May 30, 2006

Hockey's Back...

... for me at least.

Those of you who have been reading my "work" for a while are probably aware that I am a hockey fan. Being a hockey fan hasn't been easy the last few years, particularly for a diehard Capitals fan like myself. You have all probably heard about the strike that cost the NHL its entire 2004-05 season, a strike that may well have permanently crippled the league in public esteem and that gained the league nothing, except the resignation of the idiot player's-union heads (though the shyster commissioner, Gary Bettman, is somehow still around). Here in the Fedroplex, the strike coincided neatly with the Caps' plan to purge the team of anyone you might have heard of, which produced fantastic results both in the standings and at the gate.

Although I thought the strike was stupid and pointless (and did not, as I had hoped, lead to mass bankruptcy among the Southern teams that currently plague the league), I didn't make any angry pronouncements that I was through with hockey when the strike hit. I'm not the type for angry pronouncements, and I figured the lure of the sport would be too strong anyway. I waited, patiently, with the idea that I'd resume the same level of fan intensity as soon as the sport returned. I figured that the sport would be hurting badly enough that it would need all the support it could get.

Well, wonder of wonders, the NHL seems to have survived better than anyone imagined. Average attendance was actually up a bit this year as compared to '03-'04. (TV ratings have taken a major tumble, but this is no surpise, as the national hockey broadcasts have moved from ESPN ["Your Yankees-Red Sox-Barry Bonds Network"] to OLN ["Your Tour de France Network, If You Cared"].) The NHL, amazingly, seems to have emerged whole, if not completely unscathed, from its historic attempt at self-immolation. The NHL got its fans back.

More shockingly, I wasn't one of them. I didn't go out of my way to avoid following the NHL, but I found myself ignoring hockey for weeks at a time without a pang. I didn't make it to a single Caps game until March, and only then because I was offered a free ticket. If I happened to encountered a game while channel-surfing, I might watch, for a while. But I didn't plan my life around the Caps in any way.

Now, you might point out that my waning interest in the Caps has at least a little to do with their poor play, and with the arrival of the Nationals to capture my interest and attention. And you'd have a point. (Although I think my long track record of loyally supporting losers should prove that the Caps' on-ice fortunes didn't have that much to do with it.) But you have to understand: you're talking to a guy who used to slip a transistor radio under his pillow and fall asleep with Ron Weber's Caps play-by-play filling his ears. You're talking to a guy who learned how to spell "Kypreos", "Franceschetti", and "Bengt Gustafsson" You're talking to a guy who lived and died with Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, Dale Hunter, and Kevin Hatcher. And now I found myself a casual fan at best. I guess the strike bothered me more than I realized.

Even after I went to the game in March, which I figured would re-light my dormant hockey flame, I remained largely indifferent. Even though the Caps won handily over longtime rival and recent partner in misery Pittsburgh, and even though the crowd was as charged up and passionate as always, my rabid fandom did not return. Sure, I had a great time at the game, but I didn't jump around and yell the way I used to. The biggest upside to attending the game was the chance to see Alexander Ovechkin, who is every bit as breathtaking as advertised. Seeing him in person, watching him handle the puck, seeing him turn on the jets on a breakaway... it must be a lot like watching a young Dr. J, seeing a young man who has the potential for real greatness, possibly even the potential to re-define the game as we know it. Despite my awe at Ovechkin's brilliance, I did not find myself chaecking the standings or tuning in the games any more frequently than before. I resigned myself to the idea that hockey no longer held the special place in my heart that it had. My hockey fanaticism, I figured, was dead.

Until Tuesday night, that is.

On Tuesday night, I happen to surf past OLN, where Game 3 of the Western Conference finals between the Edmonton Oilers and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks was just getting started. There wasn't anything else on, and there wasn't much for me to do, so I decided to watch for a little while. Once I got settled in, however, I was riveted until game's end. On this night, my long-dormant love of hockey was finally re-awakened. This was the sport I'd grown up loving!

What made this game so special? A few things stand out:

- In any sport, the charged-up playoff atmosphere makes the game extra-special. But I think it's truer in hockey than in any other sport. The crowds seem a lot more engaged come playoff time, and their enthusiasm energizes the players. As a Caps fan, I can attest how refreshing it is to see two teams playing for something more than pride and, consequently, electing to give a crap. Also, it's a pleasure to see good teams playing (mostly) crisp and energized hockey. The difference between a team like the late-model Caps - with their sloppy passes, ragged rushes, and indifferent defense - and teams like the Oilers and Ducks is truly striking to the hockey-savvy eye.

