[This is my first ever fan post. It's not about the Lightning per se, but it is about hockey. I have a lot of friends who don't really understand my obsession with hockey, which got me to thinking about it. After I finished writing this up, it occurred to me that hockey people would probably appreciate this, too. Please be gentle. I'm not used to this. :) Hope you enjoy.]
You don't get it. I know. Every year you give me the funny looks, the bewildered shake of the head. What makes hockey so special that a seemingly rational (southern) person like myself will go off her head for a "foreign" sport, played on ice even?
You don't get it. To you, the suss of blades across the ice, the tock of a puck meeting a stick, and the rattle of the glass are just unfamiliar sounds, if you even notice them at all. Your heart doesn't beat faster at the whoompf of a pad save or the ping of a puck ringing off the crossbar. You can't appreciate the beauty of a cross-ice pass coming out of the neutral zone or the set up of a fierce forecheck. You don't even know what a forecheck is. About the only thing that you understand about hockey is the sound of the goal horn.
To me, though, the sights and sounds of hockey are evocative of so much. The roar of thousands of people all pulling for one thing, coming together despite the differences in their daily lives or their backgrounds or what they're going to go home to that night. The sheer abandon of screaming like a kid. Going to a game--and caring about the outcome--is just fun.
But it's more than just a generic "sports" thing. It's hockey--speed and skill and "how did he do that?!" moments. It requires passion, stamina, hard work, and the ability to persevere through tough times. It's getting up when you're knocked down; not allowing pain to become an excuse. It's putting the past behind you, time and time again, win or lose, good or bad, because what just happened doesn't determine what will happen next. Everyone experiences pains and victories in their lives. In a hockey game, we learn to get back up and keep fighting when we get knocked down, and not to rest on our laurels when we succeed.
It's the unique, almost "democratic" nature of parity in the NHL. At this level, any team can win any game on any given night. Any player can score a goal at any moment, even with less than one second on the clock. You can't say with certainty that the game is over until it really is; there's always, always a chance. And when one guy scores, the game and the players both recognize that he didn't get there alone. He had assistance. They did it together. It's not just one player's triumph, it's everyone's.
Hockey is twenty guys becoming a single unit with one goal--one overriding, ultimate goal. It's setting benchmarks for yourself and meeting them so that the group can succeed. It's playing for your teammates. It's fans coming back game after game, year after year, claiming a relationship with their guys, through all the ups and downs. It's the way that hockey players in general are so willing to belong to the fans, to be open to them, to be energized by them, and to love them back, on and off the ice. It's the fact that when our favorite players aren't there, we actually miss them, because they contribute more than just offense or defense; they contribute themselves. It's the feeling that we're all in this together. We succeed together or not at all. And when we fall short of the ultimate goal--as most often we will, because only one team can win it all--we cry together before we get on with our lives and get ready to try again.
Hell, it's the fact that we will try again, and again and again and again. Ken Dryden, the legendary goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens back in the 1970s, once said, "In the quest for anything that is worthwhile, you have to be willing to hope for it --which is so hard, because chances are it won't turn out--and that can be extremely painful. ... You hope big, and you hope hard, and you make yourself completely vulnerable in the process." But you keep doing it, you see. Every year you start hoping again, because the hope matters.
Then there's that undefinable, indescribable thing called "hockey culture." Hard work, honor, recognition of talent, a sense of community, and a long and extraordinarily tangible historical tradition. As columnist Justin Bourne wrote, "The culture of hockey is one that requires players to never be bigger than the game, and that's a thing of beauty. Our players don't take the podium, point two thumbs at themselves and take five minutes to talk about This Guy. Most guys can't wait to step down and take their trophy. I hope that never changes."
The game is bigger than any single skater, any single season, or even any "dynasty". The game itself, with all its foibles and triumphs, motivates players from the first time they lace up their skates to the day they no longer can. The Stanley Cup garners as much excitement as the players who lift it. When the Cup comes to town, hockey fans want to see it and touch it as much as and sometimes more than they do the players. It's been the most important award in hockey for well over a hundred years. A hundred years. What other sport can say that? What other professional sports trophy celebrates the players the way that trophy does? All the players, from the grinders to the stars. What other sport has a trophy so instantly recognizable and so revered by fans and players alike? It's our trophy. And that's only possible because there's an "us"--a product of the strange bond that connects hockey fans to each other and to the sport's past and future.
So, my friends, you don't get it, and while that saddens me a little, it's ultimately alright, because we love each other anyway. But maybe, in some way, you can come to understand why I do.