May and June each year bring us the playoff seasons of two major sports in America. This year, and probably last year as well, the best playoff experience hasn’t belonged to the NBA. That distinction, in my humble opinion, clearly belongs to the NHL.
Like most kids I grew up with, we followed and played three sports: baseball, basketball, and football. Hockey was a club sport at my high school, mostly reserved for rich kids. It was never an attainable sport, and I never took an interest in it on any level.
The first time I ever took notice of hockey was in 1991 when a young superstar named Mario Lemieux won the first of his two Stanley Cup trophies. I liked his name. I loved his game. That being said, at the same time the Penguins were hoisting the Cup, a guy named Michael Jordan was winning his first of six NBA championships in Chicago. I was far more interested in that. By 1992 the Steelers hired a new young coach named Bill Cowher and the resurgence of the Steelers was on as well. My new interest in pro hockey quickly took a backseat and faded away.
Hockey came back to me in college, by way of an immensely addictive and fun video game on the Sega Genesis. The collective GPAs of the students living in I.U.’s Teter Elkin Hall took a significant hit that year! I of course always played with the Pittsburgh Penguins. I didn’t know the rules of hockey, and I sparsely watched it on t.v., but I loved me some Mario Lemieux!
Over the next 15 years I kept a casual eye on the Penguins’ yearly progress, but I still didn’t really follow the sport, nor did I fully understand or appreciate what I was watching when I did tune in.
This started changing a bit in the last 8 years. The emergence of superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin brought excellent hockey and eventually championships back to Pittsburgh. Adding to my interest was the long overdue resurrection of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey program. In fact, the Blackhawks and Penguins have combined for 5 of the last 8 Stanley Cup championships. If the Penguins win one more game this year, that figure will be 6 in 9 years.
I don’t consider myself a huge hockey fan. I rarely watch regular season games. I watch the playoffs, and only Pittsburgh and Chicago playoff hockey at that. Seeing that the Penguins won the Cup last year, and are in the finals this year, I’ve obviously watched a lot of playoff hockey the past two years.
Something’s happened to me through these observations. At 42 years old I feel like I’m just now starting to realize what an amazing sport this is. I’m like an old dog learning new tricks. Not only do I have a firm grasp of the rules now, I also find myself watching the games differently. I’m recognizing the intricacies and strategy of the sport. The teamwork involved is fascinating.
If you’re like me and lots of other folks, you’ve probably grown tired of the product the NBA has become. The great teams are still great I suppose, even if there’s only two or three of them. But the team-game aspect of it seems lost. It’s usually one player going off, while others stand around watching, then some other player going off, while the rest of the guys stand around watching. I finally understand when I read last year that 11-time NBA championship winning coach Phil Jackson watches more hockey than basketball. Though Phil’s teams were always anchored by a mega-superstar, his teams were comprised of players who all had specific roles, knew their roles, and contributed to team play. Phil’s interest in hockey may explain why his New York Knicks are so bad at basketball. Might wanna spend more time watching hoops Phil!
So if you’re sick of the NBA, losing interest in a diminishing college basketball product, don’t have the attention span anymore for baseball, bummed that Notre Dame hasn’t won a football championship since the Reagan Administration, or had enough of the flag-fest the NFL is now, I suggest finding yourself an NHL team and giving pro hockey a look. Never thought I’d be the guy banging the drum for hockey, but I gotta tell ya friends, this sport is pretty damn fun!