Monday, June 2, 2014

And Three-Peat Makes Four

When I worked in sports (an era that started more than 14 years ago), I would have given almost anything to win a championship.  Growing up in Buffalo, championships were pretty hard to come by.  Back in 1992 and 1993, I watched the Buffalo Bandits (ironically now our biggest rival) win Major Indoor Lacrosse League championships, and that was a big deal.  Everyone knows about the Bills' Super Bowl losses and the Sabres' lack of official success over their 40-some years, so even those two championships seemed like a pretty big deal at the time. 

But working in sports brings on an even more urgent need to win.  You can be a huge fan, but it's quite different to have that team infiltrate your entire life.  Losing doesn't just bum you out, it ruins your day at work, too.  Everyone's in a crappy mood, customers complain more, and it's generally harder to do your job when your team isn't winning.  In addition, you get to know the players and take it a little more personally when they are people you actually know and they are having a tough time at their job.  You want to see them win.  Case in point, as much as I've always been a Sabres fan, I cheered like crazy for them about eight years ago when all of the guys that were on the Amerks when I worked there had moved up.  These days I don't know any of them anymore and it's a little harder to get too worked up about it.  But when it was guys I knew?  I really wanted them to win.

As you may recall, back in 2007 I traveled to Phoenix, AZ, to watch the Knighthawks in the championship game.  Look here and scroll down a bit to see a sampling of photos from that amazing weekend.  I did it on a whim because I couldn't bear to miss the moment when that group of guys finally put it all together.  It was the same core of guys from when I was there, and the staff was all friends of mine, so I really wanted to be there see them win.  And I did.  I still consider it the best weekend of my life.  My wedding and my kids' births were great, but the adventure and excitement of that weekend were unbelievable.  Sharing it with Craig made it extra special, knowing how hard he works all the time.

The following year Jacob was born, and Craig actually won another championship, this time with the Rattlers, the outdoor lacrosse team.  While it was a great accomplishment, that one didn't even compare to the Knighthawks' win, for a lot of reasons.  On my end, I couldn't even go because I was home with a two-month-old Jacob.  It was still great for Craig...but for the purposes of this post, we'll stick to focusing on the Knighthawks' wins as those were the ones that held the most significance for both of us.

In 2012, the Knighthawks finally got to host a championship game.  The 2007 game was supposed to be a home game but got moved due to the circus being in town.  So, the 2012 game held special significance because the home fans finally got to share in the fun.  Go here to see the highlights from that day.  That experience was surreal, as I thought we might never have a championship experience again, and it was fun to share it with Jacob, who was a month shy of his fourth birthday.

Last year, as you might remember, I decided (again) at the last minute to hop on a plane for the Knighthawks championship game.  It was in Langley, British Columbia, and I had to fly into Seattle and drive north a few hours.  I added in my special side trip to Tacoma to see some of Dale Chihuly's best work, just in case the game didn't go well, and while the trip was generally exhausting, it turned into a fun little adventure.  The recap of the game is here, and you can click on the "Older Post" link from there to see the other fun parts of that trip.

Fast-forward to this year...and the Knighthawks had a pretty good season.  Still, it seemed the deck was stacked against them because the league changed the playoff format.  Instead of one game per round, the final two rounds of the playoffs each consisted of two games--one in each team's city.  If each team won one game, there would be a 10 minute mini-game to decide the winner.  In both rounds, the Knighthawks lost the first game, meaning that in order to win the series they had to win both the second game and the mini-game.  Lacrosse is such a game of momentum and runs, so that mini-game was such a wild card.  In the previous round, they also needed sudden death overtime to officially win the mini-game, which was so intense!  The championship proved to be quite scary, because Calgary had knocked off the best team in the league in the previous round and then won game one against the Knighthawks pretty handily.

As I had mentioned in my previous post, Saturday was a crazy day.  Jacob had baseball at 9:30.  Craig took him there and met up with my parents, who took over once Craig had to go to work.  In the meantime, I took Carter to the Stroll for Strong, to walk with my friend whose son is now in full remission from leukemia.  That walk turned into a bit of a debacle, as most of the team cut out (the guest of honor apparently didn't like the noise or crowds), and the woman I ended up walking with fell in the middle of the course and sprained her ankle.  By the time we got back to where the team had been hanging out, everyone had dispersed, my friend was leaving with two melting down kids, and Carter and I just sort of wandered around for a while to find food.  Eventually we just headed home and Carter was out like a light a few minutes into the drive.  Back home he napped and I cleaned up the house a bit until my parents and Jacob arrived home after lunch and geocaching.  After a little time to chat, Carter woke up and we all headed outside.  My mom took Carter for a walk and my dad and I (with help from Jacob) did some serious yard work.  I have some lovely sunburn to prove it.  We ordered in for dinner and then headed off to the game. 

The game was a back and forth affair.  Calgary jumped out to an early lead, Rochester came back to tie it.  The Knighthawks went up by one, but Calgary stormed back with three straight.  Rochester came back to tie it and was up by one at the half.  At one point Rochester sprinted to a 10-6 lead, but then Calgary pulled to within one.  Luckily, that was as close as they ever got, and the final of game two was 16-10.

