Friday, May 20, 2011

The Other Major Fringe Sport

The Red Wings are gone, but my illicit affair with hockey continues.

I admit that I am at best a casual hockey fan these days. During the regular season, I don't go looking for televised games (mostly because I rarely surf past "Versus") and even if I find a game I don't watch unless my Red Wings happen to be playing.

While I grew up in Michigan, I never was a hockey player. I can't skate worth a darn, which is a major drawback. My brother and some friends would occasionally push a ball or puck (I think we had a few at some point) along a frozen pond, but not much more.

Still, I was a hockey fan, and particularly a Red Wings fan. I would watch the grainy"Hockey Night in Canada" coverage courtesy of CKLW in Windsor and follow the results in the sports section. Gordie Howe was still a Red Wing and Alex Delvecchio was my hockey hero (along with non-Wings Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr). Those Wings weren't particularly good (I can remember only one, brief, playoff appearance in the early to mid-'70's), but they were still my team.

Much to my delight, the Wings have become the New York Yankees of the NHL over the last decade and a half, winning four of the last 15 Stanley Cups, most recently in 2008. Through shrewd drafting and splashy (for hockey) free agent signings, they have built as close to a dynasty as you can get in hockey, where few players stay with one team for more than a few seasons.

These days I don't pay much attention to professional hockey until the playoffs start, or it's the Winter Olympics. But I should. Hockey is good television sport (better, at least, than the favorite sport of my youth, baseball) and a fantastic sport to watch in person. It has its own unique sounds (smacking sticks on the ice to call for a puck; dueling sticks digging in the corner for a puck; the "PING!" of the puck hitting the post or crossbar), its own lexicon (grinder; goon; blocker; butterfly -- and that's only two of 26 letters . . . ) and its own smells (sweaty gloves and rotting octopi).

Best of all, it is a team sport where doing the "little things" matters to whether a team will win or not. Sure, there are glamour players today as there were 30 years ago, but having one, or even several, doesn't guarantee success. Even the Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky needed defensemen, defensive forwards, and a great goaltender to be a great team. In contrast to the NBA, where a coach can be criticized for benching a "superstar" even when his team wins, on the road, in the conference finals, the NHL is all about team, not player.

More than any sport other than perhaps lacrosse, hockey also reminds me of soccer in that spacing between players, and being able to take advantage of the space, is crucial to a good offense just as closing down that space and cutting off passing lanes is crucial to a good defense. That and, for one game and even an entire playoff series, the more talented team doesn't always win. The roll of the puck, the hot goaltender, the fringe player who somehow finds himself scoring a hat trick, are all variables that can affect a game or series.

So, go ahead, watch Labron and Dwyane and Dirk and Kobe (heh, heh, okay, not Kobe) in the next few weeks. But take some time to watch Martin and Tim and Joe too. I guarantee you'll learn more about teamwork and the importance of team, not to mention good fortune, watching that puck skitter across the ice.

No comments:

Post a Comment