Garland Strickland has never missed a Missouri Mavericks home game, or the season-ending goodbye party.
But the 79-year-old fan said Friday night's affair at the Independence Events Center was the most difficult he has been a part of since the team came to Independence in 2009.
“I was hoping the cream that rose to the top of the CHL would last a little longer in the playoffs,” said Strickland, as he made a point of shaking the hand of every player on the team while his wife, Judy, collected their autographs on a shirt.
“That last game was so tough. I still remember their faces as they skated off the ice - I'm a grown man and it almost made me cry. It still almost makes me cry, and it happened last Tuesday. Toughest loss to end a season ever - yet the boys still make a point of telling us all goodbye. That's why I love them and why I love this team.”
More than 1,500 fans filled the east end of the Independence Events Center. Many were hoping to be attending a second-round playoff game, but that didn't happen because Arizona stunned the No. 1 seed 4-3 in double overtime to claim a four games to two victory in the opening round of the playoffs.
“I couldn't read your game story from Tuesday night until today, because I knew it was going to make me cry,” said season-ticket holder Debra Howard, who watched every Mavericks game this season at the IEC or at a watch party.
“I yelled and screamed and rang my bell so hard my wrist hurt - home or away - and tonight we get to say goodbye to our boys. We love 'em, all of 'em.”
Tracy Rogers attended the event with her daughter, and managed a smile or two.
“What's so bittersweet about this event is that you don't know if you're saying goodbye to a player you may never see again,” Rogers said. “But you come, and you smile and you hope for the best.”
Todd Johns, a longtime season ticket holder who became a sponsor this season with his new Plowboys restaurant in Blue Springs, agreed with Rogers.
“Am I shaking a player's hand I have become really good friends with, not knowing that I will ever see him again?” asked Johns, who came with his wife Audrey and sons Michael and Christian. “If so, then that sucks, because you get so close to these kids, you want them to all come back next season.
“We know that's not going to happen, but the team does such a good job of having the players go into the community that you hate to say goodbye. Especially after a loss like Tuesday night's game. The players know me, and they know my boys and they make a point of going out of their way to say hello every time they see us. That's why they are the biggest thing in Eastern Jackson County.”
Season ticket holder Jack Major forced a smile through most of the night, but admitted, “I just feel melancholy. This was supposed to be our year. They played so well in the regular season and then played well in the playoffs, but blew that 3-1 lead in the third period Tuesday night and lost two double overtime games.
“I know how bad the players must feel because everyone here feels bad, too. This is such a first-class organization and we hope that someday we get to say goodbye after a win, and not a loss.”
That's the dream of team president Brent Thiessen, who greeted fans at a table alongside coach Scott Hillman.
“To a man, the season ended too early - far too early,” Thiessen said, as he helped his staff clean up some of the auction items from the south hallway. “We have the best fans in the CHL, and they prove it year in and year out.
“They were wonderful tonight, so positive and so caring. Sometime, and we all hope it's soon, we're going to have a year-end celebration. And I can't wait for that to happen.”