That said, I'm pretty proud of the words spilled below so take a look if you are so inclined. (I'm really bad at asking for things, which is why I'm not begging you to read it and pass it on to all your friends to show them my brilliance and get me a job somehow because it will enter the stream and someone will catch a glimpse of my promise and things will go from there. Because that's how things happen in my brain. But you should. Ya know, if you want.)
As you immerse yourself in the game, you begin to understand, without being told, what cycling the puck is and tic-tac-toe passing. What at the beginning of loving hockey seems like shoddy passing and poor shooting and sticks flailing everywhere with abandon, a lack of control, you begin to understand has structure and logic while still looking frenetic. You start to make calls before the whistle blows, knowing when a play is offsides, as players dance in the neutral zone near the blueline. You know what a slash looks like or goalie interference or boarding and you yell at the refs for the 800 times you see it happen to your team and not get called but they're happy to call it to the benefit of the opposition. (No fan of any sport anywhere is ever satisfied with the refereeing.)
The sport is brutal and rough and because I am the way I am, I am drawn to that. But it is also graceful and slick and surprising in its beauty. As much as I love hard hits, I also love watching guys on open ice at full speed, or the backhand forehand backhand stick handling as they skate up to the goal on a breakaway. Even though it's the skills competition, shootout goals can be gorgeous. (Added bonus of making Tim Thomas look absurd.)
I am passionate about hockey in a way that has eclipsed even my love of college football. I love college football because I love my team. I live and die by my team, in a wholly irrational way.(An aside: people invented "rules" about calling a team "my" or "we". I am painfully aware I'm not out there playing. But with my undying support in any sport, I take ownership. Double goes for having a degree from the university. If that offends you, well, you're sure as hell reading the wrong sports fan, no?) I have very little patience for watching other college games though. They don't matter to me. I enjoy them well enough when I do watch, but it's sort of a passing interest. I'm not utterly absorbed. I'm half watching, usually checking out who my alma mater has to play in coming weeks or keeping apprised of the best teams in the country but I can also easily walk away from the games. On the other hand, I will watch any hockey game at any given time and actually have to force myself to step away for my own sanity. After the Caps lost in devastating, gut punching fashion last night, I knew I couldn't watch the Flyers/Devils game tonight as it would be too much.
Football also pauses. There is a natural order to the defense and offense. There are 4 downs. Exciting things may happen on a play, a long pass, a big stop, but there are also downs where almost nothing happens. There is ample time on the play clock for giant linemen to amble over to their positions. Eleven guys line up along a line, eleven guys line up opposing them. There are, especially if the game is on CBS, countless TV timeouts. There are breaks in the action. Some football games can feel interminably long.
Not so with hockey. It feels like sheer pandemonium for each twenty minute period of play. I am never more exhausted than after watching a hockey game I am invested in. It's like 20 minutes of watching a car crash at a time, with brief interludes to regroup and then do it again. I slump into a heap on the couch, utterly drained, afterwards. I can't even sit on the couch for most of a Caps game. I pace. I bounce on the balls of my feet. I have taken to sitting on the coffee table or standing up right in front of the TV. I've said it before, I'll say it again: this matters. The irony of course is that sports so often bring people together, a shared and common rooting interest. My type of mania has made it so that I'm not really fit for public consumption and restrict myself to swearing and pacing in my own house. (In fairness, this does happen when I watch LSU football as well.)
Hockey gods are also crueler than all the other sports gods. You pray to your football god but you know that he really doesn't have so much to do with whether a pass is dropped or not, the humans are responsible. He seems cruelest when a field goal is needed for the win. In hockey, the gods seem always to be cruel. You hear a *ping* and you know that the puck has hit the cross bar. And not gone in. Loki lives in the goal pipe. Goalies, those weird weird creatures, praise their posts and crossbars. They thank them. They know. If you don't appease the hockey gods, the pipes will be unforgiving. The Caps hit four in a recent game. Four times the bar went ping. Four chances to change the game that didn't drop. Mere millimeters of difference because of the bend on a blade, the knuckle on the puck. Hockey gods also control clocks that run with extra time, penalties that never seem to go your way, and the stick breaking into smithereens at the most inopportune time.
