In the family of major North American sports, ice hockey is the runt of the litter. It’s a foul weather sport in that neighborhood games demand a certain climate. It requires you to skate, which is far from the first thing most kids learn. Hockey is constantly looking up at its more marketable, successful older brothers. Football is king The Super Bowl makes all sorts of lofty claims about being the most watched sporting event in the world, which may or may not be true. But here in America, it’s practically a holiday. It’s kind of a big deal., baseball has nostalgia on its side, and basketball has the star power Not just on the court, but courtside as well. Spike Lee and Jack Nicholson are the most prominent examples, but Jay-Z is making waves with his involvement in the Nets’ relocation to Brooklyn. Hockey is seen as something of a niche market. If you grew up in the Northeast or Minnesota, it’s in your blood. If not, something had to happen to pique your interest.
Enter the NBA lockout. As games were cancelled and the player’s union decertified, it seemed a foregone conclusion that this year’s basketball season was a lost cause. David Stern clearly had it out for us. Billy Hunter had so little interest in bridging the impossible gap set by Stern and the owners, he’d channeled his inner Harrison Ford, warning Derek Fisher in Chinese to hold on to the rope bridge, making it poor
Shortround’s Derek’s turn to relay to the rest of the league, “Hang on, lady, we going for a ride.” And for those of us in the greater Los Angeles area, including one Editor-In-Chief as well as your author, it was even worse. The Zen Master was gone, Kobe was surely heading back to his birthplace of Italy, and the team’s third best player was a hop, skip, or a jump away from being played by Jay Pharoah in an SNL Kardashian sketch. Oops, too late. The Lakers, the best and brightest symbol of LA sports, were going by the wayside. What else did we Southern Californian sports fans have to fall back on? Football? Thanks for that, Al Davis (Too soon? No way; he’s actually been dead for years). Baseball? The Angels have been supplanted by the Rangers as the dominant AL West team and the Dodgers, Los Angeles’s other great imported legacy, is mired in controversy once again thanks to a suspect ownership. Hockey. Hockey must be the answer. After all, the Minneapolis Lakers of Los Angeles took a Minnesota staple and embraced it, and a Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem, Magic, Shaq, and Kobe later, they were one of the greatest franchises in sports history. Damn the basketball season, let’s all watch hockey!
And then the lockout ended. Phew. Crisis averted. David Stern and Billy Hunter are best friends again and everyone gets to open the same present Christmas morning: an abbreviated NBA season. I’m as happy as anyone to have basketball back in my life, to know that formative seasons in the careers of young stars like Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose won’t be lost in the money shuffling, that LeBron doesn’t waste another year of his prime, that Dirk Nowitzki gets to take his victory lap, and that Kobe doesn’t lose a twilight season in his run at some all-time NBA records. But something isn’t sitting right. I don’t trust this league. Both sides were so ready to throw away this season it became readily apparent they give less than two shits about the fans that support them. Football doesn’t care; they know that’s already money in the bank. And baseball, well they’re just plodding along, secure in the knowledge that with Barry Bonds gone, the gross abuse of the rules is no longer the everyday headline. These jerks know they have our money, and they expect us to stand by and watch as they fight over who gets the bigger cut?
I say no. I say here are five reasons why hockey offers something the other three major sports cannot: a genuine love affair with sports again. Winter is coming, and the cold brings something amazing.
Five Reasons Why the 2011-2012 NHL Season is Your Last, Best Hope.
One: Hockey Is The Only Sport In Which Fighting Is Allowed, You Are Given A Stick In Your Hand, And Knives On Your Feet.
