What's right about the NHL
After a long, dark season of complaint, here are 20 things to love about hockey
Unlike their NBA counterparts, when NHL players are called selfish, it's real news
I like fan passion, outspoken GMs, and stars like Jon Toews and Martin St. Louis
This thought blindsided me like a Rule 48 elbow the other day: we are drowning in hockey bile.
While it is a professional obligation to shoot spitballs at the sport, and, specifically, the NHL, this season has seemed like one unending complaint. Maybe a healthy Sidney Crosby would have brightened the mood. Or not. But as the season lurched into its final week, the pervasive feeling is that everybody has pretty much hated everything (except HBO's 24/7 series on the Penguins and Capitals) in a season rife with carping and caviling about headshots and concussions, lengths of suspensions, southern franchises, shootouts, three-point games, the New York Islanders, Mario Lemieux, outdoor games (that's me, mostly) or fill-in-your-own-blankety-blanks.
GALLERY: NHL's season of mayhem
The playoffs should offer ablution. They almost always do. Like a Triple Crown candidate wearing blinders, for the next two-plus months, we keep staring straight ahead, enjoying a fierce, fabulous albeit sometimes flawed game.
That's the thing. Like Hal Gill prior to the 2005-06 crackdown on obstruction, hockey grabs us and will not let go.
So maybe for one day we should think about all the things that keep us coming back to hockey, the things that make it a sport worth complaining about, a sort of Stanley Cup as half-full rather than half-empty thing -- to mix our clichés and drinking vessels. This is a list of stuff that I celebrate, something you might try at home after venting at ticky-tack calls, dartboard suspensions, no franchise in Winnipeg or anything else that stokes your anger.
1. I like the lobby in Buffalo's arena. This is common ground, a welcoming and humming place on game night where shared values and expectations trump the cost of the ticket. Unlike in other NHL barns with their disparate gates and special entrances for suite holders, the HSBC lobby is essentially the only way in, a potent reminder of community, the best and sometimes only reason to buy tickets in an age in which sports can be viewed from almost anywhere.
2. I like the job under-the-radar general manager Bob Murray has done in Anaheim. Inheriting a team in a parlous cap situation, Murray has managed to successfully tweak the Ducks without shredding a roster while offering fans playoff hockey if a no rose-petal-ed path to another Stanley Cup. I also like Teemu Selanne, who can fill my notebook and memory bank any day of the year.
3. I like walking into the press box in Philadelphia and seeing Gene, the man who oversees things there. No issue is too big or too small for Gene. If you are lucky, there are a lot of people you will know by one name in this game: Teemu, yes, but also Leslie, who runs the food in Detroit, or Frankie, the former firefighter and a fixture at the old and new Gardens in Boston.
4. I like Pierre McGuire (TSN and NBC) and Glenn Healy (CBC) analyzing games from between the benches. This is hockey art, the most stunning nontechnical accomplishment in sports broadcasting of the past five years. Try breaking down plays amid the cacophony of the benches, with players crisscrossing your field of vision in a real time that somehow seems faster than it does when watched from a gondola perch. Now every broadcast seems to feature an inside-the-glass guy, but McGuire and Healy have set the bar stratospherically high.
5. I like Stanley Cup replicas in the stands during playoffs. This is the interactive hockey experience, far more rewarding than a couple of clicks with a mouse. The 35-pound Cup itself is one of the NHL's most precious assets. In any case, I don't think I've ever seen a Super Bowl crowd shot with anyone holding a faux Lombardi Trophy or an NBA finals game with fans brandishing a homemade Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.
6. And on the subject of the hockey-basketball nexus, Mark Whicker, the superb columnist of the Orange County Register, has observed that when an NBA player isn't selfish, it merits mention. And when an NHL player is selfish, that's also noteworthy. I have never heard anyone in the NHL fret over who should take the last shot.
7. I like being in Carolina in the playoffs. There are more heralded hockey destinations, but none as less self-consciously exuberant. The Hurricanes might not serve the largest market or savviest fans, but they do boast the supporters with whom you'd most like to share a Bar-B-Q sandwich. Before dismissing Commissioner Gary Bettman's dodgy "southern strategy" out of hand, visit Raleigh.