- Especially early on in the game, the Oilers and Ducks were playing a very "phyiscal" game, by which I mean they were making a concerted effort to beat the crap out of each other. At practically every stoppage in play, there were a couple of players dropping the gloves and circling each other. This was fun on a lot of levels.

Allow me to explain something here. As I have stated before, I am generally opposed to fighting in hockey. I'd rather see great skating, passing, and shooting than a bunch of guys pounding on each other. And in general, I think the game has improved in recent years with the relative scarcity of pure goons like Joey Kocur, Ken Baumgartner, and Rich Pilon. So isn't my pro-fighting position here hypocritical?

Well, yeah. But I like my fighting in limited doses and special circumstances, such as here. It was pretty clear that Anaheim was trying to jump-start its fading chances by being aggressive, and Edmonton was more than willing to respond in kind. I also got the sense that the fighting was motivated more by mutual dislike than by sheer thuggery, which made it more interesting.

Also, there's something cool about watching the reaction to a fight: the announcers who try desperately to disguise their enjoyment, the referees who are perfectly content to let the combatants whomp on each other for a while before braking it up, the fans (especially in Canada and some Northeastern cities) who react with unrestrained glee. That's what makes the NHL's anti-fighting crusade so amusing: they either can't see or refuse to acknowledge that they're up against a pillar of the hockey culture in a lot of their most loyal markets. (And for that matter, as far as their ill-fated voyage into the Sun Belt is concerned, it's a lot easier for a hockey novice to grasp the simple elemental pleasure of seeing guys beat each other up than to appreciate the nuances of great stickwork and passing.) In the interest of cleaning up the game to appeal to "respectable" mainstream America, the NHL once again freely alienates the very fans who made it a major sport in the first place. Good work, guys!

(Incidentally, I'm all in favor of goons who can also skate and handle the puck well, such as Edmonton's Georges Laraque, who showed some nifty stickwork scoring a goal in Game 4.)

- Other than the NFL, the NHL is the only major sports league that shows no favoritism toward big markets. On the ice, it really is possible for the Calgarys and Edmontons to compete on equal footing with the New Yorks and LAs. Neither the salary structure nor the officials are stacked against small-market clubs in the NHL. It's refreshing.

The upshot of this is the unique joy of seeing smaller-market crowds (especially Canadian ones) in the grip of playoff fever. When the Capitals made the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, we in the Fedroplex thought it was pretty cool, but the area wasn't exactly gripped by Caps Fever or anything. But in the Edmontons and the Calgarys of the world, they go crazy. I'll never forget the sight of the "Red Sea" in the streets of Calgary when the Flames made the finals in '04, or the throngs of Edmonton fans waving their silver pom-poms this year (and creating crucial shortages along the "Blue Mile"). It warms my hockey-loving heart to see people who care that much. In Washington, hockey is a sort of cult activity. In Canada, it's a religion.

- Also, it was a hell of a game. Edmonton scored an early goal on a mistake by Ducks goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, and that remained the game's only score through two period. Oiler goalie Dwayne Roloson was fantastic, making miraculous save after miraculous save. (One of the joys of hockey is watching unsung goaltenders make heroes of themselves during a playoff run. Roloson appears to have the chops to be an elite netminder, although he seems to be a bit of a whiner.)

Suddenly, over a 2-minute span in the early third period, the Oilers exploded for 3 goals, pushing the lead to 4-0 and whipping the crowd into a frenzy. They figured, as I figured, that the game was all over but the shouting. Then, about halfway through the period, the Ducks scored a goal. Then another. Then.... another. The "insurmountable" lead was down to one.

Edmonton scored a goal, seemingly putting the game on ice, but then Anaheim struck again. The lead was at one again. The city of Edmonton held its collective breath. So did I. Anaheim had a couple great shots to tie it up, but Roloson stonewalled them (leading to chants of "Rol-ie, Rol-ie" that filled the arena). Time ran out, and Edmonton held on for the win, 5-4.

As I unclenched my fingers from the armrest of my sofa, I realized that I'd been on the edge of my seat for the entire third period. Just the way it used to be. Fast-paced, wide-open, riveting... this is the sport I'd grown up loving. The NHL was back. At last.

Welcome back, guys. Now, no more strikes and lost seasons, okay, guys? And Buffalo, do you think you could take the East for me? After all that, I'm not sure I could stand seeing Carolina win. Thanks.

Posted by Mediocre Fred at May 30, 2006 11:17 AM | TrackBack
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