College football has been out of my life for two whole Saturdays – this is a problem.
As soon as the garnet and gold confetti littered college football’s high church and Jameis Winston gave his Joel Osteen-like devotional, the 2013 season died while taking the BCS to the depths of the history books with it. The NFL has provided some solace, but it’s season too shall end in ticker tape, trophies and a smattering of product placement. This is my sporting soul’s lull period. January to August is just a slow creep minimally sustained by ‘crootin and coaching carousel story lines. I will watch MLB’s Opening Day with mild fanfare, I’ll research college basketball teams at the last minute come March and the NBA Finals may captivate me, depending on whether or not Kanye West drops another album. Yet, none of this will fully satisfy me until next year’s kickoff in late August.
With that being said, I’ve decided to immerse myself in a sport to pass through the doldrums of the offseason. A sport which, quite frankly, I’ve avoided mostly due to the conditions necessary to facilitate a game. I’m talking about hockey.
Why hockey, you ask? Hockey has been something which has always intrigued me because of its physicality as well as the personalities that have graced the spot over the years. It’s just something that I haven’t really paid attention to because I didn’t really grow up with it outside of The Mighty Ducks franchise. There wasn’t any sort of impetus on my family to gather around a hockey game.
But, I know people who pay attention to the NHL. These include people like Blog Lord Rory Masterson, who watches Ranger games with a gigantic stuffed bear whose drunken antics during sporting events rival my own. Despite my association with these fans, I have never really engaged the sport beyond quick glances at a television screen in a sports bar and a few Charlotte Checkers. So, with the Finals in June, the World Cup around the same time and college football even further away, I have decided to dive right in into the wild world of the NHL and find out why thousands upon thousands of hockey fans follow a tiny puck around an ice rink.
January 22, 2014: Chicago Blackhawks v. Detroit Red Wings
My first real attempt at immersion into hockey fandom began with Chicago against Detroit in Joe Louis Arena. It was one of the only games being nationally televised, and since my roommate wanted to watch the Thunder take on the Spurs, I had to stream the event via NBC Sports Network. This became a hellish situation which dragged out the three 20-minute periods to what seemed like an eternity due incessant buffering. For every pass of the puck or a shot on goal, there was a tiny wheel that spun which resulted in me grabbing my phone and scrolling through Twitter. Once the stream resumed, I would look up every now and again, passively taking in Marian Hossa’s superb play and the game’s super aggressive hits.
If you are as unfamiliar with hockey rivalries, as I am, apparently this is a big one. Chicago and Detroit don’t like each other, which NBC Sports Network kept reminding me with an expensive graphic that flashed, “Wednesday Night Rivalry.” They kept showing two guys named Probert and Grimson fighting each other on the ice. This game could’ve been labeled Probert v. Grimson for how often I saw this archived hockey fight footage. There was some physical play in this game, but nothing to the extent that I saw almost every commercial break. There were a few big hits against the boards every now and then, but other than that, nothing too crazy. Pretty tame stuff for this being a rivalry with history and two Midwestern metropolises that have vied for the distinction of being the better city (with Chicago the clear winner, after the auto industry’s steep decline in Michigan).
I will admit that I missed a great chunk of the game because I was starting to fall asleep in the middle of the 1st period. I was wiped from a long day, and I just passed out in the middle of the game. I paused the stream, took a thirty minute nap and started the game again. I was now watching on a 30-minute delay, while the rest of the world watched as the Red Wings, the fifth-best team in the Atlantic division of the Eastern conference, were up 4-3 as a result of a Gustav Nyquist goal.
I eventually grew restless as the lagging problems persisted, so I switched the feed to live. I went from the 1st period to near the end of the 2nd within the click of a button. From here, I was treated with the Intermission Report – the NHL on NBC’s version of the football halftime report on CBS or FOX or NBC (except it happens twice). This was the first time I was formally introduced to NBC analyst Mike Milbury.
Milbury is a burly guy who, if I was watching football, would come across as a Matt Millen type. Essentially, an oaf. The studio crew showed clips of a fight during a match-up between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Montreal Canadiens that had come to blows. Milbury was more or less expressing his approval of the fight and his disapproval of the refs stopping a ‘good ole fashioned goalie fight’. This is one aspect I enjoy about hockey – the fighting and the majority of the fan base’s approval of fighting. It seems like the refs just let it happen as if they were corrupted prison guards at Shawshank. An analyst’s thumbs up of this kind of thing has now solidified my thought that hockey is a blood sport and the movie Slap Shot was a distorted, comedic look at this reality. The verdict is still out on whether I can tolerate Milbury, though.
