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I used to be a big NHL fan, but the events of the past few years changed that. A few months ago I posted the reasons why I don't miss the NHL on my sports blog 110 Percent, largely because of inept leadership. However, I have thought quite a bit about hockey over the past few months. Upon further reflection, I have been reminded of the things that attracted me to hockey in the first place. I finally decided that I'm not going to let Bettman rob me of a great game, so I'm back on the bandwagon and excited about the Stanley Cup playoffs. Let me make perfectly clear: I have experienced this shift in spite of Bettman and the NHL leadership (or lack thereof), not because of them. Without further ado, here are five reasons why the NHL is greatness.
The Stanley Cup - In Baseball v Cricket, I said the Ashes urn was a nine. For reference, the Stanley Cup is a ten—it is the hockey icon. Watch the final game of the Stanley Cup Finals this year (even the playoffs are named for the Cup) and witness the winning team pass the Cup around, each player taking their turn hoisting it over their head. And then you get to the off season, when each player on the championship team gets the Cup for one day, and legendary stories emerge. In every other North American sport, you talk of winning a ring. In hockey, it's all about the Cup.
Party crashers - There is almost always a young, low-seeded team that rides a hot goalie deep in the playoffs. They win their first round series and everyone calls it a fluke. But when they reach the conference finals, people take notice. A couple years ago, it was the Calgary Flames and the Sea of Red who were the darlings of the Finals. If you like underdogs, hockey is the sport for you.
Overtime playoff hockey - If you like sudden death overtimes, this is the only place it really happens. The NBA tacks on more minutes, and MLB is only sudden death for the home team. I suppose the NFL has sudden death overtime, but that is negated by the fact that it almost always ends with a couple running plays to center the ball before concluding with another field goal. Where's the tension in that? Nothing beats triple overtime playoff hockey, full of breakaways, odd man rushes and jaw dropping saves. Nothing.
Exciting defense - In most sports, good defense makes for boring games. Not so in hockey, where a goalie standing on his head, particularly in the playoffs, is more exciting than the league leading goal scorer. Picture this: Kobe drives the lane after losing his man with a wicked crossover, then clangs the layup off the front of the rim. Result: you were brought to the edge of your seat, but you feel cheated when it doesn't result in points. Now this: Sidney Crosby dekes two defenders and fires off a shot only to be robbed by a Martin Brodeur glove save. Result: no score here, either, but it's still exciting because one great play is trumped by another.
Team handshakes - Two teams slug it out over seven games—they fight, bleed, hack and generally try to tear each other to pieces in order to advance. So when one team has clinched the series, what do they do? They line up and shake hands, congratulating the winners and appreciating the effort of the defeated. You don't get this in any other major American sport. Pure class.
So there you have it. Over the next two months, you have the chance to see some great hockey. Forget Bettman, strikes, lockouts and all the mess and enjoy the greatness of the Stanley Cup playoffs, because you never know when two goalies are going to go nuts and star in a triple overtime game.
Also published at 110 Percent.