While I love dearly my Washington Capitals, scream and curse and fling things and jump up and down with wins and losses, I will also watch every second of every other game no matter who is playing, if I am able. I have spent hours learning as much as I possibly can, and am sometimes overwhelmed at how much more there is to learn, than I have on any other pursuit in recent memory, save for studying for the bar exam. I want to be inside hockey. I want to magically exist in this world. Somehow manage to absorb the knowledge of everything that happens on the 200'x85' sheet of ice.
NHL marketing has done a brilliant job of getting me to love this sport. My love started with the 24/7 series on HBO (which if you have access to through your HBOGo, I recommend you watch), a mere 2 years ago. (It never ceases to amaze me how quickly I went from knowing nothing to wanting to absorb it all.) Then they had their History campaign:
This year they eclipsed that with their "Because It's the Cup" ads, a masterful take on why hockey playoffs are great. Beyond great. The ads explain to the new fan why they might be drawn to it and they spoke to me. Yes, I was suckered in by an ad. Don Draper did his damn job. But it's true! I want to write to NHL marketing and tell them, "Yes! New fans get this! There seems to be limitless opportunities for this sport to grow and expand and people to hop on this bandwagon (which is not a bad thing). Make them love this!" I feel a bit like I proselytize on the subject of hockey. I don't really care though. You should love this. This is amazing. Even if it starts as an excuse to go out on a Wednesday night:
I wanted to get all these hockey thoughts down before tomorrow night when the game is likely to crush my spirit and I will spend hours cursing things before figuring out who to root for in the conference finals. The Caps have Game 6 against the Rangers. The Rangers are very good. They lead the series 3-2. The Caps, as I guessed previously, have started to coalesce in the post season. But this Rangers series has been rough. They lost the triple overtime game. Then last night they saw the Rangers, on Joel Ward's double minor for high sticking because someone bled, steal certain victory from defeat. Those are the kind of losses that can kill a team's spirit. I listen to the amazing Brooks talk about how it's just business and you have to bounce back. I don't know how much I believe him that it's that easy. I don't know how you skate back on to the ice and leave Game 3 and Game 5 behind. (Aside: because I watch every video interview Brooks gives, I'm sort of convinced he's dying and hiding it during these playoffs. He looks, and sounds, horrible. To me, at least. And has been unimpressive on faceoffs. This is what happens when you are an obsessive fan, you question the health of your favorite player with no real evidence to support that claim. As I often say: fandom is insanity. Or as close to it as I ever hope to get.)
Tomorrow night is going to be hard. And even if we win tomorrow, we have to win Saturday. It can be done. It's not impossible. Still...it's a grind. And as much as I love the Caps, I will never be an optimistic, fully believing in my team type of fan. I don't have it in me to trust that much. Then again, not much was expected of this team and they managed to make it past Boston...
If the Caps do lose, if their season ends before they get to raise Lord Stanley's Cup high over their heads, I will be incredibly sad. But not sad in the same way I was when LSU lost the BCS title game and I felt like they'd let me down. Oddly, with hockey in general and the Caps in particular, it feels different. I will be sad for them. I will be inconsolable that Brooks won't have won. And Green. And Ovi and Sasha and Nicky and Wides and Noobs and Holts and Brouwer and Hendy...on and on.
I ask that the hockey gods let them prevail. I ask that for 60 more minutes, and then 60 minutes after that, and then for any combination of 8 more 60 minute games, the Caps play perfectly and the pipe is kind and the hits don't hurt and the puck finds the net through Henrik Lundqvist and then Martin Brodeur and then either Jonathan Quick or Mike Smith. If the game takes longer than 60, even much much longer than 60, I hope that the hockey gods remain on their side.
But. Even if the Caps lose, even if the season of my team ends, it's not ever going to stop me from loving this sport and hoping others come to love it too.
After spilling some three thousand words trying to explain what about hockey matters and why it should, I finally realized it's really quite simple: hockey makes me happy. What a weird sensation.