It was the last game of the season.
The Los Angeles Kings, who had captured the Stanley Cup Championship the season before – and also two years before that – had, the game before, been statistically eliminated from post-season participation.
Which was why it was the last game of the season.
I had gotten tickets from a friend and was attending with my son-in-law Colby. It was a meaningless game; yet the Staples Center was packed, testimony to an “Old School” gesture of Kings-fan allegiance. It’s your team; you send them off with a sellout.
The final game had a twelve-noon start because the Clippers would be playing in the same arena that evening and they had to convert the ice surface into a basketball floor – I’d have paid money to watch that – the L.A. Kings’ opponents, the San Jose Sharks.
The Sharks would be missing the playoffs themselves. (But it’s different when you captured the Cup the year before; you were expected to contend.) What stood out immediately about the Sharks was their predominant team color – teal. I imagined how the famously volatile Hall of Famer Maurice “The Rocket” Richard would have reacted, hitting the ice wearing a turquoise jersey.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est, ‘teal’!”
He might have raged, accompanied by salty, French-Canadian epithets.
Since the game started at noon, I almost immediately began lunching after the “Anthem.” The obstacle for me, they were playing on the last day of Passover. This meant “passing over” stadium hotdogs and freshly-cut roast beef sandwiches in favor of a “Care Package” Dr. M had packed me, consisting of almonds, cashews, Craisins, strips of goat cheese cheddar, mixed with random shardettes of matzah. (A cracker-like bread-substitute eaten during the eight days of Passover.)
“Jew eating matzah out in the open” – What a concept! Although I cannot deny the looming image of a “Chasidic” Woody Allen dining with Diane Keaton’s family in Annie Hall.)
The Kings began listlessly, surrendering a Sharks goal in the opening minute and-a-half. The burden of their seasonal disappointment seemed to weigh heavily on their shoulders, unlike the Sharks, who have never won the Stanley Cup. Although for West Coasters in teal, they’ve done commendably well.
There were rising premonitions of a long and tedious afternoon. However, during the ensuing Second Period, the Kings appeared to wake up, tying the game at 1 to 1. (Note: To the concerned, this will not be an endless, blow-by-blow account of the proceedings, although, to hockey haters, it may feel like one.) That was definitely a “turning point” in the game. Someone had apparently reminded the Kings that the season was not over. With one final opportunity to perform, the Kings were belatedly rising to the occasion.
The “Unforgettable Moment” arrived in the Third – and final – Period.
With the Kings up 2 to 1, a Kings forward whose name I later learned was Marian Gaborik received a pass from a teammate. (Note: I am not primarily a Kings fan. I am traditionally a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, and I am not embarrassed to say so. Though they have disappointed me since 1967.)
Combining an unstoppable amalgam of speed, hockey savvy and elusiveness, Gaborik deked (faked out) the Sharks defenseman, then deked the goaltender, backhanding the puck into the back of net.
If I’d been chewing gum, I would definitely had swallowed it. This electrifying “One-Man Charge” exemplified “Throwback Hockey”, rekindling cherished recollections of Frank Mahovlich, Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito and Gordie Howe, and, most vividly, the incendiary heyday of the aforementioned “Rocket” Richard.
There’s a Passover Seder (traditional dinner) song called “Dayanu”, meaning, “It would have been enough for us.” If that game had only included Gaborik’s unforgettable maneuver, it would happily have been enough for us. Or, unequivocally, for me.
It turned out, however, that was only the appetizer.
It is now the last minute of the game, the Kings comfortably ahead, 3 to 1. Inexplicably, as the game would have no bearing on anything, the Sharks coach elected to pull their goalie, in a desperate effort to tie the game using a “sixth attacker” (against five goalie-excepted players for the opposition), leaving their adversaries an undefended Sharks goal to shoot at.
The Sharks were down by two goals, and the game did not matter. It made no conceivable sense to pull their goalie. But they did it anyway.
As frequently happens, the Sharks desperate strategy backfired.
The Kings got possession of the puck, catching the do-or-die Sharks attackers out of position. A player, whom I later learned was Tyler Toffoli, carried it over the center-red line, an advancing Kings teammate skating to his left, while the sole, retreating Sharks defender set himself between them, ready for a shot from Toffoli or a possible pass to his teammate.
The players skated – the Sharks defender backwards – across the blue-line, entering the playing area nearest the Sharks goal. The “Moment of Truth” was just seconds away. It was all up to Toffoli. Would he shoot the puck himself? Or would he pass it to his teammate?
The Kings attackers widened the distance between themselves, increasing the difficulty of covering both of them. It seemed virtually inevitable. Whoever shot the puck would almost certainly score a goal.
With the defender shading marginally away from him, the “natural move” was for Toffoli to pull the trigger. What did he do?
He passed. His teammate blasting the puck into the undefended net.
Watching that play, I started to shiver, exult and then, unashamedly, tear up.
Toffoli’d had an almost certain shot at scoring a goal.
And he passed.
Holy cow! I am tearing up again!
Remember the context. They were done playing together that season. It is possible they would never play together again. Who knows? One or both of them could be traded, or dropped from the team.
And, in a gesture, during his final scoring opportunity of the year, triggering uninhibited waterworks in yours truly…
The guy passed.
(Note: Toffoli’s from Canada. Make of that what you will.)
Following that goal, the screen on the overhead scoreboard provided a close-up on Toffoli’s face. His reaction said it all – an unguarded and affectionate, shit-eating grin.
Generosity? Grace? The indelible bonding between teammates? Whatever you call it...
It was magnificent.
(TO MY ONCE-AGAIN BLUBBERING SELF) Oh, stop it!