PITTSBURGH - It is hard to remember how many of these hallways you have walked down in a quarter-century. They are all different and yet all the same. The faces change but the hard, stunned looks that are etched into them really do not. Losing is losing, whenever it happens.
You avoid eye contact with some of the people because, well, you just do. It seems safer. To some of the others, you offer a shrug or a couple of quiet words, all of them a variation on "Good season." The sport or the year doesn't matter; "Good season." Nothing you can say to any of them is the least bit meaningful. The scoreboard overshadows all.
Twenty-five years. One hundred flips of the professional sporting calendar. Baseball missed one World Series and hockey missed one Stanley Cup along the way, but the time was still the time, the pages on the calendar still turned, the boxes were still marked off with red X's, day after fallow day.
Twenty-five years. One hundred seasons without a major professional Philadelphia champion. From the 1983 Phillies to yesterday's loss by the Flyers in the NHL Eastern Conference finals. From the Wheeze Kids to "Why Not Us!"
And in the end, with all of the talk of overachieving and bright futures and what not - talk that evaporates into the ether as soon as the words are spoken - you are left with the difficult, unalterable truth. As Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher said, "We lost. That's the bottom line."
The score yesterday was 6-0, Pittsburgh. The Flyers, who have kind of specialized in these elimination self-immolations in recent years, were taken out by the Penguins in five games. It was not a surprise.
That the Flyers overachieved this spring, one season after finishing last in the NHL, pretty much goes without saying. Beating Washington in overtime of Game 7 to win Round 1, blitzing Montreal in five games in Round 2, the Flyers were so deep into the house money by yesterday that they were considering a consultation with Charles Barkley's attorneys.
So it was good. And Hatcher - the onetime team captain of a Cup winner in Dallas - did say, "As bad as it is to lose, the taste [of a playoff run] tends to drive you a little more."
Which is all fine, and all now vapor.
You do the interviews by rote. You do them over a quarter-century in buildings named after veterans and airlines and beers and banks. They tend to know the questions before you ask them and you tend to know the answers before they reply, but the dance is a necessary part of the ritual. You ask them to look back and look forward, often ignoring the awfulness of right now. They tend to comply.
"It's still pretty early to reflect - I'm still extremely disappointed in the way the game finished up and the season finished up," Flyers center Mike Richards said. "We overcame so much this year . . . Coming to the rink was fun every day. But it's still disappointing."
His eyes betrayed the reality - exhaustion, almost a glazed-over sensibility, just a numbness. They told you that looking back and looking ahead meant nothing to Mike Richards, that it was all about that one moment, that losing moment.
It has been the hardest truth to learn in this quarter-century, in these hundred seasons - that there is no carryover from season to season, that momentum is for chumps. The notion of a methodical building process, of one result somehow guaranteeing a better result in the future, is pure myth.
Once upon a time, you could write a column about Ed Snider and Bob Clarke being able to stand there and see to the horizon after the first playoff run by Eric Lindros - but you read it now and laugh. And think back to all of the times that all of us used the phrase "52 yards away" when talking about the early Eagles under Andy Reid, or talked about how it was somehow meaningful that Donovan McNabb sneaked back to watch the St. Louis Rams celebrate a trip to the Super Bowl, to immerse himself in the experience. It was all such naivete.
There is no carryover. There is no link between deserving it and winning it. There is no such thing as "it's our turn." There are no rules about this, no laws - especially, in the case of Philadelphia sports teams, no law of averages.
There are just these hallways - some wide and spacious and spanking-new, others old and twisted, like here at Mellon Arena. Everybody squeezes over so an equipment guy wheeling a trunk can get through. Then everybody moves again for a hurrying camera guy. There are many people with their heads down, in a big rush to get nowhere.
Peter Luukko walks out of a room, almost bumping into you.
"Step one," said the Flyers' president, who began talking about the whole building thing because that is what club executives do - build and scheme and then see their plans set aflame by bad injuries and bad bounces.
Anyway, Luukko talked about "adding a piece here or there," and the value of this experience for a young team. But his face betrayed him, too.
"Still hurts," he said.
That is the only thing, after a quarter-century and a hundred seasons, that we know for sure. *
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