[Editor's Note - This was originally published on Fear The Fin on 9/13/2009]
I have been pumped and primed for the season to start since last Tuesday, September 8th, when my group sat down to draft out the tickets for the upcoming season. Due to luck of the draw, I missed out on a couple of potentially great games like Boston and Pittsburgh, but I am in love with hockey so much that I'm already really excited for next Saturday's preseason game against Phoenix! Bring 'em on! First game with a Michalek in the building, right!?!
I suppose I'm stealing this idea from Puck Daddy, but I'm not ashamed to admit that he introduced me to hockey blogging a couple of years ago. I can't stand to even read his comments or half of his stories now, but I would bet I'm not the only one. His unabashed homerism for the Capitals and Devils while still reviling others for their shameless ways taught me that there's nothing above loyalty to the hometown team.
Without further ado, the top 5 things I love about hockey.
5. Unplanned Fights
I'm a little torn about this one, due to the fact that I cringe and get a knot in my stomach when commercials for MMA or UFC get flashed on Spike or Versus. I have no interest in watching violence for the sake of violence. I have truly had to force my legs to move me toward a fight at work, to break it up. However, when the emotions of a game are running high and the players are jawing at each other, I'll stand up and yell all sorts of unpleasantries at the rink when the gloves come off.
I think it helps that I know the refs are near by to keep anyone from really getting hurt (except Jordin Tootoo, that fart). If someone really starts bleeding, fight's over. If one player effectively stops throwing punches, they're both done. Players have even learned to throw the other guy to the ice if he wants to be done. Thanks to Sidney Crosby for a reminder of that last fact.
I don't really enjoy the pre-planned, first faceoff fights, but it does speak to the hatred some teams have for others. I'm also a little tired of fights after clean hits, but if your guy smashes my guy's face into the boards from behind, someone's going to pay.
4. A Team Relentless on the Puck
Casual hockey fans probably enjoy a great save or a great goal scored in the game. I am a fan of everything else. Most people know how awful it feels to have their team beaten up on a nightly basis, what it feels like to have your five skaters play like four guys. The opposite is a great feeling!
Imagine: Your favorite team has the puck and is taking shot after shot on the opposing goalie. The goalie is doing an amazing job of keeping it out of the net, but can't seem to pick up the puck. The defense finally gets a hold of the play and knocks it down the ice, just in time for your goalie to pass it back up the ice to your team who goes at it again with five new players. Defense grabs the puck a couple of time, but each time they do, they are bowled over by your forwards, who start the cycle again! Maybe it all ends with a goal, maybe not, but you realize your face hurts because you've been grinning and shouting for the past four minutes! That's hockey, baby!
3. Walking to the Local Rink and Lacing Up the Skates
Growing up in Minnesota, there was nothing quite like grabbing beat up skates and a stick, putting a pair of long-johns under your jeans, and meeting your friends at the outdoor rink on a Saturday morning. The great people at the parks and recreation department planned for your arrival when they built the park years ago by burying the water pipes deep underground so they wouldn't freeze in the Winter cold. They made sure there were plenty of benches with cubbies underneath inside the "warming house". They covered the sidewalk with thick rubber mats that were shoveled clean every morning. They paid some local teenager a few bucks extra to watch over the place, shovel any newly fallen snow off the ice, and break up any fights that might occur. If you were really lucky, there was at least a half-sized rink (boards and all) within walking distance. Otherwise, there was only a flat surface roughly in the shape of a rink and the warming house was locked (Thanks, Groveland Park!).
Kids would start showing up before 9 am and there would be usually two games going by 10. The games would use the same ice, alternating every 20-30 minutes when enough of the other guys had their faces on the boards yelling, "Come on, it's our turn now!"
Any kid that dared bring a composite stick or aluminum shaft with interchangeable blades was going to be pissed when he left because it had broken. Teams were chosen when an even number of kids threw their WOODEN sticks into a pile and someone took turns tossing the sticks into two separate piles. The fattest or slowest kid always played goalie if there wasn't a volunteer (yeah right!) and the game stopped when too many kids had left because his parents had picked him up. Me? I stayed until dark because there were no stadium lights and it got really cold after the warming house locked up at 5 pm.
2. Miracle and Every Other Underdog Story
I was too young to have remembered watching it live, but playing just one game at a time versus any given opponent means you have to be at your best all the time. The best teams in history will never win every game and the worst teams will never lose every game.
What "Miracle" taught me was that teamwork worked. The team didn't have anyone that could match the individual strengths of the Russians. The game because a genius plan of strategy. The Americans couldn't outmuscle the Russians, and their individual efforts would only get squashed, but as a team, nay, as a SMART team, they were able to overcome.
Geez, the team doesn't even have to win to be a great story. Look at "Mystery, Alaska". I love that movie and *spoiler alert* the team loses in the end.
1. Hockey in Minnesota
I live in downtown San Jose, but when I tell people where I am from, they almost always ask me if I'm a Vikings fan. I could not care less about the Vikings or the NFL. What people should know about Minnesota is that the people there aren't all hockey-mad, but a lot are. Most every high school has its own team, on top of the regional or "traveling" teams. That's a lot of hockey, but that's not even the end of it. In the spring every year, there is a tournament just for the high school teams to determine the state champs, just like in football or whatever. The difference is that this tournament is on television non-stop for several days. If you attend a school that is in the tourney, or even a school that feeds the school in the tourney, or even live in the same community as a team in the tourney, you basically get those days off. That's not an official decree, but in my experience, schools will be very lax on their truancy rules for the couple of days of tournament play. The results of the games are not only discussed in length in the newspaper, but on the news at 5 pm, 6 pm and 10 pm.
This all happened while I was living in the suburbs north of St. Paul, Minnesota. I wasn't born there, though; I hail from Grand Rapids, Minnesota - home of such notables as Pat White (now a Sharks prospect, gained in the Ehrhoff dump), Alex Goligoski (set to be a sophomore on the Penguins blue-line), Jon Casey (former NORTHStars netminder), Bill Baker (member of the Miracle on Ice), and some lady named Frances Gumm (probably better known as Judy Garland). If the state of Minnesota is hockey-mad, then Grand Rapids is hockey-f**king-bat-sh*t-insane.
Due to a bad economy that eventually led the NORTHStars out of Minnesota, my father lost his job and we were forced to move away from Grand Rapids after I finished the first grade. However, in two years of public schooling, I already knew that hometown pride was weighted on their high school hockey standing at the end of the season. Other sports didn't matter. Even in the first grade, we could get some skating practice during recess, as the elementary school was adjacent to a lake that froze over for most of the Winter, and Winter lasted most of the school year.
Yeah, some of these things happened to me instead of me searching them out, but I consider myself to be really fortunate to have seen all the things I have seen. Well, everything except the formation of the Dallas Stars.