By Joseph Kerrigan
As a lifelong Catholic, I can’t help but note that in most years, the 50 days of our Easter season coincide nicely, both in length and calendar dates, with the course of the Stanley Cup playoffs. (This year Easter ends on May 23, just shy of the Finals.) As a lifelong Washington Capitals fan, I have experienced precious few playoff seasons where the Easter-to-Pentecost momentum finds a parallel.
Ask Caps fans for a word association with Easter and we’ll probably reply with the heartbreaking, Game 7, four-overtime loss to the New York Islanders in April 1987. The match began at about the same time and with about as much hope as Easter Vigil services did in Washington-area churches that night, but ended more than six hours later, at nearly 2 a.m. Easter morning. I was a seminarian in DC at the time, and the joy of “Alleluia, Christ is risen” was quickly blunted by laments for the Caps’ tortuous demise.
But it’s 2010 and this year the ice at Verizon Center is tantalizing with possibility, even expectation. All our ritualized invocations during the regular season, from “Rock the Red” to “Unleash the Fury,” now mean but one thing in the playoff hymnal: let’s win Lord Stanley’s Cup — the Holy Grail of ice hockey. The Caps are coming off a record-setting year loaded with individual and team milestones. Apart from the odd, unrepentant Penguins fan, impartial pundits and long-suffering Caps fans alike have to at least acknowledge the team’s formidable chances. Look over any sports section or hockey blog in these pre-playoff hours for the numerous arguments pro and con.
For me, how this all unfolds is as compelling as any final result. I feel like St. Francis of Assisi preparing for a trip into a nature preserve. Over the next days — and hopefully weeks — I will be eager to see how that ice become peopled with individual and team stories of transformation, perseverance and victory. Along with the church during Eastertide, I’m reading the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospels for their own inspired merit, but also with an eye to how things might cascade for the Caps come June.
What makes hockey great nourishment for the spirit on a drab weeknight in January only intensifies with the accruing drama of the four-round march to the Stanley Cup. Sure, hockey is “only” a game, but it mirrors life in what’s allowable, especially its seeming randomness, sense of menace, and moments of grace and glory.
The Book of Psalms, an enduring treasure trove for Jewish and Christian spirituality, is alternately filled with rage, gratitude, distress, celebration, complaint, abandonment, judgment and joy. It’s often said that all of one’s life can find prayerful expression somewhere there. But what about all of your hockey team’s fortunes? A brilliant Alex Ovechkin to Nicklas Backstrom to Mike Knuble scoring sequence may send you soaring, with the Psalmist, in praise of creation, while moments later a puck deflected in your own goal by your own player finds you in the shadow of darkness. Set these moments within the context of a best-of-seven series, player career trajectories and a franchise history approaching the biblical 40 years in a Cup-less desert, and you have playoff hockey as life and spiritual raw material, bounded by dasher boards and plexiglass, compressed in four rounds of play, but life no less in all its humbling and glorious possibilities.
So watch playoff hockey closely and you might learn to notice a thing or two of import in your own life. If Christians believe 40 attentive days in Lent is enough time for meaningful change, why not the 50-odd days of the Stanley Cup drive?
For what little we can sort of count on — the plain-as-day majesty of Alex Ovechkin at any second, the inscrutable talent of Alexander Semin, a puck-control shift by the Dave Steckel-Matt Bradley-Boyd Gordon line, a deft defensive move by Jeff Schultz that won’t even show up on the scoresheet — there are a hundred other possible moments in Game 1 against Montreal alone that would be both foolish to predict and regrettable not to be open to.
I don’t know if the late Swedish statesman Dag Hammarskjold was a hockey fan, but his nation’s hockey heritage is substantial (think Nicklas Backstrom). So before the opening faceoff I’m going look at the ice and give voice to Hammarskjold’s well-known prayer: “For all that has been — thanks. For all that shall be — yes.”
p.s. You may be wondering why a Jersey boy became a Caps fan. When I was a kid, there were too many New York Rangers fans among my classmates already. As for the New Jersey Devils, well, it’s kind of against the grain to root for the Devil.
Rev. Joseph Kerrigan is pastor of Sacred Heart Church in New Brunswick, N.J.. He has been a fan of the Washington Capitals since June 9, 1972, the day the NHL awarded the city a franchise.