Thursday, May 16, 2013

Hockey Night in Punta Cana

punta cana beach
The Leafs made the playoffs for the first time in nine years and I almost missed it.

With how the series came crashing down catastrophically at the end, maybe that would have been for the best. But even after enduring insanely improbable heartbreak, the Leafs at least had a chance. And after nearly a decade lost in the bleak wilderness of apathy, I wouldn't trade this season, ending and all, for another lottery finish.

I almost missed the most relevant Leafs hockey in nine years because I was invited to a destination wedding in Punta Cana that inconveniently coincided with games 3-6.

Tip for anyone thinking about getting married: Book it before or after the playoffs, even if you're an Oilers fan and the chances of your wedding interfering with the playoffs is nil (Hey! I can make fun of other teams that don't make the playoffs now and it feels great). Otherwise, make accommodations for your insane hockey friends. For example, I went to a Stag and Doe on the night of Game 2 and one of the groomsmen brought his satellite dish from home and hooked it up so no one had to miss the game (or, more likely, the Stag and Doe). If you're having your wedding this might interfere with things like speeches, but just crank up the volume during intermission and it'll be like Don Cherry is giving you a personal wedding toast. "Keep your stick on the ice, even in the bedroom."

Bringing a satellite dish to Punta Cana probably wasn't going to happen, not that I was worried when I was first invited. I've had my plane tickets booked since last Autumn, well before the NHL lockout even ended, so I initially didn't think my trip south would be anything other than blissful. I wasn't overly optimistic about Toronto's chances heading into the season either, so even when the lockout ended I didn't think a trip in early May would be an issue. There are 10-year-old children who didn't even know the Leafs were allowed to play hockey in May. But as the season crept along, and the Leafs continued to pile on wins, I began to slowly realize that this trip was going to prove challenging.

For normal people, taking a trip to an all-inclusive resort with beautiful sunny weather would wash away any thoughts about a hockey game. Unfortunately, as a Leafs fan, I'm far from normal, and I was in a slight panic. Where was I going to watch the game? Was there an ESPN5 that would at least show some highlights, albeit after three hours of football and basketball coverage? How could I argue with bartenders about the merits of Jake Gardiner over Mike Kostka if I couldn't speak a lick of Spanish (other than "dos cervezas por favor").

After a win in Game 2, it became even more imperative that I watch this series. It was actually going to be a series, not a one-sided beating like many predicted. Luckily, there was a good contingent of Leafs fans going to the wedding, so I wouldn't be alone on my quest to find hockey.

And a quest it was. Here is how my (possibly hazy) memory recalls the week.

Game 3

The second night of the trip and there is a good contingent ready to bolt out of dinner early to track down the Leafs by any means necessary.

There is a sports bar at the resort, so the matter should be simple. Not really the any-means-necessary solution I expected. I've already seen plenty of people wearing Toronto Blue Jays hats, so I can only assume this resort gets a lot of Canadians. And we Canadians, although polite and mild-mannered by nature, are demanding and pushy when it comes to hockey. Give us hockey or give us death, as our founding fathers once said. Accordingly, this resort must have some extensive satellite package that has all sorts of different flavours of CBC, maybe even some off-brand ESPN that carries hockey illegally, for no other reason than some drunken group of Canadians threatened to commandeer the resort if they didn't get to watch a mid-season Leafs-Habs game on a random Thursday night.

Our group was decked out in Leafs gear—there was even a 30+ degree weather—and wolfed down what may have been the best steak I've ever eaten and dashed off to the "sports bar". I'm using quotations to imply that this sports bar was not really a sports bar. Sure, there were some pool tables and a huge TV, but that TV was one of three (the others decidedly smaller) in the entire bar and was showing basketball. Another was showing a Latin Lover knockoff. And right as we walked in, the two guys playing pool broke the news: "No Leafs game."

The Spanish soap opera I could deal with. The basketball I could ignore. But the "No Leafs game" was unacceptable. The lone bartender was sympathetic, although completely befuddled by our rapid-fire, deranged English, and handed over the remote. Alas, the extensive satellite was only the normal satellite we got in the rooms, meaning no sports—unless you want to count basketball or soccer.

We weren't discouraged, however. After a few drinks and a conversation with a New York Rangers fan who dropped at least three f-bombs per sentence, we left with a plan. Good news: Someone in our group brought an iPad and the lobby allegedly had free WiFi. Great, to the lobby! Bad news: It was an iPad mini and the numbers in the group were swelling. Good thing I'm wearing glasses.

