Game Time: Olympic Hockey, You Had Me At Hello, Eh?
"What---what is this salty discharge?....This is horrible! I care!" -- Jerry Seinfeld, wiping away tears
I have to admit, it was a bit of a strange feeling. As time wound down in the third period of what at the time was a 2-1 Canadian lead over the United States Olympic hockey team, the disappointment of what appeared to be a valiant but losing effort gave way to unexpected exuberance after Zach Parise's tying goal with 24.4 seconds remaining sent the United States and Canada into overtime. As they resurfaced the ice to prepare for sudden-death overtime, there they were -- butterflies in my stomach.
To take a page out of Jerry Seinfeld's book -- "This is horrible! I care!"
I couldn't remember the last time that a sporting event actually made me feel as emotionally invested as United States versus Canada 2010, v 2.0 did. Don't get me wrong, I like my professional teams and I love my alma mater, but nothing any of them have been involved in over the last few years gave me the feeling that the "wrong" outcome will literally effect my happiness. Sunday's border skirmish between the United States and Canada did, plain and simple.
And I can't say I expected to feel that way going in on Sunday. It was a movie we'd already seen a few days ago, with the U.S. pulling off a 5-3 upset in the preliminary round, so I wasn't expecting anything more than the casual "I hope my team wins, but if they don't it's okay" jitters. Frankly, I was rooting for the United States as much for the potential hilarity of my post-U.S. gold medal clinching blog entry as I was because I...you know...live in America.
(For the record, if the United States had pulled off the upset, I was going to write a ransom note to Canada, making demands of them under which we would give hockey back to them. Trust me, it was going to be awesome. Maybe I'll save it for another day but just do a "Find/Replace" in Microsoft Word with "Bryan Adams" replacing "hockey.")
The fact of the matter is that as I've gotten older, I've become much more jaded about sports and the relative importance of the outcome of games. What used to be life or death back when the outcomes meant a lot more to the guys actually playing in the games has been lost in a sea of labor disputes, salary caps, narcissistic tweets, and half-filled stadiums. In short, while I love sports and the inner workings of what makes it go (or in some cases, NOT go), who won and who lost had drifted to about tenth on the list of things I care about week to week.
Frankly, you could probably do a pretty good psychological study on sports wagering being a means to the end of maintaining some sort of emotional investment in the outcome of sporting events. That has to be part of the reason that...um, people...do it, because "turning a profit" sure as hell ain't happening. But I digress...
So when I was legitimately nervous between the third period and overtime of Sunday's game, when I was watching each overtime rush up the ice with my hands clenched in front of my face, it was like I had welcomed back an old friend. "Hey there, Nerves! Damn, how long has it been? Five, ten years??"
And "sudden-death hockey nerves" are a little bit different than nerves caused by drama in other sports. No other sport gives you the suddenness of finality, and the near misses that go with it, like "sudden-death overtime hockey." It's the stomach-collapsing tenseness of a drug-raid scene from The Shield meets ice skates.
In some ways, yesterday's pit in my stomach was like a friend I hadn't seen since high school days, as a Hartford Whaler season-ticket holder. Yes, there was a time where NHL hockey was actually my favorite sport. Growing up on the mean streets of Simsbury, Connecticut, my buddies and I lived and died with the likes of Ron Francis, Kevin Dineen, and the immortal Torrie Robertson. ("Who?" you ask? Just trust us, Torrie was immortal...to the tune of a few hundred penalty minutes per season...)
But eventually, like too many professional franchises in every sport, the Whalers got too smart for their own good, trading franchise icon Francis for John Cullen and Zarley Zalapski with the crazy idea that this would somehow make them better. Three years later, they got hoodwinked by an outsider (Peter Karmanos) who bought the team, vowed to keep them in Hartford, started issuing ultimatums on season-ticket sales, and then moved them to North Carolina....because Greensboro screams "HOCKEY!"
I won't bore you with any more gory details on the death of the Whalers, just know that it was a slightly different flavor of the same shitty dessert that Bud Adams served to Oilers fans back in the mid-`90's. The difference for a hockey fan is that once that team leaves, there is no filling that void. Football fans have other outlets for their love of football, especially in Texas. Nearly everyone has a high school team or a college team that they follow down here, oftentimes with an even more firey passion than they do their NFL team -- of which Houston eventually got another one.
Hockey fans in Hartford had nowhere to go. When the Whalers had their hockey sex change and became the "Carolina Hurricanes" (or the Transvestite Whalers, as I call them), then I was done with them and the sport. I wasn't about to root for the Bruins after spending my formative years of "nine through adult" hating them; rooting for the B's would have been the equivalent of kneeling in front of Emperor Sinden and pronouncing my faith in Darth Bourque. Fuck that.
I will admit that I had a brief dalliance with NHL hockey in 2001 after moving to Denver, rooting for the Colorado Avalanche as they took home a Stanley Cup. Now, I've never had an affair, but I have to admit, my three months of steamy passion for the Avalanche is probably what an affair feels like. The euphoria of unbridled lust that you've never felt before (actually winning the Cup) until the soul-crushing guilt of betrayal sets in (realizing that you were rooting for Whaler archrivals like Patrick Roy and the aforementioned Darth Raymond Bourque, who had the stones to actually bring a Stanley Cup trophy he won in Denver back to Boston with him to celebrate with Bruin fans.).
Although I will admit that seeing former Colorado Avalanche winger Chris Drury playing meaningful minutes for Team USA this Olympics was kind of nice, like bumping into an old girlfriend. To put this in terms Houstonians would understand, Drury is like the Robert Horry of the NHL -- first-round talent that does just enough to tease you into thinking he'll be special, then turning out to be just pretty good, until the playoffs where he becomes supernatural.
So for the feeling that my happiness as a human being would be effected by a sporting event to come about as a result of a hockey game is, on the surface, a tad improbable. But peel back the layers, and you can see why Sunday's gold medal game shaped up as a "do or die" endeavor...
First, while there were professionals playing in the game, this was not a game about money. This really was about winning, losing, and above all else, pride. Second, you had a revenge factor baked into the game that was fresh and, until eight days ago, unexpected. Third, you had a storyline whereby a country's national pastime was on the verge of being usurped by its obnoxious, aloof neighbor.
But above all else, you start to realize that it's the sport of hockey itself that has that tenseness and toughness woven into its fabric. Perhaps there's nothing harder to do in sports than hit a baseball, perhaps basketball players have the gaudiest highights, perhaps football players are the most ominous gladiators, but no sport combines hand-eye coordination, stamina, and mental/physical toughness like ice hockey. Imagine the dexterity and precision of baseball, the explosiveness of basketball, and the physicality of football....oh yeah, and you have to do all of it while ice skating. Checkmate, hockey.
They say there's nothing more exciting than a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It's been a long time since I've cared about one. The Olympic gold medal game may have brought me back to hockey. Time will tell. All I know is I just spent seventeen paragraphs talking about how amazing a hockey game was. I feel like I should care about this sport more. It really makes you wonder what the hell NHL commissioner Gary Bettman does all day.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the Sean & John Show, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.