The game ended in regulation at 4-4. It proceeded into overtime and ended the 1st overtime this way. It was 11:01. The following tweet captures my sentiment:
I woke up the next day to find out that this rivalry game ended in an exciting shootout, and I missed it. My first night in this frozen tundra in this sport, and I missed out on it’s biggest pressure cooking moment. Damn.
Penalty of the Game – Icing: The only penalty I vaguely understand is checking; everything else is a process in which I will learn as I go. The first penalty that was waved down was that of icing. Icing is an violation that occurs when a player shoots the puck from behind the halfway line and passes the opposing team’s goal line without anyone touching it. The only time icing is allowed is when a team with a player who has been relegated to the penalty box is trying to “kill a penalty.” If that explanation was not sufficient, here’s a page with a diagram.
Side Notes: The Penguins crushed the Canadiens 5-1 with an interrupted goalie fight that stopped the Canadiens from leaving any sort of mark on Pittsburgh. The Carolina Hurricanes edged out the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2. The Calgary Flames ended their 7-game losing streak at home with a win over the Phoenix Coyotes. Yes, Phoenix, AZ is another sun belt town with a hockey team.
January 23, 2014: Pittsburgh Penguins v. New York Islanders
When I sat down on the couch to watch the Pens take on the Isles (this is me acting like I’ve done this for awhile), the opening shot was of the exterior of Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY. This is home to the other team from New York, the one not adorned in the patriotic red, white and blue and the stylized diagonal lettering. The one which won four straight Stanley Cups in the 1980s. The team not located in the beating heart of America’s media empire. This was the home of the Islanders – the woeful team at the bottom of the standings in the Metropolitan division of the Eastern Conference.
Everything about the Islanders screams 1984. Their jerseys, of bright blue and orange, are something made of blinding day glo. The outside of Nassau Coliseum looks like a row of freight loading docks that hasn’t been updated since the heyday of Soft Cell. The arena looks like it would smell like lingering cold sweat and cheap American (or Canadian) lagers. The coliseum could have easily doubled as a set piece for the Coffee Talk sketch on SNL. Everything about the Islanders seems stuck in an earlier time. To make a quick generalization, their fan base would be like Jordan Belfort walking into InvestiCenter and running into Dwayne and his crew of penny stock-pushing cronies.
In contrast, the Penguins were presented as an indestructible force. A bruising juggernaut anchored by one of the game’s brightest and most talked about stars – Sidney “Sid the Kid” Crosby. The Pens are one of the best teams in hockey and you do not need to be a diehard fan yourself to know this. This fact has been thrust onto you from numerous years of having Crosby out in front on the Worldwide Leader in Hype. He’s been a talking point as one of the best in the league for years, with numerous concussions stalling his career leading to one of the biggest regular season press conferences in NHL history. He’s the league’s most recognizable player, and the aura of the Sidney Crosby-led Penguins was there.
Before the start of the game, the Penguins sat atop the Metropolitan division, while the Islanders were crushed under the weight of all the other teams in the same division. The outset of this game, for the uninitiated like myself, seemed predetermined. It was as if the Penguins were just going to come in, draw some blood and leave the body for dead. It was anything but, though the score would suggest otherwise.
There were times where the Islanders looked great. They came out swinging, with two goals within the first few minutes of the match. A crowd of 15,012 roared as the Isles were up 2-0. I even felt a little excitement for this haphazard team from Uniondale. Then, it all went down the drain as Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby attacked the goal, assisting each other with the tact of two field generals. These two will be playing for Team Canada in Sochi, which offered a glimpse of the ruin they would cause opposing defensemen.
With this being the first hockey game I’ve watched in full, I got to experience the escalation of physicality rather than a highlight reel that you would probably see peddled by the NHL about Hockey’s Best Fights. I watched as wings and defensemen crashed into boards and corners. I watched Calvin de Haan of the Islanders get his block knocked off after he set up an interfering pick (a penalty) due to the force of a nearby, unrelated collision. I saw Matt Martin and Tanner Glass antagonize each other until they threw the gloves down, which resulted in a previously mentioned uniqueness of the sport – a fight.
Unlike football, basketball or baseball, fights are a controlled activity in hockey. Referees become boxing officials with the drop of the glove and the accepted invitation of a fight. You can choose not to fight if you don’t want to, and if a “goon” (hockey’s name for a bruiser) chooses to come after you when you haven’t accepted the challenge, the referee will gladly interfere. If you are chased down and hit after skating away from a confrontation, the league will also add additional penalties to the offending party per their discretion. There are more unspoken rules in regards to fighting that I haven’t even begun to understand, but this, from what I have been able to discern, is in-game combat’s most basic rules.