Well, the free WiFi that was advertised was actually free in the sense that you paid money and then the internet worked freely. Whatever. We are in too deep at this point. So we buy some internet, crank up the iPad mini and attempt to stream the game at Oh, wondrous CBC, how grateful we are that you are freely distributing your games in crystal-clear HD and...Flash doesn't work on the iPad. Curse you, Steve Jobs. And Flash is required to watch the game on any other site we can think of too, even the ones that will certainly riddle this iPad with computer herpes.

Behold! All of a sudden a Leafs fan in the jersey appears, drawn to the swarm of his fellow brethren. He has surely come to ease our sorrow. He tells us he has a computer. Computers can play Flash. And we have internet paid for. How fortuitous. He leaves with the promise to return. How can we not trust him, he's wearing a Leafs jersey.

The minutes pass slowly. Slow enough that my Spanish has improved to "diez cervezas por favor". Drinks are now ordered in bulk.

Eventually, we realize we have been hoodwinked by one of our own. He's not coming back. Maybe he was a Sens fan in disguise and planned to rip off his Leafs jersey Hulk Hogan-style to reveal an Alfredsson jersey.

At this time we're also receiving text updates from someone's brother at home. It's 4-1 Bruins. Reimer is looking shaky. I don't believe it, Reimer is the heir to the throne. But an iPad check of the score doesn't lie. I still don't believe Reimer was shaky.

We should probably give up and salvage the night.

Wait! There is a couple sitting with their computer on a lounge couch. I know we've given up, but I notice (read: creep) that they're checking scores on TSN. After introducing myself ("Hey! Are you trying to watch the game?") I let them know that CBC is streaming the game. They're both from the east coast of Canada. She's a Habs fan, he's a Leafs fan and they're making a go of it. I refrain from telling them it will never work because you can't date within your division and watch painfully as CBC fails to load on our jungle internet.

Night over. Much like the Leafs, we've been defeated.

To the bar.

Game 4

Undeterred by our futile attempt to watch Game 3, we're back at it a few nights later. We should come back stronger. We know what works (the internet!) and what doesn't (everything else, apparently). But we're resourceful, found the computer lounge and paid for some internet time, and grew up knowing you can find anything you want on the internet—for free.

So we do.

It isn't CBC, but we find a site streaming every sport imaginable going on at that moment. Underground Thai face kicking will have to wait, because after a few botched links we find a stream for Bruins-Leafs, Game 4.

It works. Thank you, James Reimer's Mennonite god. We are watching the Leafs. A cheer goes up. It must be pretty loud because we can't hear the game. We can't hear the game after the cheer dies down, either. No sound on this site, which at least means no Glenn Healy, so we'll just have to add our own commentary for added entertainment.  A tray or two of drinks later and we're set for at least a period.

But there are other problems, one of which isn't as incurable as the soundless feed, but is just as persistent. There are ads galore. Not ones on the site around the video. But ones that pop up incessantly over top of the actual video. There is definitely a Habs fan controlling them somewhere who waits for breakaways and big saves to throw a bright, flashing ad for Russian mail-order brides over top a Phil Kessel wrister.

But we're prepared; we have a secret weapon. My brother sits in the chair front and centre. Years of playing World of Warcraft are paying off huge. He's sniping the "x" on these ads with the precision of a Mariano Rivera cutter. Before we can even scream his name he's taken care of the ads.

The stream stalls every now and then, forcing us to find alternative links, but by the third period we've found a crisp video that plays smoothly throughout. Unfortunately, we didn't plan our internet buying wisely and are unprepared when our internet locks us out with a few minutes left in the second. We miss goals by David Krejci and Clarke MacArthur. Dumb-asses.

Third period underway. The jokes are flying, the drinks and flowing, and the game is incredible. The Leafs of the regular season have somehow been replaced by a fast-skating, hard-hitting team that is actually giving the Bruins fits. The Leafs end the period outshooting Boston 14-7. WHAT WORLD AM I LIVING IN!?

Overtime is excruciating. The Leafs seem to be badly outplaying the Bruins and I'm getting scared. Years of watching Leafs playoff hockey, particularly against the Sens, has shown me that the team getting badly outplayed is eventually going to get a chance and will bury it. Eventually, no matter how many chances you get, if you can't put a team away, they put you away. David Krejci obliges and puts a nail in our hearts after a brutal Dion Phaneuf pinch.

Leafs are down 3-1, we got a pretty good gut punch, and the night is basically squandered. I wouldn't say it's over, but sitting around moaning about the loss for the next hour isn't exactly fun. But it's soothing. I'll need the practice.