This is the most obvious enticement. The violence of hockey gives it the macho credibility of football, but adds an olde-timey twist via the duelist’s Declaration of Intent that is the ceremonial dropping of the gloves. It’s almost gentlemanly. Almost. To most non-hockey fans, fights are the quickest way to inspire interest. The running joke, of course, is, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” Ha, fucking ha. It’s not so easy. Fights in the NHL have been the subject of not only amazing movies starring Paul Newman and three insanely iconic brothers If you’ve not already, I implore you to watch Slap Shot. Paul Newman proves without a doubt that a man’s prime is immeasurable (don’t even get me started on his leather jacket in that movie). Then there’s the Hanson Brothers, Ogie Oglethorpe, Eddie Shore, Old-Time Hockey, “Putting On The Foil, Coach”. I should go now, I’ll likely start crying soon., but also the increasingly alarming debate about concussions in professional American sports. Football is under fire, and last year hockey lost its most marketable star halfway through what was sure to be a runaway MVP season (as of this writing, he is still not on the ice I’m referring here to Sidney Crosby, the star center of the Pittsburgh Penguins and very possibly the greatest hockey player on Earth. As of this rewrite, he is not only returned to the ice for the first time in ten months, but tallied four points in his first game back, including a highlight-reel goal five minutes from the drop of the puck. He’s the kind of player Princess Leia makes video recordings to because he’s our best hope.). This problem is nowhere near a solution, but the fault is not in the fight, it’s in the players who disobey the checking rules. Checks in hockey are as exhilarating as anything in contact sports (c’mon rugby fans, we need you too!), and fights actually work toward the solution. While, as fans, our collective bloodlust may initially be attracted to the visceral spectacle that is a hockey fight, the real reason fighting makes hockey unique is in the sport’s ability to police itself.
(Once upon a time, basketball had a similar talent. Hard fouls were answered with hard fouls. If you drove the lane, you paid the price. The shift in rules in the past two decades has opened up chances for perimeter shooters and brought back some scoring to the NBA game, but too many games are being decided by referees. Bill Laimbeer would roll over in his—oh, he’s still alive? Nevermind.)
Hockey fights are simple. If you take a cheap shot at our best player, keep your head up. Every team in the NHL has a guy on the bench whose job it is to protect the talent. Seriously, if I’m making an honest bid to convince you to like hockey, what better way than to mention there is a position that is most often described as “enforcer”? More often than not, this keeps the elbows down. And when someone crosses the line, EVERYONE on the ice knows what has to happen. Often, players will warn the most likely opponent, even chat him up a bit, before the (literal) throw down. Again, fairly civil, despite the ensuing violence. And at the end of the fight, there’s a winner and a loser, but the teams are square, the penalties offset, and the feel of the game is irrevocably different.
Sure, the refs miss calls all the time, but the game is ultimately in the hands of the players, because they make it so. Imagine the brushback pitch in baseball, turned up to 11. The Golden Rule of Violence in hockey is, “Fuck with us, and pay the price.” It’s remarkably civil, but more importantly, keeps the refs’ whistles in their pockets. Bad calls happen, of course, but are lessened by the fact that refs aren’t taking heat from the league’s front offices every week. In basketball, the last three or four minutes of the game are an onslaught of whistles, either from fouls or strategic time-outs. In hockey, those moments are fast-moving and intense, and usually involve the sportscaster announcing the referees have “put away the whistle.” This is because the players took care of their shit on the ice and have the chance to play for the win. Straight up.
Two: Defense Can Be Sexy, or . . . Kick Save and A Beauty!
Everyone knows that “Defense Wins Championships” or that “The Best Offense Is A Good Defense” or that “Clichés Attempt To Make Boring Things More Interesting”. But in most sports, defense isn’t sexy. A well-defended soccer match is exactly the reason most Americans don’t watch the sport. Even long-time baseball fans decry a Pitcher’s Duel as “boring” (I dare you to watch Jack Morris’s 10-inning shutout in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series and say that to my face). But defense has its moments. Ray Lewis anticipating the snap, leaping over the offensive line and murdering someone in the backfield (allegedly, of course). Willie Mays going over the shoulder in the 1954 World Series. A backcourt steal by Kobe leading to a frenzy-inducing dunk. Once in a while, the crowd rises to the occasion and embraces a game-changing defensive play. They are things of beauty, a mix of opportunity, determination, a little bit of luck, but most importantly, remarkable athletic ability. The best defenders leap higher, run faster, catch better, and hit harder than their competitors. The good news for hockey fans: we’ve got these players at two-thirds of ice.
As with other sports, crowd favorites in hockey are usually offensive powerhouses, and, as is the case in baseball and basketball, are occasionally but not necessarily defensively gifted. However, hockey defensemen are as vital to creating scoring as they are to preventing it. Hockey is, after all, the only sport in which a defenseman is legitimately in the discussion for the Greatest Of All Time. Bobby Orr’s supremacy with the Boston Bruins in the 1970s makes a compelling argument against Gordie Howe and his six-team league and Wayne Gretzky in the offensively-saturated 1980s. He brought speed and skill to a position that was previously dominated by power and positioning. Now, it is all those things. The best defensemen not only deliver punishing open-ice hits, the kind that would inspire Conan the Barbarian to celebrate what is best in life “To crush your enemies. To see them driven before you. And to hear the lamentation of their women.”, but also make pinpoint outlet passes in the counter attack, quarterback the powerplay like a red-zone offense or a top-notch point guard, and routinely win the Hardest Shot Competition during All-Star Weekend. One would think the forwards, whose job it is to shoot, bring the most firepower, but no. For the past twenty years, names like Al Iafrate, Al MacInnis, Sheldon Souray, and hulking 6’9” Zdeno Chara all have consistently hammered those six ounces of vulcanized rubber over 100mph.
