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Road Run to Reading

I am annually in attendance at upwards of 100 hockey games including preseason, regular season, playoff and youth hockey games. I’ll never tire of watching the game in person; it’s best served live.


On Sunday, I attended Game 2 of the ECHL Kelly Cup final between the Reading Royals and the Stockton Thunder at Sovereign Center in Reading. For me what was rare and sublime about Sunday’s game was the company. I attended the game with my son Mac, and it’s the first live game we’ve watched together – just he and I – in more than three years. Most of the games we “attend” together, I’m working or he’s playing. We’re left to dissect what happened on the ice later.


At this time 15 years ago, the Capitals were in the midst of what is so far their lone run to the Stanley Cup final in the team’s 38-season history. For me personally the early weeks of that run were stressful and exciting, and not just on the ice. Right between the second and third rounds that spring, Mac was born.


Those were – for me, at least – the pre-cell phone days. I did carry one of those ancient pagers with me throughout most of the first two rounds of the playoffs, just in case my ex-wife went into labor during a game in those first two series against Boston and Ottawa. But Mac foreshadowed his good sense, waiting for the eight-day window between the second and third rounds that spring to make his debut.


From the time he was three or four years old, Mac was consumed by the game of hockey. He’d play knee hockey with mini-sticks in the house, and he started skating at the age of three and playing hockey shortly thereafter. Organized youth and travel hockey followed that, and Mac has been playing for a decade now. He’s been playing with a lot of the same kids over that span and the group of them have become thick as thieves on and off the ice. They hang out frequently at and away from the rink, and I’ve had the good fortune to develop lasting relationships with the parents of these kids as well.


Mac attended his first Caps game at Verizon Center before his first birthday, so he doesn’t remember it. That’s a good thing. With less than two minutes remaining in regulation, the Caps led the Calgary Flames 4-2 on third-period goals from Adam Oates and Brendan Witt.


That 1998-99 Caps team was decimated by injuries throughout the season, so the outcome of this March 13, 1999 game was more or less meaningless to us locals by that point. Calgary’s Valeri Bure scored with 1:30 left to cut the lead to 4-3, and Jeff Shantz scored with 32 seconds left to send the game into overtime. Bure tallied again at 3:31 of the extra session, giving the Flames their third goal in a span of just 5:01 and a 5-4 victory.


Within a few years, he was regularly attending and savoring games at Verizon Center. By the time of the 2004-05 lockout, he was old enough and aware enough to miss it. He really started to sink his teeth – at least the ones he had – into the game during that 2005-06 season after the lockout. I remember telling him then that playoff hockey was an entirely different entity, and one that he would certainly enjoy when he got a chance to see it. That conversation came with a qualifier; the Caps clearly weren’t going to be in the playoffs for a while and I made that clear.


“Well,” came the response, “could we go see a playoff game somewhere else then?”


Given the option of having an organized birthday party with many of his pals or hitting the road for a Stanley Cup playoff game with his pops, Mac opted for the latter.


For his eighth birthday, Mac and I drove up to New Jersey to see the Devils host the Carolina Hurricanes in a second-round playoff game. The three-hour drive afforded us the opportunity to listen to a lot of music – another consuming passion for both of us – and to talk about this, that and the other thing along the way up and back.


Mac got to see a vintage Devils and Martin Brodeur performance; the Devils won 5-1. He also got the see the eventual Stanley Cup champions; Carolina went on to win the Stanley Cup that spring.


A year later, we repeated and expanded the adventure. We brought friends along and saw an even better game, and I documented the experience for the original iteration of this blog.


For the last six years, Mac and I have witnessed many of the same Caps playoffs games, but him from his seats and me from my press box perch. He and I never get to watch Caps games together, and quite often we don’t travel home together afterwards, either. As was the case for that 2007 Devils playoff game, Mac’s pals Stevie and Sean (back from his freshman year at U. of Vermont) accompanied him to last week’s Game 7 against the Rangers at the Phone Booth.


As a Caps fan, Mac has had his heart ripped out and stomped on more than a few times over the years, to the point where he now has a healthy immunity to it. He didn’t do well in the aftermath of the Game 7 loss to the Flyers in 2008. His presence at the 2009 Game 7 win over the Rangers the following spring remains a much more pleasant experience. But as is the case for most of us as sports fans, the early days of tears and angst after agonizing losses and playoff ousters give way to a new era of philosophical acceptance in the wake of bad beats.


