Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Five Reasons I Love Hockey

In the hockey world, there is no month more unholy than that of August. September brings us camp and exhibition games. The season runs from October to April. The playoffs carry us through May. The Cup is handed out in June. And the first of July is free agency frenzy. But August? August brings us nothing.

But the good people over at Puck Daddy did something to alleviate that feeling of hockeylessness this August. For the entire month they had a daily list of "5 Reasons I Love Hockey" by everyone from the incomparable James Mirtle to ESPN's Dave Dameshek to The Hockey Show's Carrie Milbank and her hot pants. And while I'm not really "a list guy" (in fact in the hundred odd EFotG posts there has never been "a list") I just couldn't let it get by me. So I thought, honestly, what are the five reasons I love hockey? Amazingly none of The Cutting Edge trilogy made the cut.

Pittsburgh in the Spring of '91
I've been watching professional sports from birth. It's really all I know. It's like breathing. But my earliest sports memories, those are of the Stanley Cup bound Pittsburgh Penguins in the spring of 1991. I remember getting off my school bus and walking into kindergarten, walking past the flag pole flying three flags: an American, a Pennsylvania State flag, and a Penguins flag. Pittsburgh in the spring of 1991 was unreal. It was a holiday-like atmosphere. Everyone was Penguins crazy, and the Penguins were everywhere. Jaromir Jagr and his euro-mullet had the female population swooning. Mario Lemieux had everyone in awe. I didn't quite understand everything that was happening, but I knew it was something that I wanted to be a part of.

Street Hockey
Like most, my love of watching hockey had a solid foundation in my love of playing hockey. And while unlike so many NHLer's in their youth, my parents weren't flying me 80 miles for a 6AM practice, my brothers and I did have an Mylec plastic hockey net and the street outside my house. It was there that we spent long summer days, knocking around a hockey ball with our plastic blade sticks, avoiding at all costs the dreaded street gutter. From that asphalt I could dream of wearing a Penguins sweater on the wing of Lemieux. To love the game you have to know the game, and you cannot truly know the game without lacing them up every once in a while.

NHL '94 for Sega Genesis
After leaving the suburbs of Pittsburgh for the Flyers territory of Wilmington, Delaware, lost was my ability to watch Penguins games on any sort of a regular basis. And even the Flyers games were only available to those who had a dish, a luxury not available in the Megahan household. So in between the playoff series and those select few nationally televised games, most of what I knew of not just the Penguins, but the rest of the league, came from SportsCenter highlights and the EA Sports NHL Series. And while NHL 94 wasn't my first hockey game, it was the one that cashed in on the promise of Ice Hockey, Blades of Steel, and NHLPA '93. Similar to the way kids growing up in the 1970s learned of the MLB through collecting baseball cards, those of us growing up through the 1990s knew what we did of the league through NHL video games. The game also fortified my already long standing belief that Lemieux was a deity skating among regular men. Cut to the slot, Shoot. Score. The man was always unreal.

NHL Center Ice
Wondrous as it maybe, NHL '94 can only go so far. Towards the latter half of the '90s the game seemed to garner more national television attention, first with Fox and then with ABC and ESPN. But it was not until the 2005-06 hockey season, after I had graduated from high school, got a job, and moved into a beat down apartment in the part of town you could not get a pizza delivered, that I finally landed NHL Center Ice. At long last I had all 82 games to bask in. It was the first year returning from the lockout. It was the first time we saw Crosby on the ice in a Penguins sweater, and it was the last time we saw Lemieux in action. Though rarely was it pretty. While Crosby clearly had the talent that we were promised, the season was a mess. In Ziggy Palffy's first year in Pittsburgh, he was never able to get anything going, and by the All-Star break he announced his retirement from the game. In his first and only coaching job, Eddie Olczyk, who had taken over the bench for the Penguins the seasons before the lockout, didn't last til the New Year. I loved the Penguins before that year, but watching them for 2 1/2 hours, 3 nights a week, for 6 1/2 months on NHL Center Ice to my love of hockey to a whole new level.

June 12th, 2009
With three sofas squashed into my parents living room, I sat (though more often I paced) with my brothers, dad, sisters and mother around the television. It was the 12th of June 2009, and it was the payoff.

I watch hockey because I love hockey. But all that time, everything I went through, that was my investment in the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise. Seeing Barrasso hiding underneath his net as the Florida fans rained plastic rats down on the ice while the Panthers were knocking the Penguins out of the '96 Easter Conference Finals. Losing to the Flyers, who were not only hated, but also the team of choice of all my classmates, in the longest OT game in modern NHL history. Falling in the Conference Finals to the New Jersey Devils in the first and the most successful season of Lemieux's comeback. Suffering through the Milan Krafts and the Konstantin Koltsovs. Impatiently waiting through he lockout. Heating up down the stretch of 2007, only to have the Ottawa Senators end our season in 5 games in the first round. Feeling like we just couldn't lose after going 12-2 through the Eastern Conference, falling down 3-1 to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals, finding life in the absolutely unbelievable game five overtime called shot from Petr Sykora, only to come up short and have the Wings win the 2008 Cup in Pittsburgh on Game Six. And on top of it all, having Hossa spurn the Penguins offers to sign with the Red Wings and get his "best chance at a Cup".

All of this, everything, was an investment. And that night, when the clocks hit zeros on the Game Seven of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, the gloves flew in the air, and the Cup was raise, that was the payoff.


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