It can be glorious. And it can be heartbreaking.
I’m convinced that Game 7s are only “fun” if you don’t have a rooting interest in either team. Otherwise, “I’m too nervous to eat” and “I feel sick” are the words that come to my mind with these games.
I have a curious relationship with Game 7s, especially the ones that end in a loss. My devotion to hockey and the Ducks was born out of a Game 7 loss, the one that occurred on June 9, 2003 to the New Jersey Devils. The one where they lost the Stanley Cup.
I remember it vividly. I was standing (not sitting) in front of my television. The Devils were ahead 3-0. The clock ticked down. And it was over.
Just like that. So abrupt. No celebration. No Cup. Season done.
That spring was the first time in my life that I had ever watched the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I had never followed the Mighty Ducks or hockey prior to that time, but this underdog team from Anaheim was having a Cinderella-type run, and I was completely captivated.
Against all odds, they made it all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. I was certain they were going to win. But they didn’t. And even though I had only been following this team for two months, I was completely and utterly heartbroken.
As I watched Mighty Ducks goaltender Jean-Sebastein Giguere accept the Conn Smythe trophy with tears streaming down his face, I had tears of my own.
It was an epiphany moment for me. I decided from that moment forward, I was a fan of hockey and the Mighty Ducks. Their playoff run and everything that team and the sport had shown me over those two months captured my sports-loving heart like nothing I had ever seen.
Out of a Game 7 heartbreak came something glorious.
Fast-forward 11 years and I’m sitting inside the Honda Center press box watching another Game 7. The playoff series that “everyone wanted” (but that I wanted absolutely nothing to do with) between the Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings had been a battle and had appropriately gone to Game 7 in Round 2.
But the game was over almost as soon as it started. By the end of the first period, the Kings were up 3-0. They had scored that all-important first goal, and a couple more for good measure. They then turned on their very predictable and very effective stifling defense, preventing the Ducks from mounting any sort of comeback. The final score was a humiliating 6-2.
“They were bigger, stronger, faster, and seemed more determined,” said Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau of the Kings in the first period. “I think we were individually and collectively blown away by what they were doing.”
Indeed they were. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. At all.
As the game slowly trudged on through the remaining two periods, I transitioned through different stages of emotion. Shock. Despair. Anger. Sadness. Tiny glimmer of hope. Disappointment. Heartbreak. I don’t recommend choking back tears for upwards of three hours. It’s exhausting.
After the Kings scored their sixth goal with about six minutes remaining in the third period, something shifted, at least in my mind. The night was no longer about the “Freeway Faceoff Playoff” or the #BattleforSoCal. The night became all about Teemu Selanne, and what was most likely his final NHL game.
For the last minutes of the game, nothing else mattered. One of the most talented and significant players to ever play the game, and without a doubt, the most beloved player to ever wear a Ducks sweater, took center stage. The opponent disappeared, as did the other players on the ice. Every move Teemu made was on the jumbotron. In an effort to try and soak in every last moment of this unwanted conclusion, my eyes were fixated on him.
As the clock ticked down, Boudreau very wisely put Anaheim’s favorite son back out on the ice for his final NHL shift. In that most heartbreaking moment, with the season slipping away, it was all I could focus on.
After the two teams made it through the handshake line, the Ducks raised their sticks in salute to the crowd, but it was still an emotional Teemu who was the center of attention. Even the Kings players remained on the ice to give a stick tap to the living legend.
The honor shown to Number 8 continued in the dressing room. A few media members trickled down the hall to the visitors’ room, but the majority of the media present that night waited outside the Ducks room so they could speak to Teemu.
The Kings may have won the game and the series. But Teemu won the night. For me, it served as a small bit of consolation for having to endure such a brutal loss on home ice.
Inside the room, Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf took questions first. He had little explanation for what had happened out there. “Really tough emotions right now,” he said.
Corey Perry was still in his full gear, sitting on the bench, seemingly stunned at what had happened.
When asked about his future and possible retirement, Saku Koivu said he needed time before he could evaluate, “if there is enough left to come back and push for another year.”
A few of the other players spoke to the media as well, but when Teemu entered the room, he held court. He spoke with a smile. But he was clearly disappointed.
“It was very disappointing,” Selanne said. “I knew it was either going to be an unbelievable party or disappointment. This time it wasn’t the party. It’s very disappointing. It’s a funny game. We had our chances. We just couldn’t take advantage of them. That’s the way it goes.”
But when asked to reflect on his career, his words were filled with nothing but love for the game and for the region that welcomed him and his family with open arms.
“When I came here during the 1995-96 season, I didn’t really know what to expect. It turned out to be my home and a happy place for me and my family. The community and the people, the fans and the organization have really made us feel at home. There’s no better place.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I expect to have a career like this. I’m very thankful.”
Classy all the way to the end. Because he’s Teemu.
After he finished speaking, the media members put down their cameras, microphones and recorders to extend a hand to Teemu, offering him thanks and gratitude for being one of the most professional and gracious players in the league.
For me personally, this game and the time in the room after the final horn were the some of the most difficult and emotional moments I’ve ever experienced in this sport, both as a fan and a writer. The devastating looks on the players’ faces following a loss of this magnitude are not anything I can accurately describe. Those images will never leave my mind. And as I watched Teemu shake everyone’s hand for the last time, I just couldn’t believe that this was how it was ending.
With the path the Ducks were on, Teemu’s final game would have either ended in a Cup win or a loss. In sports, sometimes the team you want to win doesn’t win. And sometimes the end of a legend’s brilliant career isn’t exactly what he deserves.
But as the curtain came down on Teemu’s brilliant career, it came down at home, on Honda Center ice. It could have happened on the road, in a different city, or even a different state. But thankfully, it didn’t. And I was there to witness it. I’m so grateful. As fans of this great game, we are very fortunate to have a player and a person like this in our midst for so many years. In these emotional days, this is what I’m holding on to.
The next day, my eight-year old daughter came up to me. I knew she had seen the game, but she had fallen asleep before I made it home. I could tell she wanted to talk about it.
“You saw the game, right?” I asked her.
“Yeah,” she said, staring at the floor. “The Ducks season is over, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” I said. “And that was Teemu’s final game.”
“That’s so sad,” she said, as she walked away.
It was the most visibly distraught I had ever seen her following a Ducks loss. Maybe this was her epiphany moment. Maybe this was the day that she will look back on as the day she became a true fan of hockey and the Ducks, born out of an emotional Game 7 loss. Just like her mama.
Welcome to being a hockey fan, my sweet girl. It’s glorious and heartbreaking, all at once.