Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Coolest Thing in Sports

Hockey’s Stanley Cup playoffs ended last night with the Anaheim Ducks’ 6-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators. The event was largely ignored by most of this country. Even many sports fans will read this, scratch their heads, and say, “They’re still playing hockey in June?”

Yes, they are, and yes, that’s way too late in the year to be playing hockey. The NHL’s weaknesses as a sports league have been discussed here before, and will be again. Today we’re to bring attention to what the demographic mentioned above missed.

Hockey is, by far, the roughest major sport. (Football isn’t rough; it’s violent. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Players crash each other into the boards and glass and hit each other with sticks barely a generation removed from their roots as weapons. Anaheim’s Chris Pronger was suspended twice during this year’s playoffs for exceeding even hockey’s loose definition of “unnecessary roughness.” Still, after last night’s game ended the series, both teams lined up and shook hands with everyone on the other team. This required the defeated Senators to wait patiently on the ice while Anaheim rejoiced in their victory, the celebration of which was cut short so the Ottawa players didn’t have to wait an unseemly amount of time.

Then they brought out the Cup. Unlike other major sports, hockey’s ultimate reward isn’t presented to some jock-sniffing owner in the locker room so disinterested observers three thousand miles away can watch while those who laid out big dough to actually be there get locked out of the moment. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (a weasel-faced ferret if there ever was one) hands the cup to the captain of the winning team, who hoists it over his head for the crowd to admire as he skates around the ice. Then he hands it off to another player, then another and another, until everyone with a hand in the victory has had their hands on the Cup.

The expressions on their faces are indescribable. Certain Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne was so overcome he couldn’t speak to NBC’s Pierre Maguire. Maguire, a hockey man all his life, did one of the classiest things I’ve ever seen on television. He threw it back to the booth until Selanne collected himself enough to speak. (Granted, the class bar for television is set pretty low. Still, imagine a local news reporter granting that reprieve to someone watching his house burn down with his family trapped inside.)

One last endearing idiosyncrasy remains. Each player and coach on the winning team gets to own the Cup. It goes wherever he wants it. Scott Neidermayer, after winning the Cup as a New Jersey Devil, chartered a plane to fly him to a mountain in British Columbia for a photograph of him holding the Cup aloft, backlit by the rising sun. Devils goalie Martin Brodeur gathered his childhood friends and played street hockey for the privilege of the winning team hoisting the Cup, Walter Mitty come to life.

The Cup’s visits aren’t always so glorious. It’s been at the bottom of Mario Lemieux’s swimming pool. Mark Messier forgot it in a strip joint. (Permanent attendants have since been hired to accompany the Cup. That doesn’t mean it will never see another strip joint; it just won’t have to spend the night.)

Hockey’s hard to watch on television, although large screen HDTVs help immensely. (That’s why I bought mine in time for the playoffs, and it was worth every cent.) It’s still worth watching, for the intensity of the competition and the sportsmanship and tradition each player carries with him. Are there cheap shots and fights? Sure. In the end, it’s rarely taken personally. That’s why Scott Niedermayer and Daniel Alfredsson embraced last night after an ugly incident on Monday. Niedermayer knows that whatever else happens in his hockey career and after, his name will always be on the Stanley Cup. And there’s nothing cooler than that.

No comments: