August 31, 2009
1. The Mario Vs. Gretzky Argument
It's often said hockey fans speak our own language, which is true; the tricky part is trying to figure out how fluent another puckhead is in that language.
We've all been there: Engaging a fellow fan in a dialogue about hockey, slowly attempting to ascertain how deep the conversation can go: Can they name all 30 teams? Can they name last year's Hart winner? Do they know what a Hart winner is? Once a baseline has been established, the conversation flows more freely.
That's what makes the Mario Lemieux vs. Wayne Gretzky debate so special: It cuts across every level of hockey savvy, education and experience. Remember that device on "Star Trek" that would allow Kirk to negotiate with some three-eyed lizard even though he spoke like TJ Hooker and it spoke in a series of clicks and buzzes? The Mario vs. Gretzky debate is hockey's universal translator for fans old enough to have a horse in the race.
Case and point: I stopped into Mac's Lounge in Montreal after All-Star Weekend for a beverage or 10, and a few folks were at the bar. It's Montreal, so we all assumed some hockey knowledge was present. Conversations about the NHL news of the day stopped and started until, for whatever reason, Mario and Gretzky came up. Suddenly, we're in the middle of the Lincoln/Douglas debates, arguing everything from points per game to championships won to quality of teammates to the ultimate question: What if Mario had been healthy (the Gretzky people HATE that one)?
It's one of those wonderful sports debates that's a mirror into your own preferences and biases, sort of like how Ovechkin/Crosby has turned into a Beatles/Stones argument for a generation of fans. Gretzky vs. Mario is one of those powder kegs that burns from happy hour to last call ... or until someone has the gall to derail the entire discussion with four little words:
"What about Bobby Orr?"
2. The Four-on-Four Overtime. Look, I'm a traditionalist. The playoff overtime is a war of attrition I wouldn't trade for anything. So maybe it's my anti-shootout bias that fuels my love for the four-on-four overtime. Or maybe it's the five minutes of utter chaos and hockey action that (when both teams are giving it everything) could convert a non-believer into a rabid puckhead.
3. The Chicago Blackhawks logo. It conveys a sense of timelessness, a sense of prestige -- but so do the Winged Wheel in Detroit and the Canadiens' logo. Yet those logos don't have an underlying combination of savagery and honor like the Blackhawks'. Or the smirk of satisfaction that the warrior seems to have, like the Mona Lisa of puck. The colors are vivid. The symbol is unforgettable. And if the testosterone-fueled distinctiveness of professional hockey weren't obvious enough, then please let the Rorschachian testicles found just below the red feather be your reinforcement.
4. The Hat-Trick. What other sport inspires fans to literally toss their wardrobe onto the playing surface in celebration of an individual achievement? Keeping in mind that a Rod Stewart concert is not, technically, a sporting event?
Think of the cycle of life of a hat for a hockey fan. You would like to wear an officially licensed logo on your head. You spend upwards of $25 for that honor, and complete your arena-going ensemble with the aforementioned chapeau. One of your boys pots three pucks during the game ... and you decide to, literally, throw $25 on the ice in appreciation.
Most men need a woman on a stage wearing nothing but a smile to encourage such behavior. Hockey accomplishes it with tradition and a slightly different type of euphoria.
5. The 1987-88 New Jersey Devils.
John MacLean's overtime goal against Darren Pang in Chicago, sending Gary Thorne into hysterics:
"THEY DID IT! THEY DID IT! The Devils make the playoffs for the first time in their history. John MacLean the overtime goal, and they win it 4-to-3!"
The Patrick Division semifinal upset of the New York Islanders. The bloody battle with the Washington Capitals that former NHLer Pat Conacher once told me was the single most physically grueling series of his hockey career. Patrick Sundstrom's eight-point night. Jim Schoenfeld sending Don Koharski into hockey legend by declaring "you fell you fat pig. Have another doughnut." The suspension, the injunction, the referee boycott and then the suspension again. Losing to a better Boston Bruins club in the Wales Conference finals.
John MacLean, Pat Verbeek, Kirk Muller, Brendan Shanahan(notes), Sean Burke(notes), Ken Daneyko, Aaron Broten, Doug Brown, Joe Cirella ... these were the players of my youth. Some of them remained with the Devils long enough to see the franchise mature past its "Mickey Mouse" days; others were traded or signed elsewhere in a chain reaction of events that eventually led to the 1995 Stanley Cup and a moment of affirmation for hockey in New Jersey.
I think about that red and green Devils team when I hear about hockey "failing" in markets like Atlanta or Phoenix or Nashville. I think about how these fans never had the opportunity to live and die for over a month of playoff hockey like I did back in 1988; to watch a collection of young players who struggled in the division basement find their stride and nearly shock the world. And I wonder how much different those markets would be today had a generation of hockey fans been blessed to experience those emotions together.