"People's reaction to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic. They either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don't, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become a part of their soul."
- Richard Gere character in "Pretty Woman."
* * *
My name is Joe, I am 46 years old, and I am learning to love hockey for the first time in my life. I have liked hockey . appreciated hockey . admired the talent necessary to play hockey. But love? No. Not until this season.
Oh, I have tried before. I have watched with jealousy the way fans love hockey, the way it envelops their lives, the cool hockey jerseys they wear, the Canadian accents they affect when they talk about a great save or the tension of overtime or the magic of an odd-man rush. Loving hockey has been one of my life goals along with walking on the Great Wall of China (done), writing a screenplay (no), interviewing Bruce Springsteen (no), juggling four balls (no) and learning how to do 10 great card tricks (a work in progress).
But, well, as the Pretty Woman question goes, how do you learn to love something that you did not grow up with? I grew up in Cleveland, which by all logic should be a hockey town. It seems to have all the characteristics of hockey towns like Detroit and Buffalo - you know, blue collar, harsh winters, Great Lake, near Canada, all that. Cleveland does have its own proud minor league hockey history. In the old days, the Cleveland Barons won nine Calder Cups, the trophy given to the champion of the American Hockey League.
But even that minor league glory was gone when I was a kid. In those days, Cleveland had the Crusaders of the World Hockey Association, and they were generally mediocre and out of sight. Then, Cleveland briefly had an NHL team - they took on the honored name of the old Cleveland Barons - but after two lousy years they were merged with the Minnesota North Stars and that was that. There was no hockey at all in Cleveland for the next 14 years.
There is, I'm aware, a vibrant hockey community in Cleveland. But no one I ever knew in Cleveland talked about hockey. Ever. Save the 1980 Olympic hockey team, I grew up entirely without the sport. When I became a sportswriter, some 25 years ago, I learned the sport for professional purposes. I studied a bit of the history. I got a New York Islanders jersey with my name on the back. I played goalie during a practice for the minor league Cincinnati Cyclones - that was an experience - and I sat in a penalty box for an entire International Hockey League game. Every other year, or so, I would promise myself to give more time to hockey, and for a few weeks I would, but then something came up.
And so I liked hockey. But love? Well, love is a much harder thing.
* * *
"The thing about hockey," Al Michaels is saying, "is that you die a thousand deaths." He is looking at me as he speaks, but a part of him is distracted. It's between periods of the Los Angeles Kings-Chicago Blackhawks playoff game. His Kings lead by a goal at this moment, but Michaels doesn't feel good about it. A single goal? It can disappear in a blink. He's seen it a thousand times. Even now, it seems, he is dying a little bit.
Michaels, of course, has the most famous hockey call of them all, the most famous sports call in American history which came at the end of the United States' shocking victory over the Soviets in 1980: "Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" But, for the most part, he has not announced hockey. He has done other Olympic hockey games and exactly three NHL games. That's it.
Hockey is just more personal to him than any other sport. He has spent a lifetime being an objective observer of sports, the voice in the middle on football and baseball and basketball. But hockey? His father took him to New York Rangers games when he was a child. He was at the very first Los Angeles Kings game in 1967 - he points out that it was played at the arena in Long Beach. He has been a Kings' season ticket holder for 20 years. He and his wife Linda - and their children and grandchildren - live and die with the Kings.
"After all these years of being impartial," he says, "it's great to have this outlet. It's great to just be a fan."
So I ask him why hockey grips him the way it does. He says it's the only sport where euphoria and misery dance the tango. In one instant, say, Kings' star Jeff Carter gets the puck in front of the net and has a point-blank shot. Thrilling! It is kicked away by Chicago's Corey Crawford. Heartbreak! The Blackhawks clear the puck and Jonathan Toews rushes into the zone. Anxiety! He finds Marian Hossa in the slot. Freak out! Kings goalie Jonathan Quick makes an impossible glove save. Elation!
All of it in about 10 seconds.
"No other sport can put you through the wringer of emotions quite at the speed of hockey," Michaels says. He then talks about the beauty of hockey, the skating, the shimmering ice - "There is no more beautiful sight than the ice after the Zamboni goes over it," he says - and then a horn sounds, warning that the next period will begin, and Michaels rushes to his seat, both nervous and excited.
