TUFFICULT’S TAKE: CHAMPIONSHIP EDITION
As I write this, I’m on a train headed deeper into Eastern Europe, the muggy and overcast sky filling most of my window, as huge swaths of lush greenery speeds by. My train compartment is quiet, dim, smelling vaguely of powdered soap and Czech farts.
Something about traveling has always brought out my introspective, reflective tendencies, and this summer’s sojourn through Europe is no exception.
My mind wanders back to the night of June 13, where two of my closest Kings fan friends and I pulled a harried, red-eyed all-nighter in a random AirBNB apartment in Germany while huddled around a laptop and the Cup Final stream. Thanks to the time difference between LA and Germany, puck drop was around 2:30am our time. By the time Martinez scored the Cup clinching goal in double OT, the sun was well above the horizon, serenaded by noticeably foreign birdsong and the sounds of the city waking up.
My friend Phi and I, two of the most hardcore Kings fans you’ll meet, were sitting inches from the monitor throughout overtime, wringing our hands and pouring generously from a bottle of Swiss wine plucked from that country the previous week. Our other friend Randy, a more casual Kings fan (but a real fan nonetheless), was fighting valiantly to keep his eyes open during the second OT.
When the puck found the back of the twine on Martinez’s wide open look, Phi and I erupted with joy, leaping up and down and yelling gleeful gibberish. Unfortunately for Randy, whose senses and reaction time were dulled by fatigue and wine, he had the absolute shit scared out of him by our abrupt reaction. Jerked awake and into fight-or-flight mode by our screams, Randy proceeded to fling the full glass of wine in his hand in a majestic arc, beginning with an initial deluge onto his crotch, and then in a glorious rainbow across the couch, walls, and finally ceiling of this poor AirBNB host’s apartment.
Now fully awakened by his wet pants and thumping heart, Randy joined the celebration in progress, and we leapt around, delirious and full of the special kind of magic that comes with having a great experience far away from home. We smoked a Cuban cigar with great ceremony on the balcony. My fists pumped joyously toward the sky again and again, and I took to Twitter and GroupMe to send my love to #TeamTRH and the nearly 1,000 fans who have graciously followed me since I joined The Royal Half in August. Phi grabbed me by the shoulders; “This is it! We actually won! We’re the champions!”
The “we” in that statement might seem to refer to the Kings players and staff — and of course it primarily does, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the team’s recent slogan “We Are All Kings.” Each of us, in our own very small way, contributes to the existence and success of the team. Whether it’s writing for a Kings blog, taking about the team on Twitter and creating buzz and fan presence, going to games and filling seats, boosting Nielsen ratings, or buying merch; we’re all grains of sand on the mountain that is the LA Kings, its summit now jutting into the rarefied air of champions for the second time in three years.
I’ll always remember that I was abroad with my friends for the franchise’s second Cup, but that’s just my story — a unique one, sure, but in essence mirroring hundreds of thousands more occurring in LA and who knows where else.
Maybe you were with close friends when we won, sharing the ecstasy of gold with those who have supported you through good times and bad; throughout the years when it seemed like you couldn’t lose, and the years when you wondered if you’d ever catch another break.
Maybe you were with family, among those who brought you into the world, those who nurtured you not only with food, clothing, and shelter, but an abiding love for a hockey team from a place with beaches and 100 degree weather — a love that serves as a very real cultural touchstone and a big part of your identity as an Angeleno, or possibly just as a member of your Kings-cheering family, wherever you might be located.
Maybe you were alone, as I was in 2012, when I was in the thick of a master’s program and squeezed between a schedule of late night work and early morning classes. Maybe being alone allowed you to shed tears of joy more freely, as it did for me that year. I’d felt a palpable sense that the demons of failure and disappointment were exorcised from my body, that a sort of incurable optimism had lodged itself in my heart, never to fully leave again — because I had watched a dream come true, as silly and stupid and incomprehensible that may seem to all those on the outside who think that hockey is about a puck, a net, the ice, and some skates.
Ultimately, it’s not about that at all, is it? It’s about the look on the players’ faces as they watched their physical pain, mental effort, and shared sacrifice finally pay off. It’s about watching Chris Sutter lift the cup above his head with a little help from his dad. It’s about knowing that Bob Miller is taking part in the best years of this franchise during the twilight of his career, a swan song that couldn’t be written any more perfectly. It’s about what it feels like to be part of something greater than yourself, to share success and triumph and pain and fear and hope with friends – whether in person or even just online.
If there’s a better metaphor for life than sport, I don’t know what it is. The only question now is, what kind of player will you be?
Will you fight hard for the ones you love, even when you’re in your darkest hour? When things look bleakest, as they did for the Kings when they were down 0-3 to the Sharks, will you pack it in and go home like 99% of people would? Or will you dig deep and find inspiration in a group of teammates and friends who didn’t care what past history and the odds had to say about their chances?
The Kings faced elimination six times during their run to the Cup in 2014. Six times, their backs were against the wall, the pressure was mounting, and they were in a position that would be described by most as daunting, unfavorable, and even frightening. In the book “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holliday, he talks about how athletes are always asked in these situations if they are nervous. Invariably, their answer goes something like this: “Not nervous, just excited.” Great athletes know how to turn an obstacle into a springboard to success, how to interpret their racing pulse and sweating palms not as anxiety, but as encouraging signs that a great and rare opportunity is at hand.
Maybe for you, hockey is about goals and Fenwick and defensive zone starts and face-off percentage — and if so, that’s totally fine and your prerogative. For me though, it’s also about a way to draw inspiration from the trials and victories of men who have already shown an incredible amount of ambition and tenacity to reach the National Hockey League. It’s about that little sliver of optimism that sticks in my mind like a burr, reminding me that a group of people who I care about, write about, and follow closely were able to show me what’s possible when you believe, when you lay it all on the line and find that last drop in the tank.
This is what I’ve learned about life from being a Kings fan for a quarter of a century: Never stop believing, whether in yourself, your loved ones, or your hockey team. Invest your hope and optimism freely in goals, in people, in love, in your dreams. Even if there’s the inevitable disappointment and adversity along the way, nothing will make the day that you hoist your own personal Cup high above your head sweeter than the knowledge that you always had it in you.
Until then, what kind of player will you be?
See you on the ice.
-King Tufficult (@KingTufficult)