The brilliance of their defensive play, of course, should not be ignored. The combination of skill and power is more on display here than anywhere else. If the fights get the crowd, and the teams, fired up, the hits make their jaws drop. The boards are fixed with springs to give way to the weight of 200+ pound bodies crashing into them at breakneck speed. If a forward is trying to go wide and a defenseman lines him up properly, the boards will rattle and echo through the arena loud enough to drown out the most emphatic “Ooooooooooh!!!!!” the crowd can muster. A well-performed hipcheck is like a jujutsu throw, flipping the forward over the defenseman’s back like a deleted scene from Roadhouse. And a full-on open-ice hit? This is what I think of when I think of the word “juggernaut”. But the mark of a great defender is in the moments you don’t notice him. When he’s in the right position, playing his man smartly, they have no choice but to peel around and try again. Great defense is smothering and intimidating, and at the same time full of self-sacrifice. Those 100mph shots I referred to earlier? It’s a defenseman’s charge to dive in front of those missiles, without the benefit of 30 lbs. of goalie pads.
Speaking of goaltenders, they are, of course, the literal last line of defense. Plus, they’re just plain fucking cool. Their masks are inspired, they have nicknames like “Cujo” and “The Bhulin Wall”, they have gloves as quick as any shortstop, and when, every so often, they meet in the middle of the ice for the oh-so-rare goalie fight, holy shit it’s awesome. One could argue that the position of quarterback is the single most important position of any team sport, but credit for the win is not an official statistic in football. Hockey teams live and die by their goalies, and the proof is in the box score. A goaltender on a hot streak during the playoffs can win a Stanley Cup almost on his own, and in doing so will have to make so many miracle saves you may have to keep a defibrillator on hand. Anyone who wonders if watching a goalie can be exciting need only look up Dominic Hasek on YouTube. Perhaps you remember him from his MasterCard commercial. After tallying up the prices of his pieces of equipment, “having a slinky for a spine? Priceless.”
Three: Hockey Players Are Fucking Funny
Hockey players are great interviews, often coming off as remarkably coherent after two and a half hours of pounding each other into a puree of blood and ice shavings (a little-known and surprisingly refreshing Canadian summer confection). But in some cases, their post-game interviews and antics away from the ice are sublime. Add this to the comedy of hockey names in general and there is more than enough material away from the game to keep you entertained.
Let’s start with the names. The long-overdue influx of European players into the NHL over the past two decades and the pre-existing ridiculousness of Canadia in general provide for a murderer’s row of giggle-worthy material. Sure, it’s totally juvenile and asinine, but if you’ve read this far, you must realize by this point, so am I. We’ll go with the old school first, because Gump Worsley and Punch Imlach are badasses in any era. One was a Rookie of the Year, four-time Cup Champion, two-time Vezina Trophy winner (for Best Goaltender), and a Hall-of Famer, all with the name “Gump”; the other a Hall-of-Fame coach also with four titles to his credit. How are the new guard to live up to this high standard? With gems like Jeff Beukeboom, Larry Playfair, Saku Koivu, Radek Bonk, Cal Clutterbuck, and Jonathan Cheechoo (the greatest First Nations Native American player of all time). Admit it, you’re enjoying this at least as much as a game recap starring D’Brickashaw Ferguson. The reigning heavyweight champion of hockey names remains, however, the great Miroslav Satan. Sure, it’s pronounced Sha-TAN, but when you see a headline in the morning paper that reads “Satan’s Overtime Goal Topples Devils”, it’s a wonder of both delight and confusion. Admittedly, he is currently playing in Europe and at age 37 does not have a great window to return to the NHL, but fear not, hockey fans, I’m sure the next Great Satan is just around the corner.
