It’s no secret—I love ice hockey. My family loves hockey, I have friends who love hockey, I’ve lived a pretty hockey-full life. I grew up taking hockey for granted, and have had my heart broken by the sport, not just because of playoff losses or Stanley Cup controversy, but also because of two-and-a-half NHL lockouts in my time as a conscious fan. I’ve lived and died by the Sabres score. I had to take a couple seasons off because of how angry and disappointed my team made me. But I still follow scores of hockey writers on Twitter. I keep up with the league. I love watching Olympic hockey and every hockey movie ever made. I consider myself a lifelong hockey fan. Apparently, I am of a rare breed.
Yes, hockey isn’t as popular across the country as it is in my little bubble of ice. The “Big Four” of American professional sports leagues are considered to be the NFL, NBA, MLB, and the NHL. However, as ranked by the Harris poll in 2016, the most popular sports in America are:
Hockey doesn’t even break the top 5! NASCAR beats out hockey. NASCAR. Football is on there two times! I know this isn’t surprising to the general populace, but it’s surprising to me. I find hockey to be the most interesting, constantly evolving, and beautiful sport there is. I’m not trying to convince anyone to be as diehard as me, but I think hockey deserves a lot more credit and respect than it gets in the sports world. Next time someone asks me why I love hockey so much, this is what I’ll tell them.
There is no better sound than the puck gliding across the ice and hitting a stick. There’s no better smell than stepping out into the bowl of a hockey arena. I wish there was a term for something that’s both a smell and a feeling—it flows in through your nose, but it fills your entire body and soul. It’s cold and warm at the same time. It’s exciting, It’s all-consuming.
There’s nothing compared to the split second rush of a hockey goal: the shock that hits you as you leap out of your seat, your hands shooting up in celebration, the shine of the red light. It’s the quickest, most satisfying goal in sports. I’m getting chills just thinking about it. It’s the only real magic left in the world.
The good old hockey game. Not stepping on the logo on the carpet in the locker room. Playoff beards. Whatever weird shit Ryan Miller used to do all the time. The octopi that people throw at Red Wings games. Calling jerseys “sweaters.” There’s tradition in every sport, but the ones in hockey are so unique and long lasting, they hold a special place in my heart. I love the lore and legend that hockey perpetrates, and the history that continues to influence the sport today. It just seems more substantive and purposeful than any other sport’s traditions.
Hockey is family. Growing up away from my hockey-loving extended family connected me with my cousins, aunts, and uncles, and bonded me with our family friends who were close by—“aunts” and “uncles” who were just my parents’ friends who babysat for us frequently. My Aunt Sue and Uncle Jeff bought my sister and me our first Sabres jerseys. Uncle Jeff picked me up and hoisted me over into the Sabres tunnel so Rob Ray could sign my jersey. They made watching hockey special for us, something that’s never gone away. I can’t imagine my life without hockey.
I have to mention this story because I know my sister Shannon will feel guilty about it—we were spending the night at my Aunt Sue and Uncle Jeff’s, and the choice was between going to the circus or going the Sabres-Capitals game. I wanted to go to the game, Shannon wanted to go the circus. We went to the circus, and Shannon regrets this decision to this day, almost as much as she regrets not making enough food for her goddamn family.
Hockey is what we talk about. Hockey is why I leave my cousin Marissa the most agonizing and depressing voicemails, which she has now started to save to play a game called “What Is Erin Talking About?” Hockey is falling asleep at my grampa’s with Rick Jeanneret calling the game on the radio. Hockey is going to the parking lot of my dad’s elementary school with my uncles and cousins to play pick-up hockey. Hockey is sitting in my grampa’s living room with my whole family, eating pizza and wings, yelling at the TV in agony.
Don’t get me wrong—I know why people don’t “get” hockey. I’ve heard the complaints:
A) It’s hard to follow the puck.
B) There’s too much fighting.
C) There’s too little fighting.
D) The rules are too complex.
E) The season is too long.
F) It’s not on ESPN anymore and Gary Bettman is a terrible commissioner, and on and on and on.
A, B, and C) *clears throat, picks up megaphone* *yells* HOCKEY IS NOT ABOUT FIGHTING. Fighting used to have a bigger place in the sport. If a star player gets hit, one of their teammates needs to send a physical message. It was a different way to one up your opponent, and a way to get your team’s energy up. That’s why they fought. They don’t any more, because it’s violent, and damaging, and uncivilized, and not what the game is about. The game is about scoring, and speed, and teamwork. Please, never talk to me about fighting in hockey again unless you want to hear me talk about Rob Ray. And if you’re only going to a hockey game to see a fight, go to a goddamn boxing match and get the hell out of my section.
D) The rules are no more, no less complex than the rules of any other sport. There are lines and circles, as there are on any field. There are penalties, like in any other sport. The more you watch, the more you’ll get it.
E) Baseball season is longer than hockey season. People are allowed to follow sports for more than 4 months.
F) Yeah, I get this one. I hate Gary Bettman for a myriad of reasons. I hate that the NHL is the only major sport that has actually gone through a legitimate lockout. I hate that the only national broadcasts are NBC or NBCSN. But if more people gave hockey a shot, maybe the league wouldn’t constantly be on the brink of closure, and maybe the sport could get more media attention overall.
Hockey is a tough, gritty, fascinating, stunning sport all about balance, perception, power, and passion. Think about what baseball, football, and basketball players have to do—run, jump, pass, score. Think about how hockey players have to do that while skating, on ice. Yeah.
All sports are good, I’m not trying to dissuade anyone of their own preferences. Life is subjective. Like what you like. But it’s time for hockey to get its due. I’m going to keep yelling this until I die.