* * *
Bruce Arthur is my favorite writer on hockey. He is the national columnist for the National Post in Toronto. Here, for instance, he is on Sidney Crosby's urgent effort to save the Pittsburgh Penguins' season in the final minute of what turned out to be their double overtime loss in Boston on Wednesday:
"There he was with five minutes to go in double overtime, finally delivering one of those earth-moving shifts. It was an indelible image - Crosby, helmet off, hair streaming behind him like he was a Viking, stealing a puck, making a pass, whirling at the blue line, nearly dragging the puck into the goal. It was grit and scrap and blinding talent all rolled into one.
"I was introduced to hockey as a child - I'm not sure when, but it was natural," he says. "We don't have a lot of ice in Vancouver, so street hockey was the first thing you did, mostly, but I remember playing soccer with a tennis ball in elementary school and calling it `foot hockey.' It was just what you did."
There is something about the rhythm of hockey that Bruce Arthur just intuitively knows - and, as a fledgling hockey fan I long to understand. I get it in baseball. When a fly ball is hit, the eye involuntarily scans to the outfielder - he will tell you how well the ball was hit. I naturally sense when a pitcher has run out of ideas against a hitter or when a hitter is bunting against his better judgment or if a ball was hit hard enough to be a double play. It comes from childhood, from watching and playing and listening to the game over and over. With hockey, though, I watch clumsily, I follow the puck while missing everything else.
So, I ask Bruce how he watches hockey.
"A tricky question," he says. "I watch the puck, but I watch the flow too. One thing I try to do is this: watching how players align themselves around the puck, how they adjust to it, how they anticipate what will happen, how many shots they attempt rather than get on net. It's like watching the man slip to a quiet place on the baseline as LeBron James drives, and knowing the pass is coming.
"Watching hockey is about feeling it, I think. Feeling how the players hit, how hard it is to create a clockwork goal, how close players come over and over, how slender the margins are between success and failure. The difference between a good goalie and a great one is maybe 10 or 15 goals out of every thousand shots."
All of this is easier said than done, of course. One thing I have noticed this year, though - as I have watched more hockey games than probably the rest of my life combined - is that I am becoming more aware when there's a great player on the ice. I have been able to tear my eyes away from the puck to watch the way an Alex Ovechkin or Henrik Zetterberg or Henrik Sedin move. They seem to be a blink ahead of the others, they seem to have a slightly wider range of sight, they seem to be able to keep the puck in their control for just a heartbeat longer.
But even the best players find themselves in hockey's vortex, where shots hit the post and great passes are flicked away at the last possible instant and magic is as rare as it is in real llfe.
"Great players," Arthur says, "have so much to overcome - every bounce that goes wrong, every goalie that gets a shred of pad or shoulder on a puck, every guy who's trying to murder you, every stick and leg and thicket in the way.
"It's so close, which is where the luck can drive a man crazy. But like Sidney Crosby said to me the other day when I said that, `That's hockey.'"
* * *
It's strange, but I think the speed of the game has always been a barrier for me as a fan. It's easy enough to marvel at how fast the game goes. But how do you learn to embrace the pace?
I remember when I was "playing goalie" in that Cincinnati Cyclones practice all those years ago (I put "playing goalie" in quotations because I can barely skate, and I had no earthly idea what I was doing). A Cyclones player said, "Let me warm you up." And then he started flicking wrist shots off my pads. I literally had no say in the matter. I could not have moved out of the way if I wanted. I was a piece of furniture.
Then, in an actual drill, someone unleashed a slap shot toward me. I can only assume it was a shot taken at about 40 percent of capacity - these guys really didn't want to hurt me - and it was in plain sight. I've faced speed before. I once faced Greg Rusedski's 130-plus mph tennis serve. I've stood in against a 95 mph fastball (well bailed out, but I saw it). This was a different kind of speed. I saw the puck clearly. I lifted my glove arm to catch it. And then I heard a loud sound. It was the puck crashing against the glass behind me.
In the paper the next day, there was a photo of me in goal. I was looking right. The puck, like a mosquito, was flying by my left ear.
With all this, I was never able to slow the game down enough to really enjoy it. Everything just happened so fast - the shifts, the passes, the shots, the pucks going into nets. Jim Murray, the legendary columnist, wrote about how he never actually saw a goal, and that's how the game felt to me, like an exciting but ultimately indecipherable blur.
But the more hockey you watch, it's true, the more the game slows down. You start to notice patterns. You start to sense what is a real goal scoring threat and what isn't. You start to sense what makes a great save and what looks tough but is actually routine. You start to appreciate the skill it takes to receive a pass in traffic or to win a face off or to go into the corner and get the puck loose. You start to see the battles within the battle - the struggle to keep the puck in the zone (or get it out), the effort to get the puck out in front of the net, the need to send messages with hard checks that are meant to cause trepidation for a time to be named later.
