Monday, January 20, 2014

Must Love Hockey

The one sentence in the English language that elicits the most exasperation from me is this: "I just don't like hockey."

From what I have experienced, individuals who have uttered this sentence usually fall into one of three categories:
(A). People who have made a concerted effort to watch hockey both in person and on television, to learn the rules, and to understand the game.
(B). People who have watched hockey on television, but have never been to a game in person.
(C). People who have never attempted to learn or watch anything that has to do with hockey, save for the occasional highlight on SportsCenter.

People who belong to Category A are very few and far between. I've encountered maybe two or three persons who actually put in time to become somewhat educated in hockey and still ended up not liking the sport.

Generally speaking, the majority of people whom I have come across fall into either Category B or C. The most common excuse used by B persons is that it's far too difficult to follow the hockey puck on TV, and, as a result, too difficult to follow the action in the game. Prior to the early 2000s, this line of thinking would be understandable. Grainy television feeds made it quite hard to find and follow the puck, and not everyone had the finances to attend games in person on a regular basis. With the development and availability of high-definition television, however, the validity of this excuse is diminishing.

Those in C cause my sincerest annoyance with hockey detractors. "I don't know anything about it, so I don't like it" is an insufferable attitude to have towards anything, not just hockey. I can't even count how many times I've had this exact conversation:

Me: "Hey! Do you want to watch/come to a hockey game with me?"
Person X: "No, thanks. I don't really like hockey."
Me: "Really, why not? What don't you like about it?"
X: "I'm not sure. I just don't like it."
Me: "K."

Unbelievably irritating. In this day and age, it is so easy to hop on the Interweb and learn the most basic rules of hockey, the teams and star players, and where and how to watch games. Actually going to a hockey game has become super affordable, especially in comparison to an NBA, NFL, NCAAF, or MLB game. A more-than-decent seat at a Kings game may cost $20, and there are Ducks seats being sold for less than $10 on StubHub at this very moment. I've gone to a number of hockey games over the course of my life, and I can't say that there is a bad seat to watch one in. I've sat on the ends of the rink, near the very last row of the whole stadium, in the lower bowl and upper bowl. It's more than possible to enjoy the vast majority of the action from any seat in the house.

I'm not going to use this space to force you to like hockey, nor will my opinion of you be any less because you know nothing about the sport. What I will do, however, is make you more aware of hockey's existence, and to provide you with reasons why you should give hockey a chance to win over your heart. To me, the best way to accomplish this is to go to a game. Every friend I've ever taken to a game has come away with a greater appreciation for and interest in the sport, and I'm sure the same would be true for you, as well. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Come on, even Kobe Bryant likes hockey.
For now, here are ten vague reasons why you should definitely, totally, absolutely be more interested in hockey than you already are. In no particular order,

(1). Shootouts
(2). Zambonis
(3). Line changes
(4). Fans
(5). International flavor
(6). Power plays
(7). Skating
(8). Physicality
(9). Ice girls
(10). Darryl Sutter

And now, the continuation of my personal Top 5 Sports Moments of 2013.

(2). Kings-Sharks: 2013 NHL Western Conference Semifinals, Game 7

To a sports fan, there is nothing more nerve-wracking than a Game 7. The significance of this scenario is magnified when the opponent is an in-state rival, a team whose mere mention evokes feelings of scorn and contempt. 

The lockout-shortened 2012-13 NHL season began with the Los Angeles Kings as the defending Stanley Cup champions, an unprecedented distinction for the squad. Following the heroics of Jonathan Quick, Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Mike Richards (among others), the Kings became the team to beat. Finally, the Kings had shaken off its status as an NHL franchise that could never win the big prize. 

Enter the San Jose Sharks, a team that has had considerable regular season success, yet virtually none in the postseason. Six division titles, one Presidents' Trophy, 95+ points in 10 out of the past 12 seasons, and the franchise still has as many Stanley Cups as the Washington Generals. Being a Sharks fan is a unique form of torture. The hope and optimism after every successful regular season evaporates once the team fails yet again in the playoffs. 

On the final day of the regular season, the Kings snatched the 5th seed in the West, while the Sharks settled for the 6th seed. This would prove to be critical in their second round playoff matchup. The Shark Tank in San Jose has always been a nightmare for opposing teams to play in, and the Staples Center had recently been quite unfriendly to visitors. These trends continued during the playoff series, as the home team won each of the first six games. Thus, Game 7. In Los Angeles.

The atmosphere at this game could appropriately be described as nervous optimism. Playoff hockey arenas are saturated with delirious energy and excitement, but Kings fans knew just how dangerous and hungry this Sharks team was. No one would be comfortable until the final horn sounded.

Something about Sandstorm is so magical during hockey games.

The first twenty minutes of the game came and went with the score remaining 0-0, which did nothing to quell the LA crowd's anxiety. The team that scored first would be undoubtedly be in the driver's seat, and we were all convinced that Jonathan Quick could not be beaten with a 1-0 lead.

And with 4:11 into the second period, the Kings finally struck first. A power play wrister by Justin Williams put the Kings ahead, providing a slight sense of relief. 

Less than three minutes after his goal, Williams delivered again. The crowd went, in a word: wild.

A two-goal lead at home with the best goalie in the Milky Way galaxy. What a glorious feeling. Of course, the Sharks wouldn't go down without a fight; it is hockey, after all. Dan Boyle fired an absolute laser of a shot in the third period, and the rest of the Sharks pounded relentlessly until the bitter end. San Jose fired 14 shots on goal in the final frame, and it seemed almost inevitable that the Sharks would force overtime. Luckily, the final horn sounded before the Sharks could make that happen. Cue mass hysteria.

Hooray! Sportsmanship!
The emotions that run through your body after a victorious Game 7 are hard to describe. Euphoria. Relief. Guarded optimism. If nothing else, you think, "There's still a chance." 

The Kings, having been run ragged by thirteen brutal games with the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks, eventually fell in five games to the supremely talented and eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. No shame in that. Chicago had been the best team all season and basically deployed an All-Star squad on its top line. The lockout took a physical and mental toll on every team, and the 'Hawks seemed to be the least affected.

But for one night, nothing else mattered except for the Kings' victory over the Sharks in a do-or-die, winner-take-all Game 7. The Kings continued to cement themselves as a team to be reckoned with in the future. No longer a hockey doormat, the Kings will be in the Stanley Cup mix for years to come.

P.S. If you think hockey is irrelevant...
The Chicago Blackhawks 2013 Stanley Cup Championship Parade (Courtesy of @NinaFalcone)

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