As I drove Mac to his Baltimore home after the Caps’ last game of 2012-13, I suggested maybe we could take in a Kelly Cup final in Reading this weekend. Given the size of his ever-expanding social circle, the existence of a longtime steady girlfriend and the fact that Mac’s actual birthday was Saturday the 18th, I didn’t think he’d have much interest in going to a game or two with his old man.


He surprised me. We made tentative plans to go up to Reading for Games 1 and 2, and to stay over in the area on Saturday night. In the meantime, I got a text from his mom saying that they wanted to throw a surprise party for Mac on Saturday. I told her that Mac and I had made plans, and that we could now use those plans as a ruse to help facilitate the surprise.


Since the party was to be held at Stevie’s house in Baltimore County, I had Mac ask Stevie if he wanted to go with us to Reading. The plan was to collect Mac after his Saturday baseball doubleheader, and go to Stevie’s to pick him up and then head north for Reading.


We arrived at just before 6 p.m. Mac got out and went up to the door. Inside were his girlfriend, his mom, his sister, some pals from high school, most of the kids he has been playing hockey for the last decade and their parents. Surprised, he was.


His girlfriend baked a few dozen cupcakes, each with a stick and puck on the frosting and also adorned with the colors of his high school hockey team. I assured him that even though we clearly weren’t going to Reading for Saturday’s Game 1, we would be making the trek for Sunday’s Game 2.


Those of you who follow the game at the NHL level have heard and read repeatedly about what great guys hockey players are and how accessible they are to fans and media. I think it’s at least partially because hockey parents are some of the best people around. I know for sure the ones I’ve been associated with for the last decade or so are, and some of them have also coached Mac along the way. So we all had a great night, the kids and the adults. Just after midnight, my wife and I collected Mac and we headed back to D.C.


Around noon on Sunday, we embarked for Reading with a handful of freshly burned CDs for the trip. (Yeah, I know. But my .mp3 player is on the fritz.)


The last time Mac and I went to a game together – just the two of us – was in February of 2010 when we drove up to Hershey to take in a Bears game early in the NHL’s Olympic break that winter.


We made it from Cleveland Park to Reading in just under three hours. Parking was just five bucks. We walked inside and were pleasantly surprised by the wide array of good dining options. He went with the barbecue and I with the pizza and we settled in for warm-ups and line rushes. It was a new arena for both of us, and our first taste of live ECHL hockey in several seasons, too.


Having taken a wild 6-5 overtime decision in Game 1 the night before, the Royals came out with their foot firmly on the gas pedal. Alex Berry, Brett Flemming and T.J. Syner all scored for Reading in the first to stake the home team to a 3-0 lead. Riley Gill was solid – if mostly untested – in goal. Evan Barlow added another tally late in the second to make it 4-0, and that’s how it finished.


Mac and I stayed till the final horn, and we had a great time. I would heartily recommend the Reading game experience as a fun, affordable and – from a travel standpoint – relatively painless one for hockey hungry fans in the D.C. area. The problem is, I think you may have to wait until next season to take advantage of it. Reading leads the final series over Stockton 2-0, with the next three games slated for Stockton if it goes that far. Games 6 and 7 would be in Reading on Tuesday-Wednesday May 28-29, if necessary. There’s a fair chance that the Royals won’t have any more home games this season.


Our visit to Sovereign Center was followed by a leisurely drive home that included a stop for dinner at Sonic and Mac’s first hearing of the seminal Modern Lovers debut album. (He loved it; who doesn’t?) I dropped him at home in Baltimore, where we watched a bit of the Pittsburgh-Ottawa game together before I headed back to D.C.


Mac’s sister Cass graduates from high school next week and she will head off to college in Boston in the fall. I still remember watching TV in the hospital room when her mom was in labor and learning that Patrick Roy had been traded to Colorado. As Fairport Convention so succinctly put it, Who Knows Where the Time Goes?


Mac will follow in his sister’s footsteps all too soon. I’m not sure how many more father-son hockey pilgrimages we’ll have in the near future, so I’m savoring the ones we have had, yesterday’s in particular.


I’m also hoping the next time Mac and I are in the same building for a Cup final, it’s the Stanley Cup final and it’s much closer to home for both of us.