Hope and Game Seven

Sharks-Kings handshake line
There will be one of these tonight. Which team will be smiling? Which team will be disappointed?

Sometime after midnight tonight, I will tiptoe into Ryan’s room. I will kneel at his bedside, brush his hair from his face, and gently prod him awake with my hand. He will bolt upright in bed, because that is how he always wakes up — instant on, ready to go, 100 miles per hour.

The weighted blanket he’s slept under for the last several years has been a godsend, but my son still finds deep sleep elusive, his brain and body racing too fast to completely slow down. But tonight it will be for a different reason. It will be from excitement, and a healthy dose of dread.

Tonight it will be because he has gone to bed late. Later than usual, anyway. He will have considered the offer from us to stay up for the entire game, which doesn’t start until 10 p.m. our time, and I’m pretty sure he’ll have chosen to go to sleep anyway. The pull of his routine is more powerful even than what tonight offers.

You see, tonight is The Night. Tonight is Game 7 between Ryan’s beloved San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings. It may only be the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but there is nothing like a Game 7 — especially the way this series has gone.

The Sharks cruised to a 3-0 lead in the series, with a couple of blowouts along the way. But then, everything turned. The Kings have won three straight, becoming just the ninth team in NHL history to force a Game 7 after trailing 3-0 in the series. Tonight they will try to become just the fourth team in NHL history, and the fifth team in NHL, MLB and NFL history, to overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a series.

Ryan knows all this. He knows because I told him about it how rare it was when it happened to the Bruins against the Flyers a few years ago, and last year, when it almost happened to the Bruins again, this time against the Maple Leafs. He knows because I told him again how rare it was, even as the Sharks dropped first one game, then two, then three games in a row.

I will hand Ryan his iPad, and I will turn my back so as not to betray the result — his orders. In those moments after I hand Ryan that iPad, in the perhaps 20 or 25 seconds it takes him to find the score on NHL.com, possibility and hope will stay alive. If the Sharks have won, I will be ecstatic, waiting to embrace him after he learns the result. If they have lost, as they did to these same Kings last year in Game 7, it will break my heart to see his hope extinguished.

I am as emotionally wrapped up in the result as he is. I want this so badly for him, to see the unfettered, unfiltered, absolute, pure joy that a win will bring to his face. Veronica and I barely slept after I told her the result of Game 6 Monday night.

As we tucked him in that night, he already knew the Sharks were losing 1-0. And, as he has been the case since the tide of the series turned, he put a brave face on it. I told him of all the playoff failures I’ve suffered as a Washington Capitals fan. He looked at us and said, “But I wanted them to win the [Stanley] Cup this year.”

“Wanted.”

Past tense.

He’s doing what any good sports fan does. Quietly preparing for the worst while silently hoping for the best. He’s rationalizing. He told us he’d rather the Sharks lose to the Kings in the first round than his most-hated team, the Anaheim Ducks, in the second.

Oh, my son. I’ve been waiting almost four decades for the Capitals to win a Stanley Cup. I’m still waiting. And I’m pretty sure I want this more for you than I’ve ever wanted it for myself.

Ryan is worried about getting teased at school, even though we know most of his fellow students have no idea what goes on in hockey games that take place after they go to bed. But still, he’s the kid who proudly wore a Sharks jersey to school at least once a week all winter, more often if we let him get away with it. He’s the kid who bragged about meeting the team. One boy in particular delights in teasing Ryan when the Sharks lose. It’s nothing malicious, but it gets under his skin just the same.

It’s all part of being both a sports fan — and a middle-schooler — and he’ll survive, even if the Sharks break his heart again.

But as long as there’s still a Game 7 to play, there’s still hope. There’s still possibility. There’s still time for us to wish against all that seems likely for the Sharks to prevail and for this hockey season, which has given him some incredible moments, to continue for another two weeks.

In that hope lies the beauty of being a sports fan. The emotional highs and lows that, in the end, are essentially meaningless. The emotions — Immense joy, incredible sadness — are real, mind you, but they pass with the games and the seasons. They don’t alter one’s life, but they do offer a healthy distraction.

Ryan, of course, has more difficulty than most processing emotions. In his world of absolutes and black-and-white outcomes, it is very difficult to compartmentalize them. He moved on quickly last year after San Jose’s Game 7 loss, but it hasn’t always been like that. There have been moments that made me question whether exposing him to sports was healthy. And then I remember, or Veronica is kind enough to remind me, of the connection that sports has brought, and those thoughts are quickly put to rest.

The cruel reversal of fortune in this series has me on guard for tonight. I don’t know how Ryan will handle it if the Sharks lose. Maybe decamping for bed before the outcome is known is the right call. We’ve called on all the good luck charms and bits of karma we can.

Now, we wait, and we hope.

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