Tired of Winning? by Frank Morelli                                                                               

On the evening of June 11, 2017 just a few minutes shy of midnight, with a bowl of stale pretzel fragments on my lap and an empty can of Pabst Light on the coffee table, I came as close as I’ve ever come to throwing it all away. Forever. I swear I was a hair’s-width away from ending it and never coming back.

In that single moment, I had reached the limits of my tolerance for tyranny, barbarity, and ruthlessness. The stench of double standard plucked at my nose hairs and raised a misty film over my eyes. But mostly there was envy. Born from the fatigue of watching my enemy win and then win again, the treacherous, green villain crouched down on my chest and hung there, suffocating my will to continue the charade.

And I knew right then I could not and would not accept a second term…of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins as the masters of my NHL domain. Yes, the Penguins. Who’d you think I meant? I’m talking about those evil darlings in black and gold, with their smug-faced superstar doling out cheap shots and autographs at equal rates and then dwarfing that number in goals, assists, and (unfortunately) playoff wins. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the Keystone State, the boys I’ve followed with painstaking loyalty for the past thirty-eight years toiled once again under the excruciating details of summer golf outings and family vacations at the Jersey Shore, their vaunted orange and black sweaters already packed in mothballs for over a month.

I slumped back on my recliner with the empty beer can and the empty pretzel bowl and stared in disbelief at the triple-zeroes on the game clock and the players piled up on the Pittsburgh goal line. I refused to utter my customary refrain, the mantra that has served as my signature sign-off for the last thirty-seven disappointing seasons of NHL hockey: “There’s always next year.” But this time there’d be no next year. I was done with hockey. It was decided.

Then a latch popped and the boards cracked open and the glass separated. The clouds lifted off my shoulders as a rounded squeal from a set of frozen hinges gave way to two men, in black suits and Italian shoes. Their feet scrubbed across a rubber-lined walkway that winded out from within the bowels of the arena and terminated in a podium at center ice. Their white-gloved hands were mere extensions of the thirty-five pound monument to the hockey gods they carried with care, like a carton of eggs. The Stanley Cup. Shimmering magnificence. Silver perfection. In short, the greatest trophy ever devised by mankind.

Now, any hockey fan will tell you the Cup has Medusa-like powers. It can hold you transfixed. It can drown you under its spell. A single glance can turn you to stone. I guess that’s why I couldn’t look away when the villain of my personal NHL reality–the anti-Gretzky–hoisted the venerable hardware over his head, or when he planted not one but two slobbery kisses on its gleaming face. All that mattered to me in that moment was the glorious cameo of Lord Stanley’s creation, and then the words spilled out of me without provocation: “There’s always next year.” I had mumbled it into the empty can of Pabst so my voice reverberated like a robot’s, but I knew it was mine, and I knew I’d be back for as long as it took to see the proper, Philadelphian names inscribed for eternity on one of Lord Stanley’s ever-expanding rings of honor.

Because even though the cup itself is an enticing mix of beauty and imposing scale, somehow I know it’s nothing more than the ultimate carrot on a stick. It’s the physical representation of a successful journey, the ultimate affirmation, and the spirit that drives human beings to laugh in the face of monumental failure; to brush away the layers of frustration and to embrace the nature of the struggle beneath.

In the NHL, where fisticuffs are an accepted (and some would argue essential) part of the game, this consistent effort to scratch and claw and crash one’s way beyond the struggle is palpable. It happens in real time, on live television broadcasts that provide viewers with an unfiltered glimpse of hardened warriors willing to sacrifice life, limb, and the ability to chew solid foods for a chance at collective glory; for the simple knowledge that they pushed a slab of rubber across a sheet of ice just a little better than the rest of them. And for a chance to hoist the most revered carrot-on-a-stick in the land. Montreal Canadiens legend, Guy Lafleur, probably captured this phenomenon best when he said, “You do not play hockey for a good season; you play to win the Stanley Cup.” His nickname was “the blond demon” so I don’t think any of us is in a position to argue with his logic.

See, there was a reason Lord Stanley only made a single cup. If he’d mass-produced the things I probably wouldn’t be lamenting the lifelong mediocrity of my favorite team or whining about the recent domination of its heated rival. If he handed out, say, ten cast-iron replicas to the also-rans each year instead of delivering the single holy grail of hockey to the last team standing, could we ever be sure we’ve seen the best of what hockey has to offer? Could we know if the limits of human physicality have been pushed to the breaking point? Could we be sure there was the same will to compete, or that each athlete was able to propel another toward greater feats of strength or spirit? It’s a tough sell. Because when you take the carrot off the stick, you lower the stakes and the whole performance falls flat.

It reminds me of a complaint Hall of Fame goaltender Jacques Plante once made after a rare, poor performance. He said, “How would you like a job where every time you make a mistake, a big red light goes on and 18,000 people boo?” That doesn’t sound like high stakes. It sounds like a stake right through the heart! But it’s telling that Mr. Plante managed to play in 949 games in his career (112 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs), despite all the flashing lights and the avalanche of Bronx cheers. The reward for his persistence and tenacity in the face of great struggle? He hoisted the Stanley Cup above his head six times, won the Vezina Trophy (for league’s best goaltender) seven times, and reinvented the art of goaltending in the process. His pursuit of the grail propelled him to greatness and kept him shielded from scrutiny.

We all face big red lights and crowd noise, and we’re all chasing a Stanley Cup in some form or another. For me, it might be writing this piece in the hope that no other writer will ever usurp its brilliance. But when that frozen biscuit inevitably flutters over my stick-side shoulder and the light flickers on, how will I respond? Because it will happen. I can promise you that. Will I reduce my stick to splinters with a single tomahawk slap over the crossbar, or wrap a stiff crosscheck around the Adam’s apple of an unsuspecting opponent? Or will I tie my skates even tighter and barrel into the corners like a madman? When the light twinkles off the polished surface of my own version of the Cup, will I take the risks that will allow me to lift it and skate a few victory laps around the rink? I don’t know the answers.

But I do know this. Before Game Six of the 1974 Finals, then-Flyers coach Fred Shero famously told his troops, “Win today and we walk together forever.” His players understood the stakes. They knew they could be legends if they just tried to be nothing less than perfect on a one-day basis. They listened to every one of Shero’s words, and then the ‘74 Flyers went out and became the first expansion team to ever win the Stanley Cup. Of course I wasn’t born until 1978 (because I always miss the good stuff), but I think I’ll take Mr. Shero’s advice anyway. I trust Lord Stanley would approve.

Frank Morelli

Frank Morelli is a writer, an educator, and a beer league extraordinaire. His fiction and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Stories, Jersey Devil Press, Cobalt Review, and Indiana Voice Journal, among others. His story “In the Pen” was shortlisted for the 2015 Earl Weaver Baseball Writing Prize. He has a debut novel, No Sad Songs, forthcoming from Fish Out of Water Books.

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