There's a window of time in the late winter, the time when football season is over, and baseball season is a still a couple months away. From the time between the Daytona 500 and the beginning of March Madness, there was never much for me to latch on to, from a sports standpoint. Sure, back in my formative years I would watch the NBA with a fair amount of passion. Even college basketball would satisfy me. it was my favorite sport to play, and it was fun to keep tabs on a team or two. But as I've gotten older, my playing days long since pased, basketball simply doesn't hold my attention like it used to.
Enter the game of ice hockey. The grand game embraced as Canada's National Pastime, played by a bunch of tough, toothless Northerners, preferably on a frozen pond with sub-zero temperatures. For a long time, I had a hard time looking at hockey players in the same sense of any other professional athlete. They looked like guys you'd see at your local bar, never bothering with details like hygeine or proper grammar, slurring their words and drinking Old Milwaukee Light, sucking the foam out of their scraggly moustaches, made easier by having no teeth or dentures. Take Calgary Flames legend Lanny McDonald, for instance, hoisting the Stanley Cup in 1988. Or the rough & tumble Wndell Clark fro the Toronto Maple Leafs. That's who I picured when I thought of a hockey player, not a babyface like Wayne Gretzky. The guys who liked to fight, who had their front teeh missing for years.....those were hockey players.
It's a sport that for the casual American sports fan doesn't have enough scoring, enough action. Their playing surface has a lot of confusing lines and circles on it. And who can see the puck?? But as seasoned soccer fans always suggest to the non-fan, you need to look a little closer. In hockey, there's a lot going on. Once you know the basics of the game, picking up on a few subtle nuances, it's a sport that's impossible not to enjoy or respect.
So how can a casual observer begin to pick up the basics of the game? It's simple. Watch a game. Listen to the announcers, and especially the commentators. They're pointing out the little things all the time. Much like soccer to a casual observer, in hockey, what used to look like a bunch of guys skating around aimlessly suddenly begins to make more and more sense. The spacing, the stick-handling, the footwork, the positioning....each little aspect adds up to a blast of a sport to follow.
Another piece of advice to the newbie hockey enthusiast: Pick a team & embrace them. Any sport is more fun when it feels like you've got a little emotional skin in the game. It doesn't matter who, or even at what amateur or professional level. Just make sure it's a team that you have the ability and resources (TV or in person) to watch a few games. Get to know the players, the roster, their backgrounds, etc.
My most recent hockey addictions are following the Colorado Avalanche (more on them & their incredible woes this season at a later time) and watching CBC's Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights, thanks to the NHL Network. In particular, every Canadian knows that at the 1st intermission of Game 1 of their Saturday Night double-header (typically with most or all teams being the Canadian franchises), it's time for Coach's Corner with Ron Maclean (the Bob Costas of Canadian Sports Television) and the incomparable Don Cherry.
I admit it. I love Don Cherry. He's John Madden and Rush Limbaugh rolled into one. He's the most polarizing figure in Canadian hockey, and whether you love him or hate him, you hang on his every word. According to a 2004 CBC survey, he's the 7th most popular Canadian ever. Being a good Canadian boy, he naturally thinks Canadians are the best hockey players. He believes the Russians are pussies and cheaters on the ice, and that American players don't have enough passion for the game.
What sets Cherry apart from most analysts is that he literally wears his passion for the game, his patriotism for his country, and his hard-nosed playing & coaching bravado on his sleeve. Specifically, he wears it on his outrageous custom-tailored suits. As much as tuning into Coch's Corner is about what Don's going to say about whatever the hot topic of the week is, it's also just as much about seeing what outrageous suit he will be wearing. Red or green plaid? Flower patterns? Hot pink? How about Red Velvet? Perhaps a black & white pattern? It's always must-see TV.
Case in Point: Here's Coach's Corner from this past Saturday night, with Don in full-on St. Patty's Day spirit, talking about the recent vicious Zdeno Chara hit on Montreal Canadien (and former Sioux City Musketeer) Max Pacioretty, takes some shots at the Montreal boards (set in concrete, I believe). He also guarantees that Winnipeg will get an NHL franchise back....the return of the Winnipeg Jets (which they absolutely should get). It's about as fired up as I've ever seen him. That's saying something.
Embrace the game......especially before playoff season starts!! Thank me later.