Here are 50 reasons to love the NHL
Although I'm aware that more than likely it's physically impossible, I still believe that during the second period of Tuesday night's Red Wings-Sharks Game 6 I managed to go the first 13 minutes, 32 seconds without taking a breath.
Even now, I'm still not sure exactly how to describe what I saw: It was relentless, frantic and exhilarating; the skill and speed was mesmerizing; I saw sea creatures flying, bodies flipping, sticks splintering, fillings loosening and wave after glorious wave of breathtakingly violent action.
In other words, it was just another typical night of the NHL playoffs. Have you been watching this?
The first real break in the action didn't come until the 6:28 mark, when Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard flicked his glove and snatched a slap shot out of thin air to trigger a whistle, a faceoff and a much-needed oxygen break. At that very moment play-by-play extraordinaire Mike 'Doc' Emrick muttered, under his breath and almost to himself, "Oh my goodness."
My sentiments exactly.
(OK, I think I actually said "Holy s---" but I don't have a PhD., like Emrick.)
So that was the first on my list of 50 Things I Love About the NHL Playoffs. Completely floored by what has easily been, night in and night out, the best sports action of the last year (or two), I grabbed pen and paper and began compiling the rest of the list you see below.
2. Round 1 might just have been the greatest two-week stretch of competition this side of the Olympics. Seriously. Round 1 had a record 49 games. Arenas were at 100 percent capacity. There were four Game 7s (the most in 16 years). And there were nine straight days of overtime games.
3. Nineteen of the first 59 playoff games went into sudden-death overtime. Assuming the NFL ever plays again, you'll have to wait until 2030 to see that many overtime games in the NFL playoffs.
4. Is there a better sound in sports than the crack-clapping of sticks during a scrum for the puck in the corner? Love that sound. It's like the squeak of sneakers in basketball, the smell of a freshly cut baseball field at spring training or the aromas of tailgating outside Heinz Field.
5. I'm pretty confident that if the NHL ever expands to Pandora, Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk will be the only earthling taken in the galaxy expansion draft.
6. Reggie Dunlop's wardrobe in "Slap Shot."
7. And OK, everything else about that movie.
8. You know who had the original, awesomely bad playoff beard? Lord Stanley himself. Dude was scraggily. It looked like he was trying to pull his beard out one hair at a time -- probably because players started scratching their names into the silver bowl he donated, which is how the whole Stanley Cup tradition started.
9. Tomas Holmstrom's work in front of the net. I heard a TV announcer call him maybe the best ever in that area in NHL history and I'm inclined to agree. Spend a shift watching him instead of the puck; it's like a "Family Circus" cartoon on ice: bump, slash, elbow, slide, dig the puck out of the corner, slashed by the goaltender, nudged between two defenders, delicate touch on a tipped shot, scrum, wrestling under a pile of bodies, glove in someone's face, chirping as he skates back to the bench ... and then, there it is, one more slash or bump for good measure. A thing of beauty.
10. I love that there's room at the very top of this game for people who aren't physical freaks. Two of the top scorers in the playoffs are the Lightning's Martin St. Louis (5-foot-8) and Philly's Danny Briere, who's listed at 5-foot-10, an exaggeration that doesn't bother me in the slightest because I interviewed Briere last year and if he's 5-10 I'm at least 6-1.
11. Even after six decades, with nearly 10,000 Zambonis operating in 68 countries around the globe, there is still something hypnotic about the way this machine takes your breath away at a top speed of 9.3 mph. I should know. Before the season started, I got to drive one down the street in California. One of the few regrets of my career was not going rogue with the machine and driving it through a KFC drive-thru at the end of the block.
12. Flying octopi in Detroit. Maybe the grossest, greatest tradition in sports. Gordie Howe once told me the only thing he was afraid of in hockey were the dead, stinky octopi fans used to hurl onto the ice in Motown. I know the tradition started because it used to take eight wins to earn the Stanley Cup but -- take it from someone who has watched a game with an octopus stashed under a nearby seat -- I think part of the connection is that dead cephalopods are the only thing that smell worse than hockey equipment.
13. I hate to sound this way but back in my day, sonny, before the NHL so brilliantly overhauled its rules in 2005, a two-goal lead in the playoffs meant the game was over. You could turn the TV off and go mow the lawn. Now? Without the ability to trap and stall and grind games to a halt, teams can routinely come back from three goals down. This proves two things: As much as we hate it, sometimes change can be a good thing in sports. And the horrid condition of my lawn is Gary Bettman's fault.
14. Red Wings center Jiri Hudler recovered from the stomach flu in time for the playoffs by sticking to a strict diet of Doritos. (And here I had always thought it was Pop Tarts that had mysterious healing powers.)
15. In what is the best warm-up act in sports, the NHL playoffs are preceded by the NCAA Frozen Four in which this year Minnesota-Duluth won in overtime (of course) on a goal scored by senior Kyle Schmidt, who had just been given the national Unsung Hero Award.