Satan, and so many of the European players, fumble in their interviews with laughable broken English that only makes them more endearing, but to a select few players, the post-game interview is a work of art. Consider the (former) tag-team combo of Raffi Torres and Ryan Kesler. Torres has bounced around from team to team during his career and only played one season in Vancouver, where Kesler has played since the team drafted him in 2003. Torres is the most photogenic person in all of hockey, and by photogenic, I mean whenever someone points a camera at him, he looks bat-shit crazy. There are entire websites dedicated to photos of Torres, especially of a particularly Sonic the Hedgehog-like pose photoshopped into increasingly inappropriate situations. Google him if you dare. Kesler, on the other hand, excels at ruining his fellow players’ interviews. That is to say, he is the king of hockey photobombs, only he chooses to do them on live television, usually with a slice of pizza in his hand. Add Kesler’s dry, pizza-fueled wit to Torres’s crazy eyes and you may find yourself looking forward to the post-game almost as much as the game itself (and who knows, maybe more?).
Four: The Kids Are Alright
Here is a list of the last ten number one overall draft picks in the NHL:
- 2002 – Rick Nash (5 All-Star Game selections, 2004 Goal Scoring Title (tie), 2010 Olympic Gold Medal, 2007 World Championship Gold Medal/MVP)
- 2003 – Marc-Andre Fleury (2009 Stanley Cup Champion goaltender)
- 2004 – Alexander Ovechkin (4 All-Star Game selections, 2006 Rookie of the Year, 2008-2009 Goal Scoring Titles, 2008 Overall Point Scoring Title, 2008-2009 MVPs)
- 2005 – Sidney Crosby (4 All-Star Game selections, 2010 Goal Scoring Title (tie), 2007 Point Scoring Title, 2007 MVP, 2009 Stanley Cup Champion, 2010 Olympic Gold Medal (scored medal-winning goal))
- 2006 – Erik Johnson (2007 Under-20 All-Star Game/Best Defenseman)
- 2007 – Patrick Kane (2 All-Star Game Selections, 2008 Rookie of the Year, 2010 Stanley Cup Champion (scored Cup-winning goal))
- 2008 – Steven Stamkos (2010 Goal Scoring Title (tie))
- 2009 – John Tavares (24, 29 goal seasons)
- 2010 – Taylor Hall (22-goal rookie season)
- 2011 – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Hat trick in his third NHL game)
Holy shit, are hockey scouts good or what? Multiple MVPs, scoring champs, goals leaders, Stanley Cup winners, Olympic Gold Medal winners, and their careers are just starting. It’s like the 1980s Edmonton Oilers all over again, except spread throughout the whole league. If the development and success of Ovechkin, Crosby, Kane and Stamkos is any indication, Tavares, Hall, and the Nooge are gonna be awesome this year, next year, and for who knows how long? For the past five seasons, the Best Player On Earth discussion has been divided between two players who made their debuts only the year before, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Until Steven Stamkos came along and started scoring goals at an obscene rate. The list of overall number ones doesn’t even include Evgeni Malkin, the 2007 Rookie of the Year and 2009 Scoring Champion and Playoff MVP. For all intents and purposes, the kids have taken over the NHL. Of course, a few savvy veterans can’t help but put them in their place every once in a while (I’m looking at you, Nicklas Lidstrom). It’s not his fault, he’s one of the best defenseman who ever lived, and he appears to never age. But it’s an exciting time to be a hockey fan when the established veterans are being challenged by young, fast, and equally, if not more, talented youngsters fighting to prove themselves. Everyone has to up their game and we as fans have the most to gain.
Five: Too Much Hockey For Three Periods…
Hockey is, comparatively, a low scoring game, which ups the percentages exponentially for ties at the end of regulation. People hate ties. Ties are boring. You know what isn’t boring? Shootouts! Until recently, the only sport to figure out how to make a regular season overtime game compelling was basketball. Football overtimes are a bad joke, but thankfully are rare enough we don’t notice most of the time. Baseball lasts too long at nine innings thanks to the fidgety back and forth between pitchers and batters, so what could be better than to add inning after inning of poorly managed games with increasingly tired arms? Hockey was the only sport with ties. The purists liked the ties. The casual fan did not. So hockey made this compromise. The game ends and each team gets a point in the standings as if the tie had occurred, but we’re all still here, so let’s keep playing why not? (Hockey fans have a bizarre sense of diction, it’s a Canadian thing.) A short overtime and if it’s still tied, the most exciting play in hockey. One shooter. One goalie. One-on-one. Who doesn’t want to see that? The purists, you say? After a few seasons of it, I say thee nay. My father (who grew up in Minnesota, the hockey hotbed of America) and I, who I suppose have to be put into the category of hockey purists, have found ourselves hoping that games would end up tied, just for the possibility of a shootout. If this isn’t the biggest endorsement of the current NHL game, I don’t know what is. Shootouts are awesome. The array of different moves the scorers try, the acrobatic spasms the goaltenders resort to in an attempt to react on time, the tension with every shot…
…it’s too much hockey for three periods.
