The NHL season is complete, having ended Friday night when the Los Angeles Kings beat the New York Rangers in double-overtime in Game 5 to win the Stanley Cup.
My job takes me on the road for the Cup Final. If any of the following sounds like complaining, that is unintentional. It is a privilege to be able to cover the series, attend the games and witness hockey at its very best up close. It is also a grind, with very late nights followed by early morning flights, and a total of four cross-country trips in 13 days. At least with the Rangers representing the Eastern Conference, I was able to spend a few nights at home. I was there, but I wasn’t really there, leaving in the afternoons before the kids were home from school and returning long after they’d gone to sleep. We communicated in brief phone calls and texts, and, with Ryan, discussions of each game.
You might think this Final presented a difficult choice for Ryan. After all, it pitted one team (the Kings) that inflicted a painful come-from-behind elimination on his favorite team (San Jose) vs. the Rangers, arch-rivals to the team for which we are season-ticket holders (New Jersey). But you’d be wrong.
Ryan’s love of hockey trumps any disappointment or bitterness, and he just wanted the season to last as long as possible. When the Kings jumped to an early series lead, he rooted for the Rangers. Chastised by my Devils-loving wife and daughter for daring to pull for hated New York, Ryan donned his Ranger jersey (the one he wore while representing them at the 2012 Winter Classic in Philadelphia) and sought refuge at the home of our Ranger fan next-door neighbor.
I was sitting in the press box for Game 4 at Madison Square Garden when I received a text from my neighbor containing the picture at the top of this post and the message “he’s back.” It seems that Ryan, unappreciated in his temporary Rangers fandom at home, went next door, uninvited, and plopped down on the couch to watch.
I apologized for the intrusion, but my neighbor did not mind. I suspect he appreciated the company for the first period, before Ryan returned home to go to bed. As he did throughout the playoffs, Ryan rose in the morning, unaware of the result — an act that broke with a years-held habit and required extreme discipline on his part — to watch the rest of the game. When the Rangers held on for a nerve-wracking win to extend the series to a fifth game, and send me back to Los Angeles on a morning flight, he was torn.
Veronica told me how expressed his dilemma. He wanted the Rangers to win so there would be more hockey this season. But he wanted the Kings to win, because he missed me and wanted me home.
Indeed, when I saw him for a few minutes on the afternoon of Game 3 in New York, he gave me the warmest greeting I ever recall receiving from him. We crossed paths for a few minutes between the time he arrived home from school and I departed for New York on the train. I had endured a hellish 18-hour trip home from Los Angeles that consumed the entire previous day, and missed seeing the kids in the morning. When Ryan came through the door and saw me at the top of the stairs, getting dressed for the game, he burst up the steps and gave me a huge hug.
“My dad is home!” he screamed.
In the history of Not Little Things since Ryan was born, that moment will rank right up there. In the early days of trying to figure out what was different about our son, I was keenly aware that he showed almost no reaction when I returned home from work.
This was a 180-degree change, and then some. He hugged me tight — another act that was years in coming — and smiled a broad smile. I apologized that I only had a few minutes, time he filled with questions about the series.
Even in our most intimate moments as father and son, hockey is the pathway that connects us. He wanted my opinion on why the Kings were up two games to none. Were the Kings playing well or were the Rangers playing poorly? Was it New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s fault? We discussed these questions and more as Veronica drove me to the train station.
Back in L.A. for Game 5, I received a text from Veronica after the Kings scored to take an early lead.
Ryan just said: yes! My dad will be home soon!
It seems his desire to have me home trumped his desire for more hockey. Knowing him, and what the sport means to him, as I do, I can think of no greater expression of love. My Father’s Day was made before I even got home.