Why do I love hockey? As simple as the question is, I want to outline my fullest answer.
“The good old hockey game is the best game you can name, and the best game you can name is the good old hockey game”. – Stompin’ Tom Connors
That little gem from the late Stompin’ Tom Connors is the short’n’sweet version of my answer… Hockey is one of the most physically demanding sports in the world. It consists of a hard unforgiving projectile, cannoned around at speeds up to (and often topping) 90mph. The play surface itself is a solid sheet of ice with zero give and little grip. Players careen around, hurtling into one another with blades strapped to their feet and armed with a stick in their hands. At the professional level, you’re expected to offer up your body and livelihood to block the howitzers as well. Fighting is still accepted and plays an important role in today’s game. And one shouldn’t forget the bone-jarring hits that are commonplace in this beautiful sport. All in all, it’s about brutal modern-day gladiators shooting, zooming and fist-fighting in a frozen coliseum.
Hockey began at a young age for me and immediately became a passion; I was actually able to skate before I could walk. The thrill I got from it as well as my early adoration for it remains just as ravenous today. I realize and accept that I’m never going to play at the NHL level but I can always dream and get lost in the competition of ”beer leagues” and outdoor pick-up games.
About these leagues, I’ve recently suffered a playoff series loss in ball hockey that ended with heartbreak for my team. It was the second period of sudden-death overtime and we got caught on a quick counter-attack which immediately ended the game. We had won the day before with a resounding 7-2 victory only to return and be eliminated in a close contest. The defeat was absolutely devastating and it kept me in a funk for weeks afterward, haunting my mind on repeat. That’s just to give a taste of Hockey’s impact on my personal life.
One of my greatest Hockey memories was to see perennial all-star, Steve Yzerman, captaining the Detroit Red Wings against the Vancouver Canucks. In my youth, I was brought to a game at GM Place, the Canucks home arena, having as-yet no particular affiliation to any NHL team. It was actually that game in which I decided to become a Red Wings fan with Stevie Y, a true gentleman and ambassador of Hockey, becoming my greatest idol. The man played with mind, body and soul; incredible hockey instincts, tape-to-tape passes, clever outlets and well-coordinated defense. He epitomizes what I believe is the definition of a Hockey player: an athlete, a gentleman and a competitor. I have five jerseys of each of my two teams, of which one is a Montreal one (my no. 2). That leaves four different jerseys of the Detroit Red Wings and I expect that figure to grow in the future. I eat, sleep and breathe Hockey.
Hockey at this Moment
Let’s not forget there’s a run for Lord Stanley’s cup still going on! I’m negligent of it only because both my teams are knocked out. It’s petty but I know I’m not the only one. Detroit and Montreal respectively got eliminated by the Lightning. The series going on now between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning is for the glory of taking home Stanley. I could make my predictions for it but I leave that to the analysts, I enjoy the hockey as a neutral party once my teams are no longer in the run, may the best team win! In serious reflection I would take Chicago as the favourite but only by a slim margin, like ”Game 7” kind-of-close. Postseason veterans and a net-minder from nearby Châteauguay are the keys for the Blackhawks. Tampa has no issue with being an underdog though, so don’t be surprised if I’m mistaken in this prediction.
As a whole, today’s NHL is still exciting and amazing to watch but I would trade it all in a heartbeat to throw back time on the game for a dose of the true legends in their prime. Just imagine seeing Steve Yzerman, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Jacques Plante, Bobby Orr one last time for a final game. I envy those that witnessed first-hand the Original Six era games or even back when the Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers were seen on the rinks of the NHL. Warriors on ice gladiators on skates there are innumerable examples of in-game and off-ice heroics from hockey players old and new. Just looking at a player like Robert Neil, “Bob, Boomer” Baun, one is met with a daunting resume for heroic exploits. Just one example in particular is when the man returned to a ‘Game 6’ finals matchup only to score the game winner with a fractured ankle. That was the game winning goal that forced a seventh meeting for the Leafs and Wings which Baun’s Leafs managed to win. One of the all-time greatest moments in professional hockey for me, though, is when Saku Koivu made his return from battling cancer in 2002 at the Bell Centre. A ten minute standing ovation erupted from the packed house; once Saku was seen the entire building rose to scream and cheer for the return of the Canadiens captain. I was in the nosebleeds but even there you couldn’t ignore the overwhelming sensation of emotions felt throughout the whole arena.
Sports fans all over the world are a special breed of human, die-hard dedication for a team they’ll likely never play for. Some cheer for teams that continue to fall short )*cough* Toronto *cough*) or win anything of renown. There are thousands that coach and referee from armchairs and stadium seats alike. Fist fights and death threats over friendly competition, riots, parades all make up the exhilaration of the emotional roller coaster that is sports fandom. Rivalries can make mortal enemies of the best of friends or even divide families. Some such rivalries can span decades: Bruins vs. Habs, Red Wings vs. Avalanche, Leafs vs. Habs, Rangers vs. Islanders. The animosity is tantalizing. There are also the announcers and panellists that help shape the game; the likes of Don Cherry with his impeccable wardrobe and RDS’s enthusiastic play-by-play broadcasters. I have a quick reflection though: am I the only one that sees an uncanny resemblance between soccer’s endearing classic “Goooooaal” and la version française for Hockey of “(…)et le Buuuuuut”! Now that is how you get a crowd on their feet, hearts pumping and fists raised.
I also enjoy the nicknames and reputations of the many players in the game both new and old; Tomas Holmstrom Demolition Man, Johan Franzen The Mule, Andre Racicot Red Light Racicot, Gordie Howe Mr. Hockey, Larry Robinson Big Bird, Wayne Gretzky The Great One, Derek Boogard the Boogeyman just to sound-off a few. When it comes to watching the game, skill level or age doesn’t play a major factor with me because I can get lost in a game of tykes just as easily as the pros; Hockey for me is, instinctively, a permanent source of happiness. To play for real is still exponentially above and beyond any other possible approach though. I could lace up for some outdoor shinny or find a ball for street hockey and I’d be like a kid in a candy store. It isn’t even that long ago my brothers and I would put on some knee pads and grab some mini sticks to play in the basement. I still reminisce of times being woken for early morning practices, taking long drives for out-of-town tournaments, or for the unforgettable early games.
When it comes time to play Hockey, I am a left winger naturally, however I’m quick to adapt if needed anywhere else on the rink. For example I love to play goalie in ball hockey, but if I lack the pads I’m usually a defender. Goalie(?)… I still hope to try playing that position on ice one day, for the challenge and fun of it. To be perfectly honest, strapping on all the gear for Hockey has always made me feel like a warrior getting ready for battle. Maybe I’m going overboard, getting lost in my imagination, but the similarities are undeniable.
I hope this article was an enjoyable read. I had a lot of fun writing it.
Keep your stick on the ice,