I hate endings. Hate ’em. It gets all dusty up in the room any time there’s a graduation, a season-ending game, a championship, heck even “One Shining Moment” gets me. But we’ve made a habit of attending the last New Jersey Devils home game each year, and once again, I’m glad we did.
Way back in 2011, we treated ourselves to good seats in the lower bowl for the last game of the year against Boston. It was a lousy year for New Jersey, the first time the team had missed the playoffs in seemingly forever. The crowd was mostly listless until the last minute, when it rose as one to cheer the Devils off the ice and into the offseason. As we stood to clap, the finality of it bothered me — but not just because we were facing six months without hockey.
No, back then I was worried about something else. I saw the clock racing towards zero, and with it, I saw all the family togetherness we enjoyed at games — all the delicious normalcy, all the delightful engagement — coming to an end. And three years ago I wasn’t sure if Ryan would still care about hockey when October rolled around again. The tears started flowing. I turned to the side, hoping to not get caught by my wife or children, but it was too late. I was busted. Veronica asked why I was so upset — and I get upset again just thinking about it — and I told her. She nodded and embraced me and told me not to worry. And soon Ryan was mocking me, because apparently me worrying about him not loving hockey was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard of.
He was, of course, correct.
The next year, we were rewarded with an incredible playoff run, the season ending only when the Devils fell to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Our family’s final memory of that remarkable season was being together at Game 5, a New Jersey win.
Last year was more like 2013. The Devils made a late run towards a playoff spot but ultimately fell short, turning the last game into a bittersweet goodbye party. It was difficult for many reasons. We stayed away from the arena for more than a month during the season due to Ryan’s anxiety, an unwelcome visitor that stole his enjoyment of his favorite thing and turned games from a joyous occasion into something to be endured. By the end of the season, we felt we had things under control enough to attend the last game, despite it being a weekday night. We got through it, but the feeling was not the same. And the worst of Ryan’s anxiety was yet to come.
That brings us to 2014, and I’m happy to report that I shed no tears over fears of Ryan’s losing interest in hockey. I’m happy too to report that this season — well, the regular season, anyway — passed without a major shots-on-goal anxiety-induced meltdown. In fact, when the Devils, playing against a Boston team with nothing to play for and resting most of its regulars, were on pace to surpass one of Ryan’s triggers, he was able to joke about it.
Veronica and I exchanged a look, neither of us ready to put words to the thought we shared — could it be that this issue, one of the biggest challenges we faced in the last year, is in the past?
That’s not to say there were dry eyes Sunday. It was a tough day for Riley, pound-for-pound perhaps Martin Brodeur’s biggest fan. Marty has played for the Devils for 20 years, won three Stanley Cups, and holds every significant career goaltending record. He also turns 42 next month and does not have a contract for next year. All signs pointed to this being his final game with the Devils — or anywhere.
We also went on Friday night, when Marty was announced as the somewhat surprise starter. There were plenty of extra cheers,but it didn’t have the same aura of finality as Sunday.
Saturday, the Devils confirmed it. Marty would be in goal for the season-ender. Of course Riley wanted to be there, but she wasn’t exactly looking forward to it. I talked to her about how she would always remember being at this game. That in time, the sadness would turn to a treasured memory. She asked about my favorite players and seeing them retire. I related some stories from childhood, but I was never attached to a single player the way she has been to Brodeur, ever since her first game as a three-year old.
When we realized our Sunday tickets were worth something due to the Marty factor, I offered her to keep the extra money if we sold them. The offer wasn’t really authentic, more like a test. But I was thrilled when she looked at me like I had two heads. I recalled a similar story my dad told me about attending a Brooklyn Dodgers playoff game as a kid. It must be in the DNA — they both made the right call.
It’s the proper decision because there is no price that can be put on memories, something that has become more clear to me over the years. These days my wants are less material and more about creating experiences and memories.
And so we went Sunday, and we cheered for Marty and we poured all the love and affection we could out in his direction. Even Ryan, who has long since declared the Sharks his favorite team, went out of his way to cheer every Brodeur save. I told Riley it was his way of showing he cares about her.
We were treated to some vintage saves and a 3-2 New Jersey win. After the Devils did the traditional stick salute to the fans, the team sent Marty on a brief victory lap by himself. He waved, and all over the crowd, the tears flowed. Riley leaned on Veronica for support.
There was one last honor. Marty was named the game’s first star, and returned to the ice for a television interview. He was drowned out by the crowd chanting his name. Afterwards, we walked slowly from the arena, saddened, but I was lifted by the knowledge that we had created one more memory.