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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Winter Classic: Expounding on the Merits of Ice Hockey

I’m sure you already have Monday, January 2 starred, circled, and highlighted on your calendar. I know I have ever since the announcement that this season’s Winter Classic NHL game would feature the Flyers and be held in Philadelphia.

In case you’re not up on all things NHL, the Winter Classic is a relatively new annual event where two NHL teams play their scheduled New Year’s game at an outdoor venue. The day is long, cold, expensive… and incredibly popular. HBO even covers the participating teams in a short miniseries which is a fascinating behind the scenes documentary even if you don’t follow hockey.

Having said all that, it’s no secret that I’m an avid fan of many sports, not just hockey. After some careful analysis and unbiased contemplation, I’ve come to the conclusion that hockey may not be the most popular sport in the USA, but objectively speaking, it’s the most impressive.

1. The Athletes:

Hockey players get a bad rap for their missing teeth and stitched faces, but the reality is, they are probably the best conditioned athletes of any sport as a whole. Hockey players require the cardio training of basketball and soccer players, the strength and toughness of football players, and the agility and coordination of baseball, tennis, and most other sports.

In most other sports, you can compensate for missing pieces of the puzzle with other skills. Not the greatest runner? That’s ok, you can play first base. Not the strongest guy on the team? That’s ok, you can play wide receiver. A little overweight? No problem, you’re a pitcher, or a lineman, or an outfielder.

Not in hockey. You better be tough, strong, well-conditioned, and agile. That’s a minimum. Specific skills and positions are the icing, not the cake like in other sports. Oh, and you have to do it all on skates at break neck speeds.

Have you ever seen the inside of a hockey locker room? From the neck down it’s like a waiting room for a Calvin Klein casting. Perfectly muscular, Greek warrior physiques isn’t a plus, but a requirement. Check out a baseball or football locker room. With several exceptions, it’s more of a casting for a Hardees commercial.

2. Watchability/Pacing:

I love baseball. I love baseball because I love numbers, stats, and white noise. There’s something comforting about having the TV on even if you’re not watching it. It’s a reminder that there’s a bigger world outside of your own little microcosm which helps put the stress of everyday life in perspective. The baseball season is great for that. For several months out of the year there is something to glow on my TV every night while I do laundry, clean up from dinner, take care of the kids, prepare for work the next day, eventually doze off on the couch… Baseball: the sport you can watch without watching.

From a pure watchability and pacing standpoint, however, hockey is the opposite and superior to other sports. Intense from buzzer to buzzer. Rife with momentums shifts, physical confrontation, sleek scoring plays, impressive skill and stick handling. It’s the perfect mix of team effort and individual expertise compacted into nonstop action.

Football is 45 minutes of movement and 3 hours of standing around. Baseball is 3 hours of standing around. Soccer is 1.5 hours of movement and 38 seconds of excitement.

Hockey is the only sport that combines nearly constant action with constant excitement. Sure there are whistles, but they’re not built into the game like football. I guess a similar argument could be made for basketball, although there are many more stoppages than in hockey. Plus, a basketball game is meaningless until the last two minutes, unlike hockey where every play matters. More importantly, I don’t like basketball.

Love it or hate it, it’s hard to argue that hockey isn’t the most fast-paced, intense, and action-packed of all the major sports.

3. Atmosphere/Fans:

There are several other arguments we could make about the superiority of hockey, but I will leave you with just one more point to keep the magic number to three.

I don’t care if you hate hockey and swore you’d never go to a game. It’s true they’re expensive, and if your local team is beloved like ours, they’re crowded and difficult to attend. But I promise you, there is nothing, NOTHING, like seeing a home team score a goal live.

I’ve been to many sporting events and my favorite experience of all is the eruption of a hockey stadium when your team scores. There is no word other than eruption to describe it. The air horn blares, every fan jumps to his or her feet in one collective, unanimous scream that echoes throughout the indoor stadium. I get chills just thinking about it. Watching on TV can’t replicate that feeling of elation, that roar, that instant connection with twenty thousand other fans who are now your best friends for two hours.

Hockey fans are hardcore. You don’t spend $80 for two tickets, $15 for parking, $125 for a jersey, and $75 for food because it’s a fun thing to do with the guys after work (baseball). You don’t tag along with your neighbors because there’s going to be a kickin’ tailgate party beforehand and you always said you wanted to try a game at least once in your lifetime (football). You go because you love hockey and you know you’ll be surrounded by several thousand other people who love hockey.

This is a not a casual Sunday afternoon at the ballpark. When I go to games, I don’t leave my seat. At the end of regulation you stand and stretch, your rear sore from balancing on the edge of that hard plastic seat for two and a half hours. Your voice is hoarse from screaming. You’ve exchanged smiles, high fives, and conversation with at least a dozen strangers around you. And you don’t even care that you’re going to sit in the parking lot for an hour trying to get out of your space.

You don’t care, because you just watched some of the best athletes in the world compete in one of the most intense, exciting games on the planet.

Monday is the Winter Classic. Go Flyers.

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