The game went into the third period with the Penguins up 4-2. A few minutes into the period, the Islanders stormed down the ice, with Josh Bailey flicking an almost effortless shot into the right corner of the net. The once silenced crowd was now out for blood; they were shouting as Bailey took his victory lap around the ice. With the score at 4-3, Pittsburgh struck back with a goal from Evgeni Malkin to put the Pens up by 2. The Islanders regained their confidence with a strike from Kyle Okposo.
As fans roared with every pass, crash and shot on goal, it seemed that the Long Island crew was starting to gain momentum. The largest morale booster came in the form of a power play, with John Tavares drawing a penalty from Kris Letang. Letang was sent to the penalty box for two minutes. With 50 seconds left in the power play, Tavares drew another penalty from Glass. The Islanders had a 5-3 advantage over the Penguins with what looked like an imminent goal. A shot from Frans Nielsen to even the score was rejected by Pens goalie, Jeff Zatkoff, who ended any hope the hapless Long Island team had for a morale booster. This was the one play that seemed to sum up what Blog Lord Rory Masterson had tweeted regarding the other team from New York:
It was like reading a whole Tumblr of “You Had One Job” memes in less than 50 seconds. It was bad hockey that I wanted, and it was bad hockey that I received. No disrespect to Zatkoff, because his play was masterful. Yet, it seems that the Islanders had the Katniss Everdeen amount of odds in their favor only to be killed by the smallest and dumbest competitor in the Hunger Games. This is the portrait of Islander hockey, and it is the prism through which I will view it until they win the Stanley Cup.
The Penguins ended the game at 6-4 after the Islanders emptied the net in a desperation attempt to tie the game.
Penalty of the Game – Hooking: This happened several times throughout the game leading to multiple power plays. Hooking is when a player takes his stick and uses it in the same way that Captain Hook uses it to rip someone’s arm away from grappling onto something.
Side Notes: The Carolina Hurricanes beat the Buffalo Sabres 5-3. The Columbus Blue Jackets won their 8th straight game against the Philadelphia Flyers 5-2. The Blue Jackets name was inspired by Ohio’s history within the Civil War and they have cannon that they shoot off in their arena. Yeah, hockey! The St. Louis Blues beat the New York Rangers 2-1, and this is the moment when you remember that Nelly as well as his St. Lunatic cohorts are HUGE Blues fans. The Tampa Bay Lighting beat the Ottawa Senators 4-3. The Chicago Blackhawks lost for the second night in a row against the Minnesota Wild with a score of 2-1. The Dallas Stars openly mocked the Toronto Maple Leafs during their game by displaying a photo of Toronto’s biggest, recently arrested fan on the jumbotron. They followed this stunt by dismantling the Maple Leafs 7-1. The Nashville Predators scored two late goals to beat the Vancouver Canucks on the road 2-1. The San Jose Sharks pad their win column with a 1-0 win over the Winnipeg Jets. The Ducks of Anaheim beat the Los Angeles Kings in the late night game 2-1.
January 24, 2014: Hockey Blackout
The wild and crazy game from Thursday has me coming back for more. So, I checked the schedule to see if there was another nationally televised match-up that I could watch from the comfort of my apartment. The only nationally televised game would be on the NHL Network, a channel of which I am not a subscriber for because please see the opening paragraphs. I could watch a game at a bar but it’s a Friday and all of Charlotte’s working shills will be out in force, drooling and drunkenly knocking over stools to sit at. Friday – I am without hockey but I am not without a team.
I reached out to the people of Facebook and Twitter to ask for a suggestion of a team to follow. People gave me answers such as “Canes,” “Canucks,” “Tampa Bay Lightning”, “Pens,” “RANGUHHHS” and my personal favorite, “screw hockey watch basketball.” But it was TwH‘s very own Brian Kraker who suggested that I follow the defunct Hartford Whalers, who are currently functioning as the Carolina Hurricanes. Brian’s rationale is detailed as follows:
Pretty sound to me.
Penalty of the Day – No Hockey
Side Notes: The New Jersey Devils outlasted (2-1) over the Washington Capitals who are backsliding within the Metropolitan division. The Detroit Red Wings add another win at Joe Louis Arena with a 4-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens. The Colorado Avalanche topped the Florida Panthers 3-2. The Calgary Flames win another game at home after a shootout with the Nashville Predators with a 5-4 result. The Phoenix Coyotes hold off the Edmonton Oilers to win it with a score of 4-3. Also, I am currently thinking about getting the NHL Network. Maybe. Perhaps.