Sunday night I sat in my car, in the darkness of the Honda Center parking lot, for what seemed like 30 minutes.
It was probably only three.
I had a hard time bringing myself to put my key into the ignition.
Because if I did drive away from the arena, I would be forced to acknowledge that the Ducks season is actually over.
Truthfully, their season ended long before the final buzzer in their 3-2 Game 7 loss, and series loss, to the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Quarter Finals. In a “win or go home” situation, the Ducks were outplayed by the Wings from the drop of the puck. Another notoriously bad start saw them down 1-0 less than two minutes into the contest, and they spent the rest of the night chasing the game instead of playing it.
And although they showed a bit of life late in the final period, as Francois Beauchemin scored with just over three minutes remaining to bring the Ducks within one, I knew in my gut that we were not going to witness one of those miraculous comebacks that we had seen from this team all season.
As time expired, Corey Perry collapsed to his knees in a display of honest emotion rarely seen from the reserved winger.
And that was it. Season over.
The Ducks eventually gathered to make their way through the customary series-ending handshake line. And then they slowly raised their sticks, with the weight of the loss bearing down on them, to salute the home crowd who stayed to thank the team for their extraordinary season. Emotional doesn’t begin to describe the moment.
Standing in the dressing room after the game wasn’t any easier. One by one, as the players walked in to address the media, they didn’t have to say a word for me to know the disappointment that they were experiencing. I could see it on their faces.
But the professionals that they are, they kept their composure, didn’t make excuses and praised their teammates. They win as a team, and they lose as a team.
And Teemu. Oh, Teemu.
Many of us hung around, waiting for him, waiting to hear his reaction. Always the gentleman, he was (obviously) disappointed.
“We have to learn something from this,” Selanne said. “I think we deserved better than this, but that’s hockey. You never know. The playoffs are so much fun and very disappointing to be out of it right now, the first round. We were looking forward to going further and enjoying this more. That’s why it’s so tough. It’s too late now.”
And per the usual, he wouldn’t comment on his future, acknowledging that he needed time to clear his head before he could make such a decision.
Is this the way it ends for the Great 8? I won’t let my mind go there.
I’ve written before about this inherent need in sports to have a reason for why a game, series or season ends badly, as if there needs to be some explanation beyond the obvious.
I think for some fans, it helps them process the loss. There are plenty of well-written explanations as to why the Ducks lost this series to Detroit.
Whether you believe “Boudreau was outcoached” or “the Ducks’ best players weren’t their best players”, or that “they didn’t play with enough urgency”, it’s all out there.
But for me, the explanations do little to ease the heartbreak. And they never change the outcome.
I may be over simplifying this, but I will tell you that on Sunday night, I saw a Red Wings team that played better than the Ducks, and beat them.
That’s it. And that’s sports.
At the end of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there are 29 teams and their fan bases who will be experiencing some level of disappointment. Only one team emerges as the winner. This year, it isn’t the Ducks.
And I will tell you that when you stand a few feet from the players’ faces after a gut-wrenching Game 7 playoff loss and see the raw emotion in their eyes, it doesn’t ever leave your mind. Do not think for a second that their hearts weren’t in this. Their disappointment will not fade quickly, I assure you.
As I finally drove out of the Honda Center parking lot, the emotions came flooding over me, the same emotions I had forcefully kept shoved down for the better part of three hours.
In all honesty, it felt like someone had ripped out my heart, stomped on it, then tossed it onto the ice, where someone else promptly emerged from the Zamboni tunnel with a cold, metal shovel, quickly scooped it up and threw it into a trash bin.
And I doubt I was alone in my reaction.
But as I drove home in silence, I decided it would be best to reflect back on what a success this Ducks season has been.
When a team goes from 13th in the Western Conference to 2nd, and from last place in the Pacific Division to first–in one year–I think that’s a season worth celebrating.
Not many picked this Ducks team to even make the playoffs, let alone finish as a number 2 seed. They had an incredible, record-setting start to this shortened season, with plenty of dramatic highlights. They signed Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to long-term extensions. And the youth of this team (Bonino, Fowler, Etem, Palmieri, Cogliano, etc.) is looking strong.
So despite the early playoff exit, there is plenty to be excited about with this Ducks team going forward.
And despite the heartbreak, I fully believe they exceeded expectations. After what Ducks fans endured last season, and in a season this year that some didn’t even think would happen, I call that a major win.
As I walked into my house late Sunday night, I caught a glimpse of the flowers and handmade cards on our kitchen table, gifts from my sweet daughters for Mother’s Day.
And as the sun rose Monday morning, it brought with it the familiar weekday routine of making breakfast, packing lunches and shuttling my girls off to school.
The emotions are still there. They will be for a while. And I’m okay with that. They are there because I care about this team and this great sport. And I don’t want that to ever change.
But in the midst of feeling upside down, sometimes life has a way of turning you right side up and nudging you back into normalcy when you really need it.
Thank you, Anaheim Ducks, for an incredible season we won’t soon forget.
It may be a long wait until October, but I’m already looking forward to it.
**Bottom photo via Christina Chin