PHILADELPHIA -- Only a small handful of lucky people get to witness a major professional sports championship celebration live and in person. Last night, I became one of those people.
For this, it's hard not to look back and say, "hey, that was pretty cool." After all, the Stanley Cup celebration is by far the best in professional sports. From the hoisting of the Cup by the captain, to the hand off to each player (order always matters, by the way), to the victory laps around the ice, to the swarm of media that's eventually allowed to join them, it's an hour or more of incredible theater.
And watching that team I quickly grew to hate over the last two weeks celebrate their championship on our ice was honestly one of the most painful things I've ever had to experience as a sports fan.
I sat in the auxiliary press box at Wachovia Center for the entire game, even as most media ran downstairs between the third period and the overtime, or, as the rest of them did by the wild end of the overtime. About 10 minutes into the celebration, I was the only media member left in the box, which actually is section 222 of Wachovia Center.
Throughout the game, I was planning on going down to ice level with the rest of them if the unthinkable happened -- if the Blackhawks won the Cup. Then it happened, and I couldn't even bring myself to move. I watched Patrick Sharp, who was on my side back in 2005 when he celebrated a Calder Cup championship in this same building with the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms, fly across the ice to Patrick Kane, who had just scored the Cup-clinching goal. It seemed like they were the only two people in the building who knew the thing was in the net.
As it turns out, they were two of the only three people -- Flyers goalie Michael Leighton knew too.
"I think everyone was wondering if it was in and I looked back and saw it stuck in the pad and I knew it was over," Leighton said after the game.
The 'Hawks basically took Kane's word for it, streaming off the bench and down the ice into their goaltender, Antti Niemi's arms. Meanwhile, the 20,000-plus inside the building, including myself, were still in complete shock. The red light never came on. Maybe this is just the most embarrassing moment in Stanley Cup history?
I had a TV in front of me. I glanced down. CBC was showing the replay, as the official in front of me on the ice was just arriving at the official's box to call the review team.
I was shaking, sitting on the top edge of my still-upright stadium seat. The puck was clearly in. I fell. The seat collapsed into it's normal, chair-positioned form under me. I let out an small, under-my-breath "shit." And there went the magical season.
From the expectations of the preseason to the doldrums of November to the hope and excitement of the playoffs and everything in between, it had been an incredible ride. It's easy to forget all of that, though, when you're in that moment. After all, the Flyers seemed absolutely destined for the Cup, and that was only reinforced by Scott Hartnell's goal in the waning minutes of the third period to send this game into overtime.
It couldn't end like this, right?
Cue Lou Nolan, long time Flyers public-address announcer.
"Chicago goal scored by number 88, Patrick Kane. His tenth of the playoffs. Assisted by number 51, Brian Campbell. Time of the goal, 4:06 of overtime. That's Kane, his tenth, from Campbell at 4:06."
A few heads dropped over on the Flyers side of the ice, where they were lined up at the blueline watching the 'Hawks celebrate. In the crowd, most people were still shocked. A few began to run down the stairs, either because they couldn't bear to watch or they wanted to beat the traffic. The majority, though, were like me -- still glued to the depths of my seat.
There were a lot of Blackhawks fans in the building, and it's not hard to understand why. Their team hadn't won this thing in 49 years, and with a chance to do it in Game 6, I'm sure the whole city of Chicago would've bought a ticket if they could. They were cheering, of course, but as the handshake line progressed, a "Let's Go Fly-ers!" chant broke out. Not going to lie, I almost cried.
The ice crew, wearing their Flyers-logo-adorned uniforms, rolled out the red carpets from the zamboni tunnel. They were stretched along the outer rim of the ice for the camera people, and one came straight out from the tunnel to about the faceoff dot. It had the Stanley Cup Champions logo on it. A little table with the NHL logo all over it was placed at the end of that carpet.
Gary Bettman walked out. The crowd: "BOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. *breathe* BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO." He talked over them, saying something complimentary about the Philadelphia fans and their "passion." Yeah, we believe you, Gary.
The booing stopped as Bettman announced the Conn Smythe Award winner. "Jonathan Toews." More booing. It wasn't for Toews, exactly. Instead, the Flyers faithful in the building still thought Chris Pronger had a chance at winning. They still have a case, if you ask me.
Toews accepted his award quickly, but he wanted the big one, of course. Out came the Cup. Bettman said some stuff. It was lifted to cheers from the couple-of-hundred Blackhawks fans in attendance and polite applause from the Flyers fans. After all, only a small handful of lucky people get to witness this in a lifetime.
They skated around. They passed the Cup around. They won the Stanley Cup.
Most Flyers fans probably turned off their televisions around this point. It's hard to watch. I didn't have the luxury of being able to flip a switch, of course. I still couldn't really move. It's a pretty numb feeling when your team loses a Cup, but when you know that you're going to have to relive these images over and over again over the summer and over the next year and maybe beyond, and you know they're in your building and in your city, it's very painful.
About a half hour after the end of the game, the cleanup crews began to show up in the upper bowl of the building. A few orange-clad fans were still in their seats, just staring at what was going on down below. There, the Blackhawks fans in the building had gathered below the bench.
That "Let's Go Flyers" chant turned into a 'Let's Go 'Hawks!", or even an impromptu rendition of "Chelsea Dagger." One player sprayed the red crowd with champagne. Before we knew it, the ice was clear. The celebration had moved to the locker room. The season was officially over, and man, that hurts. It's when you shake yourself for a second and say "oh, yeah, I have to write."
I don't hate the Blackhawks anymore (except for maaaaaaybe Adam Burish). I did for two weeks in the midst of the series, but the truth is I just don't have any ill-feelings for them. Jonathan Toews is a great captain. Antti Niemi is going to have a fantastic career. Patrick Sharp's AHL bobble-head still sits on my desk, and I'm extremely happy for him.
It's going to be a long offseason for Flyers fans, but in the end, we're going to remember this magical season for a long time. We can be proud of the things our team accomplished this year, and because of that, I feel fortunate to have witnessed a Stanley Cup victory with my own two eyes.