To the people that see hockey as a discombobulated clusterfuck: Don’t let that deter you. In a place like California, it’s hard to see it any other way.
It’s June 2, 2010. I’m eating dinner with my girlfriend in Goleta while the Blackhawks play the Flyers in Game 3 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals. I check the score on my phone. It’s 2-2. There are two big screen TVs in the restaurant: one tuned to SportsCenter, the other to ESPNews. I ask the bartender if he can turn on the hockey game. “Sure, chief. No problem.”
Ten minutes later I’m still watching ESPNews. Again, I go up to ask him to change it. He’s annoyed. He’s annoyed? I do the best I can to keep my cool, but it’s the Stanley Cup fucking Finals. He begrudgingly grabs the remote.
The championship series of one of the world’s major sports can’t get play over early-season baseball highlights. That’s Santa Barbara’s relationship with hockey in a nutshell. The bartender changed the channel to the NHL network — a repeat of a Bruins game from two years ago. But he can’t tell the difference.
Hockey’s not a sport that translates well to a small screen. The camera follows the puck so your eyes follow the puck, but the overall picture is much more crucial. Hockey’s about momentum: It’s easier to understand if you can see the entire ice surface at once.
Make your way across the border to Canada and you’ll notice that hockey’s prominence in the media equals America’s big three sports. If you live in Toronto and you’re not a Maple Leafs fan, people question why. If you live in Toronto and root for the Senators, you have thousands of enemies.
Forsaking the sport completely in Canada is akin to living in Hollywood and not enjoying film. It just doesn’t make sense.
Even in American hockey “hotbeds” like Boston and Minnesota, the hockey teams take a backseat to the Red Sox, the Patriots and the Celtics, the Twins and the Vikings. The state of hockey is even more dire in Los Angeles.
If you want to understand hockey and keep up with the happenings of the sport in America (particularly on the West Coast) you really have to dig.
The sport is a chain of ebbs and flows that demands sustained effort. Success is built step by step and requires intense precision. A team can’t score without getting the puck into the zone, which can’t happen without an individual effort to get the puck up the ice or to place an accurate pass through bodies and skates, which can’t happen without first getting the puck out of their zone and so on.
All of these actions take place at high speed, on ice, on skates, with players the size of linebackers interrupting the puck carrier with body checks.
Think of scoring a goal like climbing a ladder while getting attacked by bees. Then you’ll see that poise in the face of pressure is prized above all else.
These are the kinds of things I wish someone would have explained to that bartender in Goleta. Rather than having to go back to the bar a third time, the game would have been on from the moment I walked in the door. I’d be discussing the Blackhawks’ breakout patterns and the Flyers’ goalie Michael Leighton and his poor positioning, with other hockey fans at the bar.
Yet, when I write that faux-retrospective fantasy in a Santa Barbara state of mind, it seems ridiculous. I can count on both hands the people I know from around here with whom I would be able to have that kind of conversation.
I love hockey. I want everyone to love hockey. Goddamn it, if I have to explain the sport on a fundamental level and build it from the ground up to get people interested, then that’s what I’ll do. It’s not just that I want more friends to talk hockey with, I think everyone deserves to at least have an understanding of the sport and give it a fair shake.
People never give hockey a chance. The next time you’re flipping through channels and you come across a hockey game, stop, and even if you don’t completely understand what’s going on. If you find yourself confused, that’s OK. But if you find yourself intrigued, pursue that interest. It’s a beautiful sport, the greatest there is: I’m still impressed every day by the unpredictability and the endless possibilities of what 12 players on ice with sticks and a puck can do. Learn it and enjoy it. I promise you won’t regret it.