I watched Game 7 of the Stanley Cup last night. Better late than never right? Well, in my defense, I had some legitimate reasons for missing most of the playoffs and a solid portion of the Cup, but I found the game absolutely riveting and it wasn’t even a close game. I have never really been a hockey fan, mostly because there is no NHL team in my city (Indianapolis) and the closest NHL Teams have issues. The Blackhawks have fans that don’t shut up where I attend college (Marquette) and there is very little appealing about the city of Columbus and the Blue Jackets. Regardless, the point is that here I was, not really a fan of hockey, riveted to a Game 7 that didn’t even feature a fantastic game or a superstar/guy everyone would recognize. For those of you saying “The Sedin twins are almost to that level”, I say to you, “They were on the ice? I didn’t notice with the way they were playing”. Hell, Daniel wasn’t even tacitly accepting Brad Marchand’s fist like in Game 6. So why the hell was I glued to my TV and able to even understand large parts of the game and analyze it a bit without knowing much about the sport? Probably for the same reasons I liked it: there were elements of many others sports I liked all rolled into one icy, hard-hitting spectacle.
Are you a football fan? If you are a US citizen, chances are that you are. You probably enjoy, among other things, the hits, the battles in the trenches, and the fact that in the game, finesse gets you nothing without a side of physicality. Well, hockey has all of that. We all know about the hits, but consider for a second the idea of trying to screen the goalie off by posting up in front of the crease. You are trying to hold your ground, err I mean ice, with people trying to push you off it or just knock you down in a sneaky way. The reward for winning this battle in the trenches? The chance that a teammate could shoot the puck more or less at you with the chance you can deflect it past the goalie, all while trying to win the physical battle with the defenseman trying to move you. As if that isn’t enough trenches for you, there is also the more conventional battling for a loose puck on the boards. We recognize, and like, this part of the game as football fans.
Are you a baseball fan? You may or may not like the idea of unwritten rules and retaliation, but regardless, you understand it and know it is something you have to respect in the game. Hockey is the king of this. Hell, they carry guys on the roster to be their enforcers, or the term they prefer, pugilists, which is really just a kind way of saying they have men on the roster whose job is to make you bleed. Getting hit by a pitch hits more as a one-time offense, but getting into a fist fight with what is essentially a professional fighter is a very bad idea and keeps a lot of cheap hits and shenanigans from happening. You take an extra long look at your home run, or blow a kiss to the pitcher rounding 3rd (like Bryce Harper), you are getting a nice, painful bruise on your ribs (stitches included!). You take a cheap shot at someone in hockey, you are likely going to have a price to pay too. Granted, it’s not a hard ball, but in the hockey version, there is no unwritten rule saying you don’t aim for the face. The opposite really.
Like soccer? The free-flowing attacking and intricate interior passing mixed with long runs like the better teams can do (aka not talking about the longballs of clubs like Blackburn Rovers) are dazzling and fun. Hockey has a solid dose of that, but because they are doing it with a stick while getting hit, it can be hard to recognize at times, but it is still there. Though on a smaller scale, so are centering passes, crosses, precision shooting (at times), and a scarcity of goals that real fans can embrace when it is the result of good defending and goalkeeping rather than shoddy execution. Hell, hockey even has a better penalty system on the big fouls. There are times when the penalty in soccer is completely accurate and a scoring chance is clearly denied, but the other times when a guy is tip-toeing at the edge of the box and goes down, the point-blankness of the penalty shot seems wrong. The power play is a pretty damn good system for penalties like the ones around the edge of the box,and the penalty shot seems a pretty fair way to recoup a chance denied unfairly as you still have to beat the goalie, just like you originally did. Hockey got this one absolutely right.
Just like sports? The passion of a hockey game is pretty hard to match. There isn’t a doubt in your mind that every guy on the ice would do horrible horrible things to win the Cup, and if there is a doubt, that team is almost definitely down. The players care MORE than the fans almost without exception! In this day and age that is truly impressive. We all know most fans didn’t care more than Dirk when he collected his ring, but even the Peja Stojakovic’s on the Bruins roster cared at that level. Just seeing the injuries some of these guys have who are still playing is enough to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that these guys are not only tough, but they care. There is a ton to be admired in that, as a sports fan or just a person. Not only that, but the flow of the game with shift changes and all is tailored to suit this. You can go as hard as you can for your shirt then you get a break where another group of guys can bust their ass for a few minutes. It is a sport that does everything it can to keep you from saving yourself.
That is not to say the fans aren’t nuts. I think just watching Vancouver riot shows us that, not to mention we all probably know a crazy hockey fan, but think about it. Vancouver has had a tough past as far as championships, but nothing like the Cubs or anything. It is a one sport city (now) that hasn’t won a championship in a while but not impossibly long. Yet there they are in the streets, while it is still light out, besetting the city of flame, and it wasn’t with rock and roll (link if you don’t get the reference). That is nuts. It is stupid first and foremost, but still has that underlying message that a lot of sports fans see as “wow that is bad, but damn do they care”. It isn’t something we want to approve of, but a little part of us seems to admire the passion, just not in that manner of expression.
Oh, and just a note, the announcer is awesome. Never messes up, always quick and fluid, and even makes subtle jokes that you have to be listening to get. Can’t say that much about most other sports. Football announcers make obvious, usually bad jokes. Baseball announcers often just suck or have too much time to mess up what they are going to say. Basketball announcers have some good and bad, but just lack subtlety for whatever reason. The announcers, at least for the Stanley Cup, cannot be beaten. Oh, and barry Melrose is awesome. So is Don Cherry, just in an acquired-taste kind of way.
So you weren’t a hockey fan? Sure you were, you just weren’t watching and didn’t recognize it. Hell, I barely know anything about hockey and that is probably pretty clear to hockey people from this article, but I am pretty damn sure that I like the sport and just need more exposure. I even liked the merciless booing of Bettman and sportsman-like cheering of the opposing Bruins. Sign me up, get me a sweater (that’s right, it’s not a jersey), I like hockey. Still probably won’t follow it from start to finish of the season, but you can be damn sure I will be watching when I can.
You knew I couldn’t resist