Like music, film and other leisurely activities, people often view sports as an escape from the mundane, a way of retaining what little creativity and spontaneity we have left from childhood. The most ardent sports fans truly treat the games they watch as heroic battles of life and death, although the overwhelming majority recognize the necessity to create a distinction between sport and life. We, the onlookers, use sports as the way out of reality, a way of succeeding and failing vicariously through people we’ve never met and whose personal lives we’ll never infiltrate, giggling stupidly when recounting an athlete’s greatest moments to his or her face, as if he wasn’t there, as if he wasn’t the one who did it. We only see those images; that’s what stays with us, courtesy of SportsCenter and size-90 font newspaper headlines. But what happens when the lives they lead bleed across the pages and into our collective subconscious, giving feeling to the emotionless robots who score, save, rebound and run for us?
On May 11, Mother’s Day in the United States, the New York Rangers played a postseason hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The phrase “do-or-die” is often tossed around as some kind of rallying cry for the fan bases of teams whose backs are to the wall, as the Rangers were, down 3-2 in a best-of-seven Eastern Conference playoff series. What happens when a team full of professional athletes doesn’t “do” and instead “dies” usually resembles something along the lines of a Wrangler jeans commercial, I imagine. The players give a final press conference, address issues and the “why not” of their loss, and then they go home and rehab nagging injuries with their families close to them, maybe taking a summer vacation to northern California or the French Riviera before getting back into some semblance of an athletic routine. All told, a pretty cushy gig, if I had to guess.
Three days before Mother’s Day, with his team down 3-1 in the series, Rangers midseason acquisition Martin St. Louis, a grizzled veteran noted for his scoring touch and leadership abilities, received word that his own mother had unexpectedly passed away, apparently the result of aftereffects of a heart attack. St. Louis rushed home to Montreal to be with his family. The Rangers regrouped, and St. Louis made the undoubtedly difficult decision to play on Sunday, hoping to spark his team to a victory which would force a Game 7 back in Pittsburgh.
What followed was a display in either escapism or justice, depending on whom you trust. St. Louis was the beneficiary of an aggressive Rangers forecheck in the first period, a necessarily relentless force which yielded, finally, a goal that deflected off of St. Louis’ pads and behind Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. St. Louis celebrated and picked up the puck, a Mother’s Day gift. His joy radiated something greater than hockey. His 38-year-old body was twelve years old once again, and time could not stop him. After the game, he delivered a powerful speech to his teammates for having been awarded the game’s First Star:
It is often written, including on this site, that the hockey playoffs are the best playoffs. The excitement and circumstance of ten men battling to put a rubber disc on a sheet of ice into a net only slightly larger than the person standing in front of it cannot be overstated. Emotions run high, teams grow to hate one another, one of them loses, that one is forgotten. That’s how it goes, and this series is no different.
In this series, the Rangers and Penguins are headed for a Game 7. Everything before that game does not matter. One team will win and move on to the Eastern Conference Finals, and the other will lose, sending its players to the aforementioned cushy offseason gig. It could very well be that the New York Rangers do not advance beyond this round, negating the efforts of its punchy team, its dominant goaltender and its zealous fans. For one afternoon in May, however, Martin St. Louis carried the weight of his team, his adopted city and the loss of his mother honorably. Whether St. Louis used hockey as an escape or as an outlet is immaterial. On that afternoon, we saw into the soul of a professional athlete who bared it for millions of admirers. A goal cannot repair the damage of a loss that large, but this silly children’s game may just be the necessary bridge to healing, or at least the first step on that journey of a thousand miles.