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Miraculously Good (02/14/06) --My fascination with the game of hockey is something that is inexplicable to most people who know me. As a halfway-athletic 6’4” male, I should probably be ambivalent about hockey and enthralled with basketball instead of the opposite. But while basketball is enjoyable to me in some ways, hockey has always greased my stick or sharpened my skate, so to speak.
Growing up without cable for many years, hockey was absolutely impossible to watch. The North Dakota State High School hockey tournament would come once a year and I would religiously watch it, all the while not believing the excitement that it was producing. You must remember I was probably eight at the time. Just hearing the name “North Dakota State High School Hockey Tournament” probably gives you an indication of the actual excitement level it really produces. If you need some help, it’s a lot like the biggest roller coaster at Six Flags…………………..on a rainy day when the track is broken and the park is closed for inspection.
From Albertville, to Lillehammer, to Nagano, and finally to Salt Lake, my fanaticism has been unwavering. I loved watching the amateurs and can still vividly remember when Brian Rolston was the star of the Lillehammer team with the Ferraro brothers. I equally love watching the pros and fondly remember the impeccable form Mike Modano exhibited when he threw the love seat through his hotel wall in Nagano.
Between the fuzzy memories and the very mediocre results, though, is a tremendous challenge. To be an Olympic hockey fan, you need to be a crack-addicted insomniac working the graveyard shift in a television store to catch the games live. The 1:00 PM games from Lillehammer were tough enough for the working and school-going bunch, but the 1:00 AM Nagano starts cut at least a year-and-a-half off of my life. This is thanks to the ten days of fatigue I endured after sneaking up to watch the games at absurd hours, praying my parents wouldn’t wake up and find me bleary-eyed in front of the television watching Dominik Hasek expose the US squad as the hung-over underachievers they were.
But I think this is part of the allure. Just like that NHL playoff game you watched seven years ago that went into four or five overtimes, getting up to share some awake time with 7-11 employees and prostitutes builds an experience that makes Olympic hockey even better. And if the US would ever secure gold in my lifetime that would probably add just a bit to the experience as well.
Another thing about the experience that hasn’t changed is the actual play itself. Somewhere between Lillehammer and Nagano my parents invested in a satellite dish and forever changed my perception of hockey. My days of thinking that Fargo South and Grand Forks Central missing passes for three periods was great hockey were over. With the NHL plastered all over ESPN2 (An era which, in this day of OLN, feels like it was about eighteen Gordie Howe lifetimes ago) I was introduced to how the game is actually supposed to be played.
I was consumed by hockey at this point. ESPN had a couple of games a week, the Deuce was hockey central, and I drank up as much as I possibly could. In the middle of all this mess, I lost touch with what had originally cemented me as a fan in the first place: The Olympics.
The Nagano games were decent enough. Canada and the US embarrassing themselves is well documented, but the quality of play was tremendous. But since the games were played at 3:30 AM and the North American teams played like any Olympic women’s hockey team not from the New World plays today, nobody over here noticed. This wasn’t a problem at the time really, but the neutral zone trap was starting to come into form and the NHL was about to take a huge change for the worse. We had no way of knowing this was going to be our last chance for a long time to see high quality ice boxing.
By the time we got to Salt Lake, the NHL was a God-forsaken mess. Jaromir Jagr was skating down the ice with at least two defensemen and an assistant coach tugging on his jersey, the puck spent 45 minutes per game in the neutral zone, and goal-scoring was a faux pas punishable by being traded to Winnipeg, even after they lost their team. The public had left the game, OLN was revving its engines, and hockey was entering a crisis.
Salt Lake opened everybody’s eyes. Even I was a staunch critic of radical changes like removing the red line, long since forgetting my hockey roots formed in front of the TV for Albertville and Lillehammer. When the Salt Lake games started, though, that eight year-old kid was back in front of the tube, mouth wide enough to drive Marty McSorley through, watching one of the most beautiful games in the world.
And now with semi-reasonable start times a reality, the rest of the country was too. What was this game? Were we really watching this? Players were zipping perfect passes across the ice, thanks to the no two-line pass rule. The trap was completely non-existent as odd man rushes and innovative offenses were taking advantage of the extra large Olympic sheet. The game had grace, the game had style. The game had no goons mudding everything up. Goons are great when they are mashing each other’s skulls in. Goons are TERRIBLE when they are molesting your left wing on the opposite end of the ice.
When it all climaxed in a USA vs. Canada gold medal game, you could hear the collective breathlessness of North American spectators followed by the common exhale: “THAT is what the NHL needs to be.”
An extended lockout and much bargaining later, we’ve gotten closer. No matter how close the NHL gets, though, it’s not the same. Unlike every other sport, Olympic hockey soundly trumps the professional game. Our team sucks this year, but so what? Watch the games any chance you can. This is hockey at its absolute best so take it in while you can, because it’s going to be another four years before you and the night watchman will be sharing hours again.