And, slowly but sure, the real game comes into focus.
* * *
Here's one more from Bruce Arthur. He talks about overtime hockey:
"The best of hockey is always overtime, and preferably playoff overtime. It's like watching the sea during a storm, but with a stake in it; the movement, the chaos that erupts and subsides, and, more than anything, the jeopardy. There's nothing else like it, not really. Basketball needs to bleed down to the end to enable one play to decide things. Soccer is similar in extra time, but the scoring chances are much more rare. Baseball can come down to the bottom of an inning, but it's not back and forth. Football is offense and defense is a much less fluid way. All have their own wonders.
"But nothing matches both teams having a near-simultaneous chance to end it at any time, over and over and over again, for minutes at a time. Hockey rolls back and forth, a series of heart attacks, because at any moment this could be the end. Or this. Or this. . The best of sports makes you feel alive as a sports fan, and nothing makes you feel the primal terror of being alive like overtime hockey."
* * *
There's something visceral about hockey that is good for the soul. This is not to say that hockey is without its quirks and nuisances, its weird stoppages of plays and eccentric officiating and occasional bits of melodrama.
But in a time when NBA desperately tries to stop players from diving, and NFL players beg for pass interference on every other play, and baseball players argue ceaselessly for the outside part edge of the plate, hockey players seem to play their sport somewhat closer to the surface.
It isn't just that hockey is the only of our team sports where fights break out as part of the natural order of the game. It's also the one sport where players seem to take it all personally. I this year noticed that great scoring chances in front of the net are almost inevitably followed by brief skirmishes - not fights, exactly, but short and loud wrestling matches where the offending player (that is, the player who almost scored) is surrounded, his jersey yanked, other players rush in, the referee skates in to settle things down, and it is made clear that any attempt to actually WIN THE GAME will be viewed disagreeably.
And then there's the toughness. Football players are tough. Basketball at the NBA level is much more violent than you can pick up on television. But hockey players, well, they value toughness in a different way.
So, yes, I was watching Pittsburgh-Boston Game 3 when, on the power play, Penguins star Evgeni Malkin unleashed a ferocious slap shot and Boston's Gregory Campbell slid to block the shot. It still amazes me that hockey players - like Secret Service - will fling their bodies in front of a whizzing puck. But they do, especially men like Gregory Campbell, a fourth-liner from Ontario who is the son of Colin Campbell, now an NHL executive but once a defenseman they used to call "The Sherriff."
Men like Gregory Campbell are the drumbeat of hockey. He will play 10 to 15 minutes a game. He will score a goal once every 10 or 15 games. He's good for about a minute of penalty time every game. And he will dig, constantly dig, his teammates talk about how they don't know anyone who loves the game quite as much.
So, it was typical stuff when Campbell went to the ice to stop the puck. What wasn't typical was that he was clearly badly hurt - it turned out that the puck had broken his leg. He stayed on one knee for a few seconds, obviously in terrible pain, obviously unable to go on, but then he did what hockey players seem to do. He did go on. He got up on both legs (putting all the pressure on good leg) and hobbled around as the power play lingered around him. He stabbed at a puck, and was able to knock it just off line. He whacked at the stick of a Penguin with the puck and tried to knock it loose. He stayed up until the whistle. It was moving in a way sports is rarely moving.
Doc Emrick, NBC's wonderful hockey announcer, told me something when I was writing the story about him that I did not fully appreciate at the moment. He said the farther away you are from the ice, the slower the game moves. He meant it as an announcer cue - at rinks where he is seated far from the ice he finds he must speed up his cadence to stay in rhythm with the game - but it's true as a fan too.
I've always watched hockey from close in, follow the puck, follow the action. But now, finally, I try to watch it from a distance, like a mosaic. I try to pick up the details wherever I can. And I think of how amazing it was to watch Gregory Campbell struggle. The puck danced around in that moment, but I just watched him. Of course, he didn't make the winning play - he just kind of stabbed helplessly in an effort to help. The Bruins ended up winning the game anyway, even with Gregory Campbell out.
But that's the point: There is no one winning play in hockey. It's a game of a thousand plays, constant near misses, bursts of panic, brief breaks of relief, threats that dissipate, moments of beauty, small bits of ballet and dozens of acts of toughness that are so easy to miss. They are still cheering Gregory Campbell in Boston. That's a sport worth loving.