Ben Werner shares what it feels like to watch your favorite sports team lose while sitting at a Starbucks drinking an Americano in South Korea, 13 time zones away.
Friday morning, my soul remained empty, the mix of desperation and anxious anticipation still fresh, raw even, as I sipped an Americano in the same Starbucks where summer soured.
My wife was at work, the kids were at school, and two days had passed since hockey heartbreak. Still, I thought I’d open my MacBook and magically fall two mornings into the past, but this time into a past with an alternate ending to game six of the NHL playoffs between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
That Wednesday morning here in Busan, South Korea, a world away and 13 time zones removed from the Tuesday night thriller in Pittsburgh, I sat eyes fixated on my MacBook streaming the game and white knuckling the Starbucks table. I sucked down a succession of Venti Americanos. Noise-cancelling headphones left me alone with the announcers’ voices and the thunder of bodies hitting boards. I was an island muttering feverishly amidst an ever-churning sea of Korean wives chatting over coffee.
After falling behind 3-0 early in the second period, the Capitals improbably pulled back into the game. Hope crept into my lexicon while trading instant messages with my sister. She conceded to being almost too afraid to keep watching. But she had also felt a hint of hope and worried about inadvertently jinxing things.
“DO NOT MOVE FROM THAT STARBUCKS,” my sister messaged me. “AND KEEP TALKING TO YOUR COMPUTER.”
During a furious five-on-three Washington power play with only 7:57 left, I briefly wondered how I’d arrived here.
Okay, the Starbucks was easy to explain. On Wednesday mornings, the cleaning lady casts me out of our apartment. Starbucks is the nearest Wi-Fi spot where I can comfortably spend a few hours.
Why did my soul lift with each Washington offensive zone push, or sink during each Capitals defense of a Penguins attack? I’ll likely never cross paths with any of the players. If the Capitals win it all, I won’t get a bonus. I won’t even attend a game until we return to the States, just before the 2017-18 season, when I expect this current lineup will have long been broken up.
Yet, my intensity never waivered. At this moment, Washington trailed 3-2 in a “win or go home” game for them. Win, and force a game seven. Lose, and it’s an early summer in Moscow, Alberta, Sweden, Massachusetts, or wherever else the team’s players spend their offseason. I kept thinking, Caps must score, Must, MUST.
Plus, I shouldn’t be muttering in a Korean Starbucks. No, the kids should be home with a sitter; my wife and I, along with my sister, her husband, and other friends, should be crowding a small table, inhaling sliders, fries, nachos, moderately-priced draft imports, shouting at flat screens with all the other red-clad fans in a D.C. sports bar. Instead, I nervously dipped rice cakes in citron-pear jam, guzzled Americanos, traded messages with my sister in the States, and my wife glanced at her mobile in between meetings at work.
Then, Washington’s veteran star, team captain Alex Ovechkin sent a pass to key off-season acquisition T. J. Oshie.
“FUCK YEAH!” suddenly, reflexively, uncontrollably blurts from my mouth, probably way too loud. But who cares. Washington tied the score 3-3, after being in a 3-0 hole midway through the game.
And yes, a few Korean wives glanced at me. Until now, I’d doubt they’d even considered what the American was doing sitting at his computer. Did I offend? Was my sudden explosion of enthusiasm surprising?
Then again, this country foisted King of Mask Singer on the world—a weekly contest where current and past Korean pop stars compete head-to-head to see who can belt the most impassioned performance. Only, there’s a twist: the contestants are supposed to be anonymous, wearing the most elaborate masks and costumes ever imagined. Identities are only learned after a contestant is bounced from the competition. Audience members and judges seem to always be brought to tears during the ballads and when a loser is unmasked.
As regulation wound down, and the prospect of overtime grew more real, I started planning how to rearrange my Thursday and Friday so I could repeat this good fortune.
Superstition dictates with a Capitals win, I repeat my steps. Same T-shirt—blue with Caps logo on front, a block 8 and Ovechkin spelled in Cyrillic lettering on the back. Same seat. Same diet of multiple Americanos, rice cakes with citron-pear jam.
And then it all ended. Nick Bonino tapped the puck into the back of Washington’s net, advancing the Penguins to the conference championship, sending the Capitals home. As for that bottomless sinking feeling overwhelming me? It’s where Bonino’s shot landed, right in the brisket.