16. Meanwhile, the NCAA's Hobey Baker Award, given to the top player in college hockey, went to Andy Miele from hockey powerhouse (and my alma mater) Miami University. We also produced the Sharks Dan Boyle and Emrick. (You're welcome.)
17. How about the whirlwind spring this kid Miele has had: CCHA champs; No. 1 seed in the NCAA regionals (bounced in the first round); signed and shipped from Oxford, Ohio, to Phoenix for a week's worth of regular-season games with the Coyotes (something he described as being like "Christmas"); then off across the globe to Slovokia to play for the USA in the World Championships. Me? What did I do this spring? I went to Harry Effing Potter World in Orlando.
18. Before we left, my oldest daughter attended her first hockey clinic. Afterward she only wanted to know one thing: Is there a Girl Scout badge for hockey?
19. I especially love that the last time I talked to retired Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita we were constantly interrupted by barking from a room full of puppies he had volunteered to help raise for a nearby animal shelter.
20. Before Washington was run off by the Lightning, the Capitals relentless Alexander Ovechkin led the playoffs in shots on goal and hits -- which would be like Ray Lewis doubling as an all-pro quarterback for the Ravens. Don't talk to me about the Caps needing a more vocal player to wear the "C". Real leaders lead by example. Secondary scoring (and goaltending) is key in the playoffs. So if you want to blame someone, how about $67 million man Nicklas Backstrom, who finished with two assists in the playoffs.
21. Who doesn't love the doughy, spandex-clad green men in Vancouver who transform the penalty box Plexiglas into a hilarious only-in-hockey cross between an entomology slide and a Times Square peep show window? "We're just two idiots in green suits having fun and pumping up the fans," said Force (half of Force and Sully), who, by the way, has like 85,500 more Facebook friends than I do. In a rare, stupid and overbearing move the NHL asked the duo to tone down its act a bit, which is like asking beer not to taste quite so good.
22. Ryan Kesler hadn't scored in his previous 17 playoff outings but because of his overall game -- as well as legions of sophisticated fans whose understanding of the sport seems to go well beyond fantasy leagues and statistical geekdom -- Kesler was still considered a front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy. As if to repay the gesture, Kesler then had a mind-boggling five goals, six assists and two game winners in his next four games.
23. Oh, and I like how the NHL has kept the obscure names on it trophies instead of dumbing it down and therefore maintaining them as a kind of secret password for real fans.
24. Vezina. Byng. Selke. If you think those are the names of bridges, you're reading the wrong column.
25. After quarterback, goaltender has to be the toughest position in sports. So how is it that the Bruins' Tim Thomas stops 40 shots and still doesn't even look like he's worked up a sweat? He's so freakishly cool under such intense pressure that they should rename Boston's crease "The Hurt Locker."
26. Speaking of the Bruins, how about that ad they ran that warned: Never ever date a Flyers fan, even if she shaves her mustache. And you thought Zdeno Chara was a cheap-shot artist?
27. I'm so fascinated by the unspoken code of escalation during hockey scrums (you snow shower my goaltender I face wash your captain and so on and so on) that last year I configured an entire flow chart on the subject for The Mag.
28. And in trying to help explain the concept of an NHL scrum, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette graciously agreed to punch me in the nose. Not for real, of course. But he wanted to know what I'd do if he shoved me during a game. "I'd shove you back, only harder," I said. "Now you're getting it," he said.
29. The NHL playoffs should be required study for all football sideline reporters. Look, there is no more intense action than hockey, yet the coaches on the bench actually listen to the questions and give some amazing answers while not being afraid to let their emotions (read: red-faced anger) come through. It's candid, informative, amazing television. Now cut to Nick Saban or Bill Belichick grunting some condescending five-word cliché as he brushes past a reporter on his way to the locker room. You know what the difference is? In the NHL, ego and coaching talent are often inversely related.
30. I love that hockey has a lexicon all unto itself, doesn't it? Slew foot. Face wash. Chicken wing. Slap pass. Dangle. Barn. Biscuit. Grinder. Lumber. Twig. Top Shelf.
31. I also "heart" Easton's EQ50. When I was growing up and I wanted new cleats or skates, my dad would always say that "the equipment doesn't make the athlete." Yeah, um, turns out dad was wrong. Dead wrong. (And while I'm at it: Air conditioning wasn't a "fad", either, big guy.) At the NHL All-Star Game, Boston's Chara won his fourth straight NHL slap shot contest with a record blast of 105.9 mph using Easton's new EQ50 stick. The good folks at Easton sent me one of those twigs so I could take it for a test drive. Just like in golf and tennis, as we leap ahead in technology (a lot of it is the same carbon nanotubes NASA used to build spacecrafts) our equipment continues to get lighter and stronger in what people in the biz call "the race to zero." Yet the EQ50, which can be customized with up to 20 grams of weights in the knob of the stick, is one of the few ultra-light sticks that has somehow maintained the balance and touch of the old wood sticks we used as kids. (Which seems impossible, I know, until you try a one-timer or a backhand saucer pass with this thing. If lightsabres were legal in hockey, this is what they'd feel like.) How great is this stick? Let me put it this way: Every night when I lock my garage door, it's not to protect my car.
