-- TORONTO -- Madeline Flynn didn't know I was watching her.
She was sitting in the rafters of the Air Canada Centre between two children, both blond, a boy and a girl. They were in their seats well ahead of Thursday's opening faceoff between Canada and Team Europe. Madeline was older, 70, I would find out, wearing a Canada T-shirt under her black jacket. The girl was sporting a Canada T-shirt, too. The boy was wearing a Sidney Crosby sweater, of course. A grandmother and her grandkids, I thought. Or hoped. Maybe they're the ones. Then Madeline took a big gulp of a beer, and I knew I had found my girl.
In my pocket, I had four great tickets to that night's game: Section 110, Row 12, Seats 1, 2, 3 and 4. Golds, toward one end of the ice, close enough to see and hear the action as though you were in it. In Toronto, the fans are in the upper reaches. The lower bowl is for the stiffs and the suits. It is a world devoid of children. One tiny socket of it was about to change.
It's a strange responsibility, choosing which strangers are going to be the lucky ones. I walked around the little catwalks and concourses at the top of the arena, hemming and hawing. I saw a father and a son, young, glasses, eager on the edge of his seat. I saw another father and son in matching Canada sweaters. I liked the way they were leaning into each other.
But then I saw Madeline, and her grandkids, and her beer. I was worried she would think I was a creep when I walked up to her, because I am kind of a creep. I asked her whether the kids were in fact her grandkids.
"Yes," she said. The girl was Siobhan, 11. The boy was Jack, 9.
Was it just the three of them there?
"Yes," she said.
Did they want to come watch the game with me down by the ice?
Madeline's face lit up like a firework. "Yes, yes, yes!" she said.
The four of us made our way downstairs. "I can't believe it," Madeline said. We came out of the concourse into the blinding white light of the ice. Not many seats were down the stairs in front of us. Thousands of them were up. We walked down.
Madeline took out her phone and took a picture. I asked if she was going to send it to anyone. "Absolutely," she said. She told me she has four sons, each hockey crazy. "I'm going to make them drool!"
By one of those miracles of fate, I had found the perfection that is Madeline Flynn. She was a stay-at-home mom. She had her four boys in a span of five years. They were a handful. There was an outdoor rink across the street from their house. "We went there every day," she said. "I loved every minute of it."
Her boys all grew up to play the game; now they are scattered across North America, but three of them still coach. A son who lives in New Brunswick floods a rink in his yard every winter; it's surrounded by old fishing nets strung through with lights. Madeline said it's filled with kids "from the time they get out of school until 10 o'clock at night."
She has nine grandkids, and they all play sports too. They call her Grammy. Siobhan is a center on her hockey team. I asked why she liked hockey.
"I like when they fight," she said. Her favorite player is Steven Stamkos.
Jack plays defense. What does he love?
"Bodychecking," he said. His favorite player was obvious from his sweater.
Madeline has spent thousands and thousands of hours watching the game. "I love the speed, the excitement and the fan participation," she said. "I just feel that I'm there. I'm never bored watching hockey." Her favorite player is Carey Price, "through and through," she said.
The game started. "It's so loud down here," Madeline said. I don't think I've ever seen people watch hockey as intently as Madeline and her grandkids. Their eyes never left the puck.
Madeline was subtle about it, but she used the play to pass on little lessons to Siobhan and Jack. They weren't always about the game. Or they were about the game but also about something larger.
Siobhan was worried Canada wasn't taking enough shots. "That's OK," Madeline told her. "You have to have quality shots."
Brent Burns tried to make a rush but lost the puck. "You can't do it alone," Madeline said. "That's why it's a team game."
John Tavares had a wide-open net in front of him and instead hit the post. "They don't know how much time they have," she said.
Madeline went to the washroom, and I told Siobhan how lucky she was to have such a great grammy. She nodded. "She is awesome," Siobhan said.
Team Europe carried a 1-0 lead deep into the third. I told Madeline that if she had to leave, that was OK. "Oh God, no," she said. "Are you kidding?" The kids were staying with her that night. I mentioned school the next morning. "They're going to be late," Madeline said.
There was maybe five minutes left. "I'm still hopeful," Madeline said. She asked the young woman in front of her to turn her hat inside out, which she did. "Now we have our rally cap!" Madeline said. "If we get one, we'll get two."
With 2:53 left, Patrice Bergeron got one.
Siobhan said something that I didn't hear above the roaring crowd, Madeline roaring with it. What did she say? "It's her positive energy," Siobhan said.
A little more than two minutes later, with less than a minute to go, Brad Marchand got Madeline's second, maybe 100 feet in front of her eyes. She was screaming on her feet, her grandkids jumping around beside her. She smothered them in hugs. She smothered me in a hug. It was one of the best hugs of my life. I told her I was so glad to have met her. I might have told her I loved her. Our eyes were maybe a little wet.
"I will never forget this!" Madeline cried over the noise of the crowd. "Absolutely wonderful!"
You don't know how much time you have.