Game 5

It's now well known we have figured out how to watch the Leafs 3000 km from home. We are taking over the entire internet lounge. There isn't a chair to spare. Too bad for the one couple that comes in wanting to check Facebook or Skype with their dog at home or something.

For the uninitiated we go through the long list of things wrong with watching the game. The screen is small. We can't go full screen because the internet here is precarious and going full screen knocked out our feed a couple of times. There is no sound. Don't even think about going to another site during the intermission, because the internet will die. There are ads that will interfere with your view. The internet lags and it will freeze. The freezing will definitely make you miss something crucial, so your imagination better be in top shape. It's just like trying to watch porn in the 56k modem era.

But everyone accepts the flaws of jungle internet because of LEAFS.

The internet was particularly laggy on this fateful night. Really, you haven't lived until you've sat in a cramped room with 10 people huddled around a tiny computer monitor watching a choppy stream that freezes every few minutes. Every time the video freezes we analyze what might happen based on who had the puck, what it looked like they were doing, and who was around them. "Well, you see here Chara is winding up for a slap shot, but clearly van Riemsdyk is going to block it and spring Kessel on a breakaway." Essentially every scenario ends with the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup.

We're also much smarter now. Drinks are ordered en masse during the intermissions, as is extra internet time. This baby can go to triple overtime and we'll still be fine.

Once again the Leafs are badly outplaying the Bruins, outshooting them 19-8 to start the game, and I'm finding myself loving everybody, even players I've slagged all year like Colton Orr and Tyler Bozak.

The Bruins reverse the momentum in the second, outshooting Toronto 17-10, but Bozak rewards my new appreciation with a beauty short-handed marker. I definitely have never called him "hot garbage", no sir, I definitely haven't done that. When Clarke MacArthur makes it 2-0 to open the third we're going crazy.

Then our crazy leads us to nearly develop severe mental health problems because the Leafs are protecting a lead in the third period. It's hard living. It's time to buckle in and let my stress consume me. Watching the Bruins pour it on in the third period nearly knocks me out.

The lag is getting so bad at this point we start missing more chunks of hockey than we watch. As the video painfully freezes on a Chara wind-up our next action is a triumphant Bruins team mobbing the captain. Either Chara just choke slammed Phil Kessel, or we missed a goal. Of course, the video works perfectly during the replay and we realize Kessel is alive, but the lead is cut in half.

All our faith is in Reimer right now. I promise to check out his Mennonite church if everything goes well. With 10 seconds left the puck goes back to Chara at the point and the VIDEO IS FROZEN. Mercifully, the next clip we see is Reimer raising his hand and praising God. Either God just struck down Zdeno Chara for being an abomination or the Leafs won.

The Leafs won. They live to fight another day. Pure elation. Pure relief.

The fatty foods, the alcohol, and the sun did a number on me over the week, but battling jungle internet to watch the Leafs stave off elimination may have taken the biggest toll on my life.

Worst of all, our flight leaves right before the start of Game 6 and the in-flight entertainment consists of prerecorded radio shows and a DVD movie. A few airline promo clips on the flight down announced the planes were all being upgraded and newer ones will come equipped with satellite TV in every seat. We can only pray to the Mennonites now.

Game 6

The Mennonites don't come through. Instead of hockey there is The Lucky One, a movie based on another cookie-cutter Nicklas Sparks book. I think it's about Tyler Bozak's time playing with Phil Kessel.

I just think happy thoughts.

As we begin our descent we are told it is a chilly 3 degrees in Toronto, but the Leafs hold a 2-0 lead late in the third. That's enough to warm our hearts. Cheers all around! And mistrustful glances for everyone who didn't cheer. After the plane lands our captain announces it's a 2-1 final for Toronto.

The Bruins try to leave Pearson later that night. Is it any coincidence that their plane had mechanical issues on the same night I was there? If you're the police, then yes. It definitely was a coincidence, just don't ask why there's an airplane engine outside my apartment.

But all that matters now is that there will be a game 7. I'll be back in Canada and capable of watching it on stunning HD. These are the things dreams are made of...

...And we all know how that worked out. Nightmares. Game 7s are the things nightmares are made of.

It's back to reality for me, and unfortunately, for the Maple Leafs as well.


D Papacosta said...

I don't follow hockey at all, but loved this story. Well told!

Matt Horner said...


Anonymous said...

As a Bruin fan, who you know very well, I really like this recount of a series that had a many twist and turns as Chubby Checker (age alert!)

Leafs are battle tested now like the Bs when they lost a 3 game lead/3 goal lead in 7th game and won Stanley next year - be strong Leaf fans, the best is yet to come.

Jordan said...

Awesome Story, Horner

Matt Horner said...


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