32. Most of the people who operate the explosive, ear-wrecking goal horns in the NHL must have grown up with older siblings. Because only a little brother or sister could so perfectly understand the exact, exquisite moment when those horns go from informative to celebratory to awesomely obnoxious.
33. I have bittersweet feelings about the goal cam: I love the idea and the way this perspective gives you glimpses of the speed and violence of the game but it only leaves me wanting more. For the life of me I'll never understand why the NHL doesn't do more to help the game translate better to TV. Why aren't there cameras in the boards or the ice or the refs' helmets? Why isn't there a camera on a track that can travel all the way around the rink so that when Niklas Kronwall flattens someone into the boards folks watching at home actually hold out their hands to catch the poor guy as he comes through the screen.
(Oh and PS: They need to figure out how to show us replays. The pace of an NFL game is such that, if anyone does anything even remotely interesting, we get to see it 11 times before the next snap. But there's no time to do that in hockey, in which, at times, more action unfolds in a single shift than during the entire NFL preseason. But JumboTrons and replays have made us lazy viewers, dependant on a stream of replays. You don't get that in hockey -- but you need to. Here's an idea: split screens or picture in picture for replays.)
34. I love seeing sellout crowds in Tampa Bay. In 2004, when the Bolts won the Cup, they put their mascot out on the roof of the arena for, like, 10 days, in the boiling sun until fans filled the seats. I know because I got to sit out there with the poor guy as he lived in a tent, watched his foam head melt and counted windows in nearby skyscrapers to keep from losing his mind.
35. Yes, Rajon Rondo is a true warrior after the way he gutted out an elbow injury during a recent Celtics playoff game. But let's put that into hockey perspective for a moment, shall we? The Flyers had what could be as many as SEVEN guys skating for them who will require offseason surgery for injuries. Seven. Then there's Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom, who, a few years ago, suffered a nearly catastrophic injury to his testicles, had surgery on an off day and started the next game. Hold on, I'll be right back, I just need to dry heave for a minute.
36. On the flip side of that equation is Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, who once missed the beginning of an overtime game in the playoffs because of what the team called "equipment problems," which turned out later to be, um, diarrhea.
37. I still don't get the catfish thing, but to fans in Nashville: The ovation and sendoff you gave your team at the end of the Canucks series was something to behold.
38. And it was a fitting backdrop to the best moment in sports: the NHL handshake line.
39. The pleasantries end there, though, right? Hockey seems to be one of the few sports in which retired players who go into TV don't automatically give a pass to all their buddies who are still playing. Former star-turned-commentator Jeremy Roenick has relentlessly savaged the Sharks Patrick Marleau, who is scoreless in the playoffs.
40. Gotta love this reader comment after the Rangers Sean Avery was featured in a PSA supporting gay marriage: "Gay marriage is fine ... now, shootouts and the instigator penalty? That's a different story altogether." Hockey fans.
41. After scoring 10 goals during the regular season, Nashville's Joel Ward exploded for seven goals in the playoffs. There is something about the rhythm and timing of hockey that creates these crazy, space-bending zones that players occasionally skate into in which the universe lines up and pucks constantly find them even though they simultaneously seem to disappear behind the defense. I imagine it has to be the closest thing to surfing that there is in major sports. Ward got to ride that wave for a few nights. Wayne Gretzky spent 20 years inside that pipeline.
42. The quirky, jerky rituals goaltenders go through before faceoffs. They look like twitchy, overcaffeinated lab rats.
43. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has been at the pinnacle of his sport and under intense scrutiny for two decades without so much as a single slip-up. How many other athletes or public figures can you say that about?
44. I love how the green pucks they used during warm-ups at the World Championship made it look like they were shooting with frozen frogs.
45. While researching a story on the special bond between hockey players and their sticks, I watched as a fan handed Caps coach Bruce Boudreau a stick from his playing days with the 1974 Toronto Marlboros. (He might not look like it now but Boudreau was a stud who tallied 165 points in one season with the Maple Leafs junior team.) Hockey players are so closely connected to their sticks that 35 years later Boudreau could instantly tell by the weight, feel and the specialized teardrop-shaped tape job that the stick was indeed his.
46. Did you catch the final three songs they played in Detroit last night? Journey, Kiss and then -- during the mega-scrum to the end the game, in which I think I counted nine players piled into the Wings net like a human Jell-O mold -- they played Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."
47. You think Neil had a hockey scrum in mind when he penned the lyrics: "Hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching me ... touching youuuuuuu"?
48. Before I die I want to be able to play the Edge's wicked, reggae-esque muffled march break in "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and I want to be able to move a bad pass up from my outside left skate to the blade of my stick in one effortless motion the same way Logan Couture does.
49. I love that we get another Game 7 on Thursday night in San Jose.
50. But ya know what I love the most about the NHL playoffs?
They're not even halfway done yet.
Oh my goodness.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. While covering the NFL for the past 16 years at Sports Illustrated and ESPN, he has written more than 30 cover stories and two books ("Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys"), and his work has been anthologized in "The Best American Sports Writing."
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