Humorist Dave Barry once quipped that the NHL season lasted “from October until the Earth colonizes Mars.” While it’s true that the NHL is insufferably too long, and that not making the NHL playoffs is more difficult than qualifying, there is nothing in sports that comes close to the excitement produced during the NHL playoffs.
The NHL combines the best of all of sports. There’s the power and violence of football, the precise hand/eye skills of baseball, and the speed and precision of basketball, all taking place on a sheet of ice over three 20 minute periods. There are no huddles, no breaks between innings, or stoppages for substitutions and free throws. It’s continuous action throughout the game. Did I mention they do all this while skating on ice? There’s no 100 yard “pitch” here, where the ball/puck spends most of the contest being bandied about in the middle of the field, nowhere near being close enough to score. No, it’s a constant back and forth at a lightning pace that can produce a goal opportunity at any moment.
The in-game tension created by the style of play is only exceeded by the set-up of the playoff. Already this season, we’ve seen five Game 7 opportunities in the playoffs. In any sport, nothing tops the intense denouement of a culminating game determining who moves on and who goes home. Add in the possibility of overtime, where one mistake, one shot can determine the outcome, and we’ve got heart-pounding action from start to finish. I watched last night’s game 7 between San Jose and Detroit, with no rooting interest whatsoever. Except for a brief moment when the Sharks took a two goal lead, the entire game hung in the balance with every pass and shot. Every penalty produced a power play that could forever shape the destiny of the franchise. Clinging to a one-goal lead, San Jose withstood a barrage of Red Wing shots as they pulled their goalie in the last-minute to take a man advantage. The end of an NHL contest is greeted not so much with a fist pump in victory as it is a sigh of relief in survival. And to cap it all off, every NHL series ends with the greatest scene of sportsmanship in sports: the teams, who have been beating the hell out of each other night after night, line up at center ice and shake hands. Despite the intense competition, the NHL still reminds us of the more noble aspect of sports.
The NHL is no game for short attention spans, though. If you get up to go to the restroom or top off your beverage, you could miss something significant. Perhaps this is why it hasn’t caught on in our “look, a squirrel” American culture. It requires a commitment from the fan/viewer unlike any other spectator sport.
I invite you, if you’ve not taken in this spectacle before, to tune in as the playoffs are now down to the final four teams playing in the conference finals. In the Eastern Conference, my former hometown squad, the Tampa Bay Lightning look for their second Stanley Cup against one of the NHL’s original franchises, the Boston Bruins. In the West, San Jose will meet Vancouver for the right to play for the cup.
The NHL is hard to find. Their TV contract with the lesser-known Versus network severely inhibits their availability in some markets, but games on the weekends are available on your local NBC affiliate. I promise, if you watch one series, you’ll be hooked forever.