sort of methadone; however, what with Tim Howard's heroics in goal and all that overtime, rooting for the USMNT felt an awful lot like rooting for the Rangers -- and not in a good way. I love the Rangers because they fall apart like my daughter's PeeWee team when the first line bails for a bat mitzvah, but they almost always come back in some gloriously breathtaking way. Game 3 of the Finals, which, in spite of fierce play and several heart-stopping chances, my boys not only lost at home but were actually shut out, crushed me like a cartoon anvil. In Game 4, on the other hand, "puck luck," or what coach Alain Vigneault called "the hockey gods," finally worked in their favor, leaving the Kings' tying goal nestled gently in a tiny snowbank, out of Lundqvist's sight, right on the goal line. Suddenly it all seemed possible again, even though it wasn't.
But it was! The Rangers were up by one in Game 5, having finally broken the curse of the dreaded 2-0 lead that had failed them twice in LA. The Staples Center was trembling with ecstasy, and the Cup remained safely outside the arena, until a completely egregious tripping call on Mats Zuccarello -- who the replay showed had clearly been tripped himself, by Jake Muzzin -- gave the Kings a power play goal and sent the Rangers to their Bad Place. Only Lundqvist still seemed to believe, and played to prove it, blocking a record 48 shots -- and with no help from the ice this time.
Over the course of the second double overtime of the series, my Twitter feed started to split between Rangers commentary and the latest collapse of Iraq, putting the significance of a puckball contest in pretty clear perspective. How could anyone care about hockey when faced with the possibility of a third Gulf War? Then Alec Martinez scored the Cup-winning goal off a sloppy rebound, and Lundqvist, too, collapsed. His stricken expression, the way he waved off the comfort of his teammates, made it hard to argue that the loss didn't matter. In the realm of things that didn't matter, it mattered immensely, as thousands of blue-shirted people and I suddenly found ourselves watching a funeral instead of a hockey game.
I learned the hard way that the first and foremost truth of being a fan is that we are helpless. Our cheers and tweets and waving towels may feel like psychic contributions to the success of our team, but they don't mean anything compared to what happens on the ice. Still, the adrenalin, the nausea, the disappointment and second-guessing are nothing next to all the love and loss I feel for the Rangers, dammit. I want to watch Carl Hagelin's Prince-Valiant hair stream behind him on a game-winning breakaway. I want Brad Richards to score a billion goals so that management lets him play out his contract (he didn't and they didn't, although rumor has it he may be back in 2015). I want to see Lundqvist forget his royal status and hop like a drunk Muppet, the way he did when they beat the Habs and he realized they were going for the Cup. I want to see the Rangers win, and then I want to rejoice about it on and offline with a bunch of blue-clad people I barely know.
I'm old enough to understand that I probably won't get what I want, but at least with the Rangers, as opposed to my life, it probably won't be my fault. Fandom is the most frustrating and the most rewarding form of faith; its efficacy or lack thereof is often immediately apparent, and ritual and fellowship are its only sure rewards. Faith alone will not alter whatever turns out to be true; it just helps us to live with a little more color, and maybe to die in peace.
Follow Beth Boyle Machlan on Twitter at @bethmachlan
An earlier version of this essay appeared on The Modern Spectator
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Game 5 was held at Madison Square Garden in New York. Game 5 was held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.