(Ed. Note: It's the end of the month, which means our transition from August project fun to NHL Season Previews beginning tomorrow. Leahy's list now; Wyshynski's later on. The "5 Reasons I Love Hockey" series was such a hit that we're extending it as a weekend series for the foreseeable future, with fresh lists every Saturday. Check out the archive of "5 Reasons I Love Hockey" features. Take it away, Mr. Leahy.)
1. My brothers.
I have two of them. They're seven and ten years older than me. One is a New York Islanders fan and the other a Montreal Canadiens fan. They failed miserably at converting me to either side as I turned out to be a Pittsburgh Penguins fan all because the logo attracted me as a youngster (I was easily swayed in my diaper days).
When you're growing up, you want to do everything your older brothers do and at our house, it was play street hockey. Of course, since I was a wee lad, I could only go so far in the street, so we stuck with our driveway. The driveway at our house was incredibly narrow, but somehow we managed to make use of it. Rule No. 1, of course, was that the lawn was still in play.
With my oldest brother away in the Navy, my brother Brian and I created our own "league" and made up teams while competing for our own version of the Stanley Cup. We didn't have a street hockey net, so we improvised using milk crates as goals and deemed the two-inch high bricks surrounding the driveway as our "boards."
The games would go on every weekend until one fateful Fall afternoon when my brother was pretending to be Kari Takko, goaltender for his Long Island Jazz. I had gotten a little older at this point and the power of my slap shot was a bit stronger. Even though we shot on milk crates, I still felt my best chance to score was to power one through my brother's legs. That afternoon, one of my slappers on "Takko" went awry and hit my poor brother in the [Gretzky's].
Sadly, all games that day were canceled and the league never recovered.
2. Mario Lemieux. No athlete made more of an impact on me as a child than Le Manifique. My first hockey game was a Penguins-Islanders game (on a school night!) at Nassau Coliseum in 1988. I wound up with seats on the railing next to the visitor's hallway thanks to my uncle's business contacts. My dad and I were six rows off the ice and I stayed glued to the railing hoping any Penguins would walk by and give me a high-five. At one point in the game, Pens goaltender Tom Barrasso came off with an injury and was being helped to the locker room when some Islanders fan decided to tell him he sucked. Because of my close proximity to the rail, I think I was the only one, other than the Pittsburgh trainer to hear Barrasso quip, "[Gretzky] you, you loser."
During a stoppage in play later in the game, Lemieux came off with an equipment issue and returned a short-time, but with play still going on, he had to wait at the entrance ... five feet in front of me. The No. 66 on his back looked as if it were 50-feet tall as Lemieux stood there. I couldn't muster up the courage then to say anything, even with my dad nudging me and encouraging me to say hello. My six-year old self stood frozen and staring at the back of his colossal jersey, not paying attention to anything on the ice. F
our years later he'd win the first of his two Stanley Cups and I was possibly the only kid on Long Island to have a Penguins championship T-shirt. His battle with cancer and return to Pittsburgh to save the franchise only added to his legacy and allure to me. He wasn't just a great player on the ice; he was also a class human being off of it.
3. The fans.
Being a hockey fan is sort of like being a member of an exclusive club. While baseball, basketball, and football have their share of supporters, hockey in the United States isn't as big as those sports and it shows in the individual team fan bases. But if you're a hockey fan, you know your stuff, for the most part. Plenty of fans of the other three have their share of "fans" that pretend to believe they know what's going on, but in reality don't. They're just regurgitating what they see on ESPN.
When you come across a hockey fan in a bar, that's a two-hour argument/conversation/discussion waiting to happen. It's like an unspoken bond where a conversation can be sparked just by the sight of a random hockey-related hat or shirt.
4. The Stanley Cup.
What other sport has such an elaborate, post-championship celebration with a presentation that borders on royalty? The day the Stanley Cup is handed out is the best day in the hockey calendar (and worst as it signals the beginning of the off-season). You can see the joy in the eyes of the winning team as the Cup keepers walk it out onto the ice and before Commissioner Gary Bettman hands it over to the winning captain. It's exactly the reason "Cup Raise" is the best commercial the NHL has ever produced.
Now, let's kick off all those media members on the ice so we can bring back the traditional skate around the ice which has been modified to player twirls.
5. Finally, No. 5.
I love a Zdeno Chara(notes) slap shot. An Alex Ovechkin wrister. The acrobatics of Marc-Andre Fleury(notes). The grace of Sidney Crosby(notes). The leadership, soon-to-be missed, of Joe Sakic(notes). An annual rookie crop with more talent than any other sport. The black and white movies of Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Jacques Plante, Milt Schmidt, and Terry Sawchuk among others. Milan Lucic(notes) setting his sights on another poor soul. Barry Melrose's mullet. Don Cherry breaking down a play. Mike Emrick waxing poetic about the game. Trade deadline day and the opening of free agent frenzy.
Most of all, I love hockey.
- Mario Lemieux