If you live in the south or western United States, chances are you have given hockey very little consideration. Maybe you are aware that your city has an NHL team. Maybe you could even name a player or two. But you probably do not know if they are any good. You probably could not tell me when the Los Angeles Kings last hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup. Heck, to quote the great Al Michaels, you probably “don’t know the difference between a blue line and a clothes line.”
I, on the other hand, live in the Midwest, where hockey breathes every bit as much life as basketball and baseball. Living in Chicago, ten years ago I would have flipped through channels, come across a Chicago Blackhawks game and sat down and watched it intermittently. But two Stanley Cup wins later, I now look at the schedule to see when they play and plan my night accordingly.
Over the last five years or so, hockey has turned from an interesting afterthought to a focus. I could not tell you exactly when I fell in love with watching hockey, but I can tell you a story that illustrates everything I love about the sport. It is not an underdog story; on the contrary, it is the story of the best team in the league winning it all. But that is the beautiful thing about hockey. There does not need to bring intrigue outside of the rink to bring an entire city to its feet.
The venue for the game was the TD Garden in Boston.
The stage was game six of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. The teams were the host Boston Bruins and the favorites, the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks led the series three games to two and needed one more win to take the Stanley Cup for the second time in four years. However, the Bruins led this game 2-1, and only a minute and a half remained in the third and final period. I began preparing myself for a decisive game seven, and just as I did, Hawks forward Patrick Kane chipped the puck to Duncan Keith, who got it captain Jonathan Toews. He drove the net, made a beautiful pass across the crease to Bryan Bickell who put it into the wide open net. 2-2.
I gave an emphatic fist pump and a shout of “Yes!” as loudly as I could. My family was all going nuts as a game tying goal with 1:16 left in the game is a rarity. I was all settled in, ready for an exciting overtime period, when suddenly, the Bruins turned the puck over in the neutral zone. The Hawks attacked the zone, firing a quick shot that goalie Tuukka Rask sent away. The puck got sent over to Hawks defenseman Johnny Oduya, who fired a slap shot that was tipped by Michal Frolik and sent off of the post. Forward Dave Bolland slipped behind the Bruins defense and stuffed the rebound in past the diving Rask.
“Wait, did they just score again?” was all I could say. I looked at the clock. 59 seconds remaining. The Blackhawks had just scored the tying and go-ahead goal in 17 seconds. Next thing I knew, Jonathan Toews was clearing the puck with five seconds left and the Hawks were storming the ice to celebrate a Stanley Cup championship. I had so little time to prepare myself for a moment of joy that I barely reacted as the time hit zero. What I did know at that time, however, was that it was a moment that I was going to remember for the rest of my life.
For sports fans, this is a familiar story. It is one of unexpected excitement that comes from your team winning a big game. The difference is a lot of the country gets their memorable moments from football, basketball, and baseball, and while I love them as well, the majority of my greatest sports memories have come from watching hockey over the last five years. Nothing puts me on the edge of my seat like hockey. A single goal changes the game completely, and it can and does come out of nowhere. Every shot has the chance to go in due to the speed of the players and the congestion of having twelve men on the ice at once. Watching hockey is the most nerve-wracking experience if you have a rooting interest.
So here is my appeal to you: develop a rooting interest.
Fall in love with a hockey player, a hockey team, the game of hockey itself. Feel the tension of a 1-1 tie as the game goes into overtime. Hold your breath as your opponent takes a wide open slap shot. Learn frustration, disappointment, excitement, elation during the course of a single contest. Have hockey stories to tell.
If you flip on Sportscenter on any given day, over the 90 minute news show there will likely be an hour of football news, 20 minutes of basketball, five minutes of baseball, and five minutes of miscellaneous other sports. Right now, hockey falls into the miscellaneous category. With the Olympics approaching, likely it will get more attention, so that provides a great opportunity for those who do not follow hockey to begin their journey towards being a true hockey fan.
Ten years ago, the NHL had a lockout for its players. As a result, the entire 2004 season was lost. Not a single game was played. The league has come a long way since then, and even does well in the ratings once the playoffs roll around. But it does not have the popularity of other sports leagues because of the lack of interest in places where ice is scarce, like the west coast and the south. All it takes is a rooting interest to develop in those places and suddenly, another lockout no longer looms large. And we will never have to go another season without the greatest sport in the world.