The Stanley Cup Finals begin tonight, and Kerry Trotter will be watching with bated breath. Read on to see why it's time to look beyond the scarred faces, and experience the sport for the beating, spiritual heart within.
I grew up in a hockey house.
While Chicagoland homes of the 1990s were held hostage by the Chicago Bulls’ easy brand of fandom, our home was not-so-quietly standing vigil for the most sacred time of the hockey year.
The Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Chicago Blackhawks were my team (tough stuff for most of that decade), but we were equal opportunity fans when it came to the playoffs. Often we weren’t privy to seeing our chosen organization even make the cut, and while disappointing, it really didn’t matter. The teams that advanced were often irrelevant. It was the style of play and the allegory of the struggle that made the Stanley Cup worth watching.
Many a May evening was spent in my parents’ darkened den, my father, brother and I screaming at the TV, nervously laughing at miraculous saves and tense power plays, running out of the room when the clock ran down perilously close to a win (or loss), and fighting back tears when Lord Stanley’s Cup was hoisted high above all those bearded, bloodied, toothless faces.
And I wasn’t speaking in hyperbole about the “sacred” thing. All that work in order to drink from a cup? We're treading on familiar ground here.
Sports fans will always defend (and argue for) the primacy of their chosen sport’s race to a title: the “anything can happen” draw of the World Series, the singular night of the Super Bowl, the close calls of the NBA Championship.
And to that I dole out an admittedly biased, “Meh.”
A Stanley Cup win comes with, hands-down, the coolest trophy (and the bacchanalian traditions that go along with it). But the sheer torture a team endures to get there, the suffering, toil and bloodletting necessary for victory, is a metaphysical trial unlike any other.
The Stanley Cup Finals begin tonight. If we’re lucky, the series will stretch to a nail-biting Game 7. Even if it ends earlier than that, this Devils-Kings series promises to be a doozie.
(Yes, that’s right. The New Jersey Devils will face the Los Angeles Kings in the finals. There’s your Catholic hook right there.)
Back to the matter at hand: the regular season is long—eighty-two games long. That’s several nights a week of grueling, painful, exhausting, physical play. Then there’s the playoffs (or the “real season” as fans call it), which for the lucky teams can mean as many as thirty additional games, and where the intensity of the regular season is amped up to almost impossible levels. There is no pausing in a playoff game. No lackadaisical dump-and-chase of the puck. Instead you’ll find zone-to-zone explosiveness, shot-on-goal after shot-on-goal, and goalies spending more time airborne than ice-bound. Every second of a playoff game is a fight, and the end result is victory to the team that fought hardest. It’s magnificently simple.
But these players suffer. There is no easy road to the playoffs, or through the season for that matter. While we’re seeing more protective shields attached to players’ helmets, they don’t do a lot to deflect the puncture of a hotly wielded stick, or the bell-ringing force of speeding vulcanized rubber. Or the occasional fist. However untouched a player’s face is through the regular season, you better bet it’s not going to remain so in the playoffs. The more topographically chiseled a grill is, the more suffering he’s endured.
And the more suffering he’s endured, the more powerful he is.
Sure, players in other sports suffer. The NFL is notoriously punishing, now facing lawsuits related to the willful complicity in endangering its players. The NBA is riddled with stories of torn ACLs and pulled groins. The acrobatics of MLB outfielders and rubber-armed pitchers means shortened careers and, for some, a desperate use of performance enhancing drugs. This is not easy stuff by any stretch. What makes hockey stand out, however, especially playoff hockey, is the fact that the pain and suffering is not an antecedent or a byproduct, but an essential part of it. The more you take, the more you get.
And the more you get...well, I think this is starting to sound familiar.
This is where the teamwork factors. Hockey, as a game, is not fond of the scene-stealing superstar. Of course, hockey has its superstars, and those superstars do sell tickets, but franchises are built on the backs of scoreless muckers, the circling enforcers, and the shot-blocking defensemen. Wayne Gretzky is ranked one of the most gifted athletes in the world, but he wouldn’t be close to being The Great One if it weren’t for the scrappy Mark Messier, the fearless Marty McSorely and the nimble Luc Robitaille. And Gretzky would be the first to admit that, too.
Hockey doesn’t truck in egocentrism. A big head makes for an easy target.
This interdependence of the players, the humility, the unspoken “code” of play whereby goal scorers are protected by enforcers—all contribute to a sport that makes it very difficult for a star to exist unbuttressed. You hear stories about some of the league’s best coaches treating the marquee players the very same as the grinders. They are all subject to the same level of praise. They all receive the same punishments. They all answer to the same leader.
Again, sounding familiar?
Hockey gets a lot of flack, be it from ESPN’s broadcast blockade, the rosters full of unpronounceable Eastern European surnames, or an outsider’s obsession with the element of violence. What is missed—and can be more easily gleaned as teams advance—is this reliance on suffering, the primacy of teamwork, the self-policing conduct that rewards players who give over those who receive.
It’s classy—and also pretty spiritual.
“Classy?” you wonder. “Spiritual? With all those black eyes and bent noses?”
The violence isn’t all about wanton aggression and posturing. It’s keeping the ice open for an actual game to be played. It’s calculated peace-keeping. It’s ensuring hotheads and glory-seekers stay in line.
I’ve read and heard time and again about how NHL-ers are among the nicest folks in professional sports. On a public level, they shake hands after every playoff series, letting bloody bygones be and exemplifying the best in sportsmanship. But on an internal level, there’s something to the humility that comes from stepping out of line and promptly being shoved back in (usually via an elbow to the chin). And most players spent their youths shuffling from team to team, city to city, host family to host family in the junior and minor leagues. They learned to say please and thank you, appreciate their good fortune, and listen to their coaches—often the most consistent voice of authority in their lives. As a result, players tend to be humble, polite and gracious. As an aside, a lot of goons are vocal, devout Christians. Surprising to hear at first, but not when you consider their role in the game—thankless soldiering for the glory of others.
No, it is not a perfect sport, of course. It’s frustratingly un-diverse, the excitement doesn’t translate well to television, and players are getting hurt more and more. Career-ending injuries and concussions are commonplace in today’s NHL, yes, but that phenomenon is not necessarily due to a culture of violence. Instead we’re dealing with a bigger, faster, stronger roster of players than in years past, culled from the far-reaches of the globe. A check has always hurt, but when delivered by a 6’5”, 250-lb, borscht-fed bruiser, a not-uncommon stature of today’s NHL, it’s going to hurt a lot. It’s simply the game we’ve grown into. There’s more to the player, but not any more ice.
In addition, their numbers have ballooned. Fifty years ago the league comprised six teams and roughly 150 players. Multiply those numbers by five and you’re looking at the league of today. So yes, injuries are up, but statistically speaking they ought to be given the rate of growth the league has witnessed. Tell that to a physician specializing in brain injuries, a family of a player in traction, or the mother of a PeeWee first-timer and you might get some fallout, of course.
But my point is this: hockey is not a violent sport of misanthropes and pugilists. It’s a beautiful sport coming to terms with a violent world. It’s an exercise in measured repercussions. It’s walking through hell in pursuit of a greater good. It’s graceful … and full-of-grace.
It's a lesson in John the Baptist-esque asceticism: "The kingdom of heaven suffers violence..." (Matthew 11:12)
So, hockey is the sport of kings...but to be fair, devils, too.
To witness the spiritual bounty and bone-crushing excitement of the Stanley Cup Finals, tune in tonight to NBC at 8 p.m. Eastern. Go Devils.
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