Which brings me to the playoffs. Playoff hockey is the most tension-driven, fingernails-digging-into-the-armchair, jump-out-of-your-seat, heart-stoppingly tortuous thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen A Clockwork Orange, Alien, and most of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography. Every goal is an event. If the final score is going to be 4-3, no lead is safe. Everything has that much more weight in the playoffs. Everything I’ve mentioned in this article to this point (with the possible exception of photobombs and Satan) is amplified tenfold. Everyone finishes his check. Everyone skates until he can’t skate anymore. Hockey is a sport of constant motion and during the regular season, that motion is bone-jarring and muscle-burning and riveting. During the playoffs, that motion is inhuman. Players throw themselves into the boards so hard you forget there’s another player in between. Forwards backcheck so furiously you think the guy they’re chasing has the antidote stashed in his pads. Every inch, every tip of the puck, every time the goalie turns his head the wrong way for just a second, changes everything…
…and when overtime comes around, which it always does, the increase in intensity hurts your teeth. Every cross-ice pass is a lump in your throat. Every shot is a skip in your heartbeat. Every save makes you stand up and scream at the television, out of frustration or joy, “Holy fucking shit, did you just see that!?!” If you’ve never watched playoff overtime hockey, no, I’m not exaggerating. If you have, I’m sorry I’m being so timid, I know it’s more intense than that, but I don’t want to scare them away.
The football and baseball playoffs reward the teams with the best records in that fewer teams get to come to the show. Football’s one game/one chance scenario is great; baseball has had some steroid-induced nail-biters (2004 was great, wasn’t it?). But when it comes to overtime, there’s no comparison. Hockey’s closest relative is basketball. Their schedules are similar, the movement of the players is similar, but if it’s tied at the end of four quarters, basketball turns into football and becomes a game of clock management. Because of the constant likelihood of a score on both ends, whoever manages the clock best wins. (Yes, of course, you still have to make your shots, but the clock should only matter when it reads 0:00.) Hockey playoff overtimes are riveting from the drop of the puck, and defy all claims that scoring equals entertainment value. The longer an overtime lingers, the greater the tension. The most exciting game I have ever watched was a 1-0 four overtime marathon in which Dominic Hasek and Martin Brodeur battled each other from 190 feet away for 125 minutes and 43 seconds. One goal. That’s was all it took to extend the series to a seventh game, but Hasek’s Buffalo Sabres had to fight for that goal harder than seems possible. It was beautiful.
While we’re on the subject of the beauty of extra time, I would be remiss if I did not mention the presentation of the greatest trophy in sports, Lord Stanley’s Cup. The history of the Cup is long and actually kind of boring, but the Cup itself is an object of such reverence that it brings grown men to tears. The Cup is presented to the Captain, and the thing must weigh 30-40 lbs. (it weighs 34 and a half, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t feign ignorance at being a total hockey nerd after 4,000 words), but he lifts it like it was a pillow full of down feathers and jelly beans. He shakes it once or twice, just in case there really are jelly beans in there, kisses the engravings of every player who’s ever won it before This is also the first time the captain has even dared to touch the cup, as hockey players refuse to touch the thing until they’ve won it. Similarly, while legitimately elated at punching their tickets to the Stanley Cup Finals during the award ceremony for the respective Conference victories, they refuse to touch those trophies as well. They didn’t come so far just for a ticket to the dance. The Cup is the only thing that matters., and starts a lap around the rink, handing the Cup over to the next player, and then the next, and the next. Every member of the roster gets a turn, each playoff beard Each sport has its own Hall-of-Fame of facial hair. The 1970s were especially awesome in this respect. Hockey, however, makes it an annual tradition. sprinkled with ice shavings and tears. These are hardened men, but at this moment, they seem like boys. Hairy, delirious boys. And so they pass the cup, blind in their euphoria, until they all realize the importance of what they’re holding. Only the greatest trophy for the greatest contest of the greatest sport. And jelly beans. There really are jelly beans in there.