8. I like the fans in the Madison Square Garden's blue seats. Tough crowd. Smart crowd. They know the Rangers. They know the game. They know each other because so many have had the seats for so long. The small, end-arena press box at the Garden offers a unique view, but the upper press box affords stupendous eavesdropping. This is a hockey society in its grandest sense. I hope owner Jim Dolan isn't pricing out the fans in the blues.
9. I like Nashville as a hockey city. Like Quebec before the Nordiques followed their economic destiny to Denver, there is a sense of place in Nashville that is unmatched in the NHL. You couldn't possibly be anywhere else, and there are times, even with a low-rent and cautious team that somehow keeps clawing its way into the playoffs, when you wouldn't want to be anywhere else. Remember, Marcel Goc was the Predators' first-line center for stretches this season. We repeat: Marcel Goc. GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz have squeezed almost every drop out of this franchise, which now needs to win its first playoff series to remind the locals that this team is a keeper.
10. I like assistant coaches, the conduits of information and insight. Ten minutes with Detroit's Brad McCrimmon or Buffalo's Jim Corsi or Nashville's Brent Peterson are like masters classes in which presuppositions will be challenged or softheaded theories exposed. Because I resolve to stay positive, I won't even mention how shortsighted it is for teams such as New Jersey, Chicago and others to make their assistants off limits to the media.
11. I like watching Jonathan Toews. Sidney Crosby? Absolutely. But Crosby resides on hockey's Mt. Olympus. If you were going to build a forward among hockey mortals, the Chicago Blackhawks' captain, a three-zone player, might be it.
12. I like watching Martin St. Louis in every match he plays except an All-Star game. St. Louis is utterly wasted at those affairs -- refresh my memory: Team Who vs. Team What? -- because the Tampa Bay Lightning right wing is genetically incapable of not giving a damn. He always cares. (Same with Bruins goalie Tim Thomas.) Of course, St. Louis has to care, given his size and the time it took to establish himself in the NHL. He might have taken a shift off in his career, but I have not been there to see it.
13. I like coaches who make a difference, including Trotz, Detroit's Mike Babcock, Phoenix's Dave Tippet, New Jersey's Jacques Lemaire, and the Rangers' John Tortorella. I admire Babcock wanting Lemaire on his Team Canada staff at the Vancouver Olympics because he saw it as a way to help his team and expand his own knowledge base. Rule of thumb: the best people in any field usually are the most secure.
14. I like watching the Kings' Ryan Smyth, the Wings' Tomas Holmstrom and Ryan Kesler of the Canucks set up in front of the crease. The last person to work so effectively in tight quarters was Smokin' Joe Frazier. They all seem to have had a GPS chip installed in their brains that makes them able to discern the blue paint without looking down. They obscure vision, blot out the sun for unfortunate goalies. They can score a goal even if they are trapped in a virtual broom closet.
16. I like hockey players celebrating a goal as a group, not skating away to take all the credit and sing a figurative song of myself like, say, soccer players. Chicago's Patrick Kane gets a pass for his stealth 2010 Cup-winner.
17. I like the surge of passion in Montreal crowds, even if the post-lockout standards of enforcement have turned too many fans into would-be referees begging for calls that should be beneath their level of hockey sophistication. Vancouver, San Jose and, again, Chicago also have a special feel but not the je ne sais quoi of the oversized Bell Centre.
18. I like watching Detroit's Nick Lidstrom, who, although he is not as sturdy a one-on-one defender as he was a few years ago, is still a marvel of constancy into his 40s. He remains the right defenseman for the right era, as superb as he is understated.
19. I like GMs Brian Burke, Ken Holland and Ray Shero, who have convictions and are unafraid to speak out -- even if they might be wrong.
20. I like playoff upsets being viewed as part of the natural order of the spring, not as a cataclysm. The NHL has a Butler, if not a VCU, virtually every spring.
We now resume our regularly scheduled complaining.