I met Vince Vaughn during game one of the Stanley Cup finals. It was an accident, really. He’s a nice guy, quick to smile and try and talk about hockey. He politely agreed with me that Chris Pronger is the enemy until he’s on your team, and that Kimo Timonen defensive miscues don’t quite make up for his offensive upside. Even now, I have a hard time believing the whole thing actually happened.
My Dad and I didn’t really believe there was a chance the Blackhawks would make it to the Stanley Cup finals, so we never bought tickets. One by one the calls came in, “Did you get tickets to the game? We did and I’m taking my three year old for a night he won’t forget,” or “Good thing I bought tickets back in the first round, it’s going to cost a fortune now!” I even met someone from New York City the night before game one and they were going, even though they didn’t identify with the Rangers or the Islanders (Yankees fans, and it really hurt to meet them at Wrigley Field).
So my Dad and I panicked. We called a good friend and season ticket holder, and asked if we had any chance. An hour before puck drop we got a call; we got tickets in an undisclosed location. I didn’t care, I was lethargically scrolling through the game rosters with my Duncan Keith jersey on listening to Eddy Olcyzk break down the match-up. This news launched me into another dimension, and I didn’t even know where we were sitting.
I turned off the TV and finished gearing up. As I put on my hat with a Montgomery-Wards patch on the side, I finally understood the moment. Olcyzk wasn’t the most talented player, but he was still drafted in the first round and went on to have a solid NHL career. It’s because he’s a trustworthy guy, he just won’t let you down. The way he played the game shows up in his analysis; work hard and play smart and good things will happen. Forcing good players like Stamkos, the Sedins, or Gaborik to make plays outside of their comfort zone can be just as effective as a good offense. Active sticks strangle good players, and throw off everyone’s timing.
For me, that’s what hockey fandom means. It’s about working hard to understand the game, taking in the painstaking details like CORSI and Behind the Net ratings. I watch hockey with an eye for patterns, measuring strengths and weaknesses (Vince Vaughn was quick to point out the Flyers had week goaltending, a trend that has continued). Outsiders see the sport as some sort of sideshow, and they only care about the game when they can watch it outdoors. It’s a game of strength and utter brutality. Finesse players need not apply, and Europeans don’t understand Canada’s game (news flash: they certainly do). Unfortunately, or fortunately, to separate from this mentality requires total immersion in the game.
Malcolm Gladwell writes about the 10,000-hour rule. It takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master. Be it on the violin, computer programming, cybernetics, athletics, it takes time. Talent must be inherent, sure, but it takes time to hone all those skills. Fandom is no exception to this. I grew up playing hockey. I still play, thank you Madison Parks Department, and read more about hockey than just about anything else. I read for the drama, for the taste of victory but mostly I read for a more complete understanding of something. Being educated carries a certain responsibility, and I try to apply what I know about statistics, science and observations to give me a new perspective on hockey.
A friend of mine used to have a blog about music, Pop Curmudgeon. Much like the name implies, he got tired of the trends and taste making that goes with music. He incorporated sports into his writing regularly, mainly because it’s easier to cultivate a deep appreciation for sports. Music gets a lot of coverage, but it differs from sports in that the coverage is largely pseudo-academic and drives the industry. Sports coverage is reactionary and ubiquitous. The Blackhawks made the front page of the online version of the New York Times immediately after winning the Cup, much like the Rangers did this year immediately after bowing out rather toothlessly to the Capitals.
The problem is, everyone thinks appreciating sports is easy. In reality, it isn’t. Each game is different. Every power play is drawn differently, every diving catch carries different implications, every alley-ooop can change the nature of the game. Being a sports fan requires the same amount of dedication as any other discipline. Sports rely on dramatics, the natural narrative that resides in us all. To get the most out of it, we cannot just observe what happens, but we must think about it critically. We must see the whole and the parts and understand the influence of each.
Regardless, though this season hockey season may be over for my team, it leaves us hungrier for next year. Let’s go Hawks.
Does this post sound too much like a Hawks fan whining about a weak Cup defense? Let us know on Twitter (@midwestbeer), Facebook or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org