Courtesy of MCT
The average sports fan’s list of this country’s greatest sporting events usually includes some combination of the Super Bowl, March Madness, The Masters and the World Series, among others. While I greatly enjoy all of those, I am hard pressed to think of an event I find more exciting than the NHL playoffs.
Yes, my favorite team, the New York Rangers, just pulled off one of the more remarkable wins I have ever seen on Monday night, after tying the game up with six seconds remaining, so I’m writing this on a bit of a high. Regardless, the appeal of the playoffs endures whether my team is involved or not. Perhaps that is the greatest testament to hockey.
The sport has established its own niche of devoted fans within the American sporting culture. It will never carry the nationwide appeal of the NFL or MLB. ESPN essentially ignores the sport as they debate the battle for the Washington Redskins third quarterback spot in May. The lack of coverage for hockey used to frustrate me, but I have started to embrace the sport’s underdog status. Just make sure you are taking notice when spring comes and the postseason begins. Quite frankly, there is nothing like the intensity of playoff hockey.
Consider the remarkable skill, as these athletes operate better on skates than most of us do on our own two feet. Then there’s the up-and-down, non-stop pace of the sport where each rush could potentially lead to the goal that decides a championship. Each goal brings cause for a genuine celebration and release of emotion that is difficult to find in most other sports. Underdog stories are more likely to be found in hockey. A No. 7 or No. 8 seed beating a No. 1 or No. 2 is usually found at least once a year, only adding to the unpredictable nature. Heading into the playoffs, each team has genuine reason to believe they can win it all.
Overtime hockey and its excitement is an experience unlike any other in sports. That is unless your team is involved, in which case it induces near heart-stopping moments as your season teeters on the brink. Although it is no doubt a strenuous exercise in mental fortitude, it is remarkably enjoyable nonetheless.
The camaraderie on a hockey team is unique. Every scrum after the whistle brings examples of teammates having each other’s back no matter what. A hit that causes injury in one game of a playoff series will surely lead to that player having to answer for his actions in a fight during the next game. That is the code of hockey. Each player understands what has to happen. It might be the aspect of the game that is most admirable. Not necessarily fighting, but the fact that the players police themselves on the ice. Disagreements can be settled right there in the moment. In the NBA, for all its good qualities, two players so much as look at each other the wrong way and it leads to technical fouls being handed out. A short scrum in hockey is understood, dealt with, and then each team moves on. Heck, the referees are as likely to curse at the players as the players are at each other. And over the course of a playoff series, the teams are able to build up a genuine sense of animosity toward the opposition, which only adds to the intensity and energy of the series.
The Stanley Cup might be the most physically difficult trophy to win. Players play through numerous injuries that only build up as they get deeper into play. The physical toll they must pay for this trophy is extreme, and yet most never take a shift off. It is clichÃ©, but these players truly leave everything they have on the ice. Plus, they do it all with sweet playoff beards.
I cannot even say it is my favorite sport. I grew up deeply involved in football and baseball. But if I have to choose one sport’s postseason to watch each year, the choice of the NHL playoffs is clear to me.