ITS GOOD TO BE A KING
For lack of better reference, think of the Central Hockey League like a Double-A baseball club. The guys on the team might have played in college, come from all over the known world, and -- realistically -- only a fraction have a chance to move up to one of the larger hockey leagues, including the NHL.
But the CHL is definitely a league, and the Memphis RiverKings, for the first time in its ten-year franchise history, are the CHL-league champions on the strength of Michal Stastnys goal at 5:48 into overtime. That game-winning shot lifted the Kings 4-5 over the Austin Ice Bats. The Bats had home-ice advantage, and the better league record. The Kings beat the Bats 4-1 in a best of seven series, at home.
The final game of the series had everything any sports lover could want -- except a capacity crowd. The DeSoto County Civic Center sported a meager attendance of little over 4,000. But the acoustics of that newly furbished round dome and the interest of the fans made the place feel full. In all sections one could see heads painted red and green, jerseys for the Kings and for their NHL affiliate the Toronto Maple Leafs, taped hockey sticks with multiple player signatures, and even teenagers sporting large black wigs in honor of one of the teams mascots, Thing.
There was also the play on the ice. These teams had not met each other during the regular season, but were old pals by the time Game Five rolled around. The trash talk was endless, the body checks were relentless, and no punches were pulled.
Alternately, both teams showed the skill that got each to the finals. Shifts flowed on and off the benches without falter, multiple substitutions flickered past the score table. The crowd could barely tell who was on the ice since the players moved on and off so fast. Like a human chess match at lightning speed, the Kings and the Ice Bats skated across the ice, waiting for that one moment to score.
In the second period, when the Kings went up 3-2, the Memphis squad formed a tight wedge down the right side, found numbers on the defense, and then shot the goal by Don Parsons (his 14th of the playoffs) to put the team up by one. The Ice Bats rallied with two of their own to start the third period, and the Kings would be heading back to Austin if not for King Kahlil Thomas, evening the score at four apiece.
Then came sudden-death overtime. No shoot-outs, no flip of the coin. Just out and out, whoever scores goes home a winner. For the Ice Bats, their backs were on the wall. For the Kings, this shot was their last to close the President Cup Finals at home.
I just said, hey, if we lose the game, we had our second chance, Kings coach Doug Shedden said after the game. Lets not sit on our heels. Lets go for it. Shedden, moments after winning his third CHL title, stood in his small office 20 feet from the ice rink, and next door to the sweat and champagne-drenched Memphis locker room. With a couple reporters in the room, Shedden had no problem ripping off his shirt and tie, and pulling on his championship tee-shirt. He then (and with as much enthusiasm) pulled out a Miller High-Life Beer from the fridge under his desk.
As any champ coach, Shedden was reflective. When you look back, the problem is that time flies and you dont remember when you last won. But it just gets sweeter. No one gets tired of winning, thats for sure. Its not easy going into a championship series and winning, you know? That was a great team that we played. We were short of hands, Holy Christ, we lost a lot of players, and we just kept going. We had a chance to win every night É I just said to our guys between the two periods that somebody in white was going to be a hero, and its going to be a goal youre never going to forget.
One reporter asked coach what he had to say about the condition of the ice. Sheddens response was heart-felt, if not politically correct. It was playoff hockey, what are you going to do? he asked in return. The ice was bad tonight, there were a lot of bouncy pucks. I dont know what to say. Im just fucking happy we won.
Outside, his players each celebrated by holding the Presidents Cup overhead, and the crowd cheered each in turn. Parsons had traded his cup for his baby daughter, who slept in his arms. Stastny, bewildered by his game-winning goal but still professional with the press, said all the right things. I shot from the right side, he said in accented but good English. I could have made the pass, but I decided to send it in. It was a good decision. When it goes in, its always a good decision. There are a lot of things in life. In sports, this is the greatest thing in my life.
Stastny was ever the gracious hero. I want to thank my coach, my manager, my trainer, everybody, he said. Without them, I couldnt be scoring that goal.
Outside of the DeSoto County Civic Center, SUVs and trucks took their sweet time rolling through the parking lot. Fans held hockey sticks in juxtaposition to three-hundred years of Southern history like victorious swords after battle. And everyone -- everyone -- pressed on horns, and drove slowly. These moments -- no matter how minor league -- make the strong into a sports fan, and the weak into a sports junkie. Last Sunday night, everyone who watched at the DCCC was definitely a King.