Wednesday, May 30, 2012

We are the Champions, my friends

Well it's been a month, so I think I'm finally ready to start putting it all together. Any of you who follow me know by now that my team, the Columbus Cottonmouths, won the SPHL President's Cup Championship with a 3-1 victory in Pensacola. It is the first Championship of my professional career, and I've been simply overwhelmed by it all. I've waited my whole career to get my mug in a picture like this one. We have one around the locker room of the 2005 team. I used to find myself staring at it a lot. I probably won't do that anymore. I've often thought of what it would feel like to win a championship. I mean, I've played on teams that have won Men's League championships before, but this really counts. It's absolutely not the same. I've wondered how it would feel, how I'd react.

Well, now I know. It's been a whirlwind couple of weeks that I'll never forget. We didn't get to win it at home as we would have liked, but a large and very vocal contingent of our fans made the trip down to Pensacola for what turned out to be the deciding game. It was a very intense game. You could see that both teams wanted it. Jordan Braid bounced back up after taking a hard hit and buried a shot under the crossbar to put the Snakes on the board midway through the 1st period. The Ice Flyers bounced back with an unassisted goal by Ryan Salvis about 5 minutes later. Greg Beller outworked the defense to score the go-ahead goal about 15 minutes into the 2nd period. From that point on, it seemed like time was moving in slow motion. Our defense worked hard to preserve the lead, and Vigier faced a barrage of shots, but nothing got past him...nothing crossed the goal line. It was a hard-fought, physical, intense game and there were lots of scoring chances for both teams...both goalies played very well to hold their teams in the game. But try as they might, the Flyers couldn't net the equalizer. Finally, with Flyers' goalie Steve Christie pulled for the extra attacker, the Snakes managed to clear the puck out to center ice where it was chased down by John Sullivan. With a defenseman chasing him, he managed to lift a backhander from the blue line into the empty net, sending our bench into a frenzy. All that tension that had built up throughout the game exploded into a wild celebration. With only 28 seconds left we were pretty sure the game was ours and could finally relax and enjoy the moment.

And what a moment it was. As the final seconds counted down sticks were dropped, gloves went flying, and bodies spilled over the boards onto the ice. After wrapping each other up in big bear hugs the bench staff followed the players out to the dogpile. We made our way through the crowd, hugging everybody in sight. Then we made our way toward center ice for the handshakes. This is still one of my favorite parts of the game. The fact that these guys, who were fighting each other tooth and nail just moments ago, can now shake hands as friends once the game is over embodies the great spirit and honor of our game. No matter what happened during the game, all is forgiven once the final buzzer sounds. It's what separates us from the other sports. There's a modicum of respect after the game (and the series) for a worthy opponent.

After the handshakes came the presentation of the cup, and the team pictures. We've all seen them...sweaty players, coaches, and staff posing deliriously around the cup. I've seen many of those pictures but never been a part of one before. It was everything I dreamed it would be. We took one facing our fans up in the stands so that they could all get a picture of it, then Peter MacDougall suggested turning around and taking a second picture from the other side so that you could see our fans in the background. I thought that was a very cool idea. Then we took the cup back to the locker room and the real celebration began. And yes, it was everything you would imagine from such a celebration...a water jug dumped on the Coach's head, beer and champagne being sprayed all over everybody, hooting and hollering, hugging, and high-fiving. Everybody took a turn drinking from the cup and posing for pictures with it. The players' wives and girlfriends were invited in along with a few parents and close family members. I'm actually quite amazed at the number of people we had in that little room. After a while, several of the guys took the cup out to our fans who were still waiting outside by our bus for us to come out. They got their chance to join in the celebration.

While most of the guys were outside with the fans, the room emptied out enough that we could finally start packing up. I had had Tyler gather up all the discarded gloves and helmets in a shopping cart and we wheeled them into the room to pass them back out. A few of the guys had already packed their bags without their gloves and helmets, so we just started tossing extra gear into any available bag. Finally, we got everything packed and loaded onto the bus so we could head for home. When we got back to Columbus, we dropped the gear off at the Civic Center. Since nobody was in any condition to drive home, the bus dropped us off at the apartments. The following week was kind of a blur of celebrations. We partied with the cup all around town. It was a blast, but after a while we had to come back down to earth.

In the month or so since that first week, I've had to say goodbye to most of the players. Most of them have gone home for the summer...some for good. But I'd just like to take a moment to thank everybody involved in this wild ride we had this season. From Wanda and Shelby to Jerome and Brad to Hannah and the locker room staff to all the players...this has been the best team I've been a part of. And last but not least, thanks to all the fans who made it all possible. Thanks to all of you for my most memorable season.

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