Over the summer of 2009, Puck Daddy was asking bloggers to contribute a post detailing five reasons why they love hockey. Recently, I pitched to the staff here at Raw Charge on resurrecting the topic through a series of posts.
I lived in Suffolk County, New York when I was a kid. For those who don't know it, Suffolk County is the more eastern part of Long Island; a long ways away from the city with rural things mixed in with suburbia. At any rate, my introduction to hockey wasn't playing so much as seeing kids / teens playing on a pond in the winter. Sure, there were the Islanders and the Rangers that appeared from time to time (Islanders more than Rangers), but hockey remained foreign to me until I moved to Florida and lived through the inception of the Tampa Bay Lightning into the National Hockey League.
I love the game, I love the sport. I may have my problems with league business, discipline/officiating and other things, but they're just caveats in my grander relationship with ice hockey.
The Action Never Stops
I fell out of love with baseball because of, in part, the long expanses of time where you're waiting for a pitch, or waiting for an action. Meanwhile, the National Football League at this point is a commercial break interrupted by a football game; every idle moment is an excuse to take a break for a television commercial. While plays are a complex arrangement like an orchestra symphony, they are so brief that you're waiting more than you are watching a contest.
The NBA, and college basketball for that matter, can be great to watch for the strategy of floor management, but sometimes that strategy slows the game down to a crawl. Sometimes there is no strategy and the attempts at offense just become cliché because they keep being repeated at each end. And let's not even get into life in the final 2 minutes of play.
It's not that hockey games don't pause, or don't incorporate strategy or have set plays, it's more the fact that the parts constantly move, shift and adapt without a stoppage. Pauses aren't drawn out exponentially for the sake of the sponsors (well, not with most locally broadcast games; national ones are a different story) or for the sake of throwing off an opponent (icing the kicker; meddling with a pitchers rhythm).
During games, while attention is placed on the puck and those carrying it or battling for possession, action is continuously taking place away from the play. Line changes, hits, fights, injuries, etc. It's almost like there's a second game going on at any given time.
The Penalty Kill
People like scoring, people like goals, the hockey media plays up offense over defense all the time. Defense is boring because it stops scoring. Hell, the games of the Sochi Olympics have gotten criticism because the affairs have been low scoring (it's the large ice sheets fault, to hell with IIHF regulation sized rinks!)
Yet, defense itself is offense. When your goal is to prevent and gain possession / turn the tide back the other way, that's an offensive maneuver. It's clearer in football, the fact defense is offense of a different sort: sacks, interceptions, loss of yardage, three-and-out, those are all exceedingly clear positives to take from a football defense.
With hockey, the clearest moment of the value of defense is the penalty kill. That's not just defense, its defense during the most adverse of conditions: you're down a man (or perhaps two) and the opponent has the tactical advantage. Watching a penalty kill can be frustrating when I'm rooting for the opposing power play: if the entire special-teams event is a disjointed mess, I just let my attention be grabbed by something else for a moment.
But when you have strong special teams units participating in a game, with one team's power play set up in their opponent's zone, and that shorthanded team having to work as a tight, cohesive unit to prevent a goal, that's when I start getting kicks. And seeing the shorthanded team get their sticks on the puck and clear the zone? That can be almost as admirable as a pretty goal. I can find myself applauding a great zone clear by any team. I can find myself mesmerized by the cohesion of a good PK unit (the Boston Bruins immediately spring to mind on that one).
Isn't that really the epitome of how this is a team sport? You have to work with each other, you have to depend on each other, and you're only as strong as you are at your weakest.
To some, this one can be taken as insulting if I had listed the shootout - pass-pass-pass can be the bane of a hockey team. All this passing, no shooting! Why?! Why is that going on?!
It's done to throw off the goalie, to create a hole. Sometimes it's just the desire not to be selfish, and sometimes it's lack of confidence... But many times, it's because offenses are hoping something like this will transpire:
Or perhaps this?
It's not always gorgeous, but its goals like above that are completely seductive.
Sudden Death Overtime in the Playoffs
They call the NHL playoffs the second season; anything can happen and you have to leave every ounce of yourself on the ice every game just to survive, and sometimes that's not even good enough for a win.
And then there are the nights where regulation expires and the score is tied. There is no gimmick of 4-on-4 to try to settle the game in a five minute window. There will be no shootout to coax an ultimate resolution for the contest. No, no, not now... Not when everything is being left on that ice sheet by two combatants. We go another full period of play - same rules as before. First goal wins. And if that doesn't bring resolution, we'll do it again.
For every second played after regulation has expired, there is no tomorrow. There is no yesterday, there is no CORSI or Fenwick, Time On Ice, or other stats that matter besides that scoreboard and the game clock. Rules are relaxed and most times the stupidity - careless actions that result in penalties - seem to relent. The game is shift to shift, moment to moment... Any gaffe, as minuscule as it may be, may result in heartbreak.
It's everything or nothing. This is it.
If you've invested yourself in the first 60 minutes of the game as a spectator, watching sudden death is almost like a game of chicken; which team will flinch first? Or perhaps it's a car wreck outright - because you just can't look away. Disaster looms, or escape and the thrill of victory...
Thrill or despair, it comes at a moment's notice and is usually subtle: one shift, one shot, nothing fancy though it will make many a highlight reel because of the game it's attached to (the goal that decided the epic overtime spectacular in the playoffs). One goal does it. One goal seals fate as the victory or the defeated.
And you just don't know when that moment will be. It could be seconds within the very first overtime period of play, it could be sometime after the 120th minute of play (we're talking quadruple overtime, folks). As a fan, you stay with the game as long as you can because of your passion for the game, though you have the luxury of slipping away to bed when you can't stay awake much longer. You're allowed to think about responsibilities of the next day and how you have to give up watching.
For those guys playing, though? The only responsibility is preventing the other team from scoring and doing anything that helps their team get a shot past the opponent. Everything else doesn't matter in this life except that next goal. And I absolutely love that commitment, that dedication, that test of stamina and trial of will.
The Glory of the Cup
It's not the NHL title, though it's bestowed to the champion of the league. Its history goes back beyond the Original Six. Players on this continent and elsewhere in the world are raised to dream about getting possession of it and hoisting it in victory.
Unlike the Lombardi Trophy in the NFL, the O'Brien Trophy in the NBA, the Commissioners Trophy in MLB or the Coaches Trophy in NCAA Division I football, which are all minted for champions individually - for them to own -- there is only one Stanley Cup. Unlike the previously named awards, the Stanley Cup carries its legacy and history with it to whomever it is ultimately awarded to - the names etched upon it, the flaws and dents that have their own stories, as do the teams that are named as champions on it.
All trophies can be looked at as over-glorified paperweights in the end, but the Cup is to be drunk from by its winners in celebration. It's raised over your head in triumph, not foisted around and then stuck in a trophy case to be forgotten about. Every championship in every league the world over is fought for, bled for, scarified for, but this one, the names etched right on the Cup itself show you who has done the same in days of yore; the hockey legends and the bit players from previous championship teams who put everything on the line for that title, who played while hurt or outright infirm.
There is so much hurt, so much anguish, so much emotional strife and insecurity you suffer in your life as a fan, it can haunt you when you're a fan of a team in a non-traditional market, or one that faces mediocrity on all too regular a basis. But the moment the commissioner tells your team captain to come get his Stanley Cup - all of that is erased. And while you personally aren't the one who got the Cup, you own that moment and that title just as much as the team that won it all. That's yours to hold on to until your dying day.
That silver chalice, that's the most beloved thing that anyone can ever know in this sport.