With a big win under their belt, it was time for the really important part--the deciding 10 minute mini-game.  Ten minutes is so scary because anything can happen.  If you go cold for too long, you're done.  The nerves really jacked up at that point, but the arena was crazy.  Things quieted down really fast as Calgary jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first five minutes.  I'll be honest, I thought we were done for.  We just didn't seem to have it.  Still, in the back of my mind I had this thought--What if this was just a scary moment in the midst of an incredible comeback story?  I've blogged here before about how we sometimes get bogged down in the details of our current situation and forget that there's a bigger picture that we may not be aware of.  Things may not make sense in the interim, but in the long run, the purpose is clear.  Well, when that thought went through my head, I certainly thought it would be an amazing story, but I never thought it might actually happen.  But...it did.

Calgary held their lead for three minutes before the Knighthawks cut the deficit in half.  It was a little glimmer of hope, but with only a little over two minutes left, it was still a mountain to climb.  But then 51 seconds later, the Knighthawks scored to tie it.  The arena was exploding by that point and with only 1:23 left, anything could happen.  And 24 seconds later, the improbable happened...the Knighthawks scored.  It was absolutely crazy.  It was a very nerve-wracking 59 seconds to finish off the game and the Knighthawks' goalie had to make some amazing saves at the end.  But they did it.  They won.  Unreal.
This was a few minutes after the game was over and people were still going crazy.
We got to go down on the field at the end, and while it's always chaos, the raw emotion is such fun to watch.  Of course, they ended up rerouting us down through the concourse, so we missed a giant confetti cannon go off.  Bummer.  I saw Craig pretty quickly once we were actually down there, and snapped as many pictures as I could.  I don't know if I was still shaky or if my camera settings were off, but most of them ended up blurry.
Blurry, but that's the goalie raising the cup :)  I ran into his mom on the way down to the field, and was so happy to congratulate her.  We've sat together a couple times and we chatted a bit last year on the championship trip.  She was a young widow and she's always there alone, but you can tell how immensely proud she is of her boy...and missing his dad, no doubt.
The funniest part of this game was that Jacob finally came around.  He's cheered against the Knighthawks all season long, but admitted he wanted them to win the last playoff game against Buffalo, mostly because a win meant he might have a chance at playing on the turf at some point.  But for this game, he really got into it.  He was cheering and even shouting at the team!  It was miraculous, quite frankly, for a kid who has always just sat there entranced.  He looks pretty happy with the outcome here!

So...that confetti cannon...it put down a lot of confetti!  Here's the MVP trophy--awarded to Dan Dawson, who is truly a fantastic player--sitting on the fringes of it.

Jacob decided to try to scoop up confetti and play lacrosse with it...

...And Carter just liked picking it up and throwing it.  He was so stinkin' cute.  He's just starting to walk independently once in a while, and I loved seeing him walk on the turf, bend to pick up pieces, and throw them.

I tried to catch the team photo, but it's hard with so many people on the turf.  When we won in Arizona, there were only a handful of us, and I got a photo good enough to be used in a couple places before the official one came through.  Nowadays, with dozens of the owner's family members out there, it's a challenge to get anything without a dozen phones or cameras in your shot...

Craig is somewhere in the back left, with Jacob.  The mascot is on the left in the front.

While we waited to see what else was happening, Carter just plopped down and starting playing with confetti again.  It works perfectly for him, since he's into picking up and throwing anything right now--grass clippings, rocks, etc.  Confetti was perfect!
 

My parents took one for the team and decided to stay overnight since it was already very late and it would give me a chance to go to the postgame celebration with Craig.  We got both kids home and in bed around midnight (I know, I know--but it's one time and I was far from the only one!), and my mom dropped me off at the hotel (luckily right down the road) where I met up with Craig.  There was a nice party room set up.  I had a little champagne, chatted with various team members and staff, and we headed out of there around 2am to head back into the city to the unofficial team bar, where the fans were patiently waiting for the team and the Cup to arrive.  Eventually it did, and as usual we enjoyed watching our fan friends drink out of it.  We didn't do it this time, but hopefully we'll have our chance as a family, as Craig usually has to bring the Cup home with him once in a while after appearances.

The one funny moment of that stop was when I was chatting with few people, including a woman that I remember from my days with the Amerks.  Speaking of questionable parenting, she was always out at the bar with her very young son at all hours after games and at events.  We all just sort of shook our heads at the time.  Without thinking I mentioned how bad I felt about the kids being out late, and she poo-pooed it, mentioning how often she did it.  She gestured across the table to a young man (about 20) who was sitting there, and it took me a second to realize that was her son, all grown up.  I remember him in the 6-8ish range, and now he's 20!  Wow.  I am old.

Before heading out, I made sure to snap a picture of the new name plate on the Cup, just as I've done every time before.
Have I mentioned the Cup leaks?
We got home a little after 4am and didn't get to sleep until around 5, just as it was starting to get light.  The kids slept until 9am, but yesterday was a very sleepy, very cranky day all around.  But was it worth it?  You bet.

So...I've now witnessed four Knighthawks championships in person.  Something that I thought was a once in a lifetime event has now happened four times.  Each one has been unique in its own way, from the venue to the game to the postgame celebrations.  Once you win one championship, you always want to win more, but I'd say that the urgency decreases a bit.  You will always have that amazing experience, you've been there and you know what it's like.  I know how that joy feels, and I certainly want to keep experiencing it, but even if it doesn't happen again, at least I know and I've had these four chances to experience it.  I never could have imagined it.  What an amazing experience.

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