I Am A Hockey Dope

Spurned by the NBA, Tom Scharpling Tries a Rebound Relationship
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Photo by lazylikewally, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

With the NBA lockout completely unresolved as summer turned to fall, I started doing the same dance that plenty of others were doing: the act of finding something to take the place of my beloved basketball. It was a move of pure self-preservation, trying to reciprocate some of the hurt that the league was sending my way. “You don’t love me? Fine! I never loved you anyway!” Like so many others, I entertained the idea of the NHL as a potential replacement.

I know next to nothing about the NHL. It’s not from any active dislike for the game. I’m not opposed to it the way I am opposed to college basketball—any sport that allows a prime douche like Steve Wojciechowski to impact one minute of one game is not a sport for me—but hockey is a mystery that I have never honestly tried to unravel. Any stab at cracking its code has been half-hearted and inevitably fizzles out after a few games. Yes, I have watched some playoff hockey but I can watch playoff anything<. Seriously. If there was a Tiddlywinks league and I knew that one ‘winker would be sent packing after a loss, I Am All In.

But there’s an undeniable allure to hockey that I understand the skeleton of. The traditions. The rituals. The belief and dedication to ceremony. (It sounds like I’m talking about church. Maybe I need to go back to church.) Those elements speak to me. But I cannot connect with the game’s heart—the part that makes me read book after book about a sport and think about it the first thing in the morning and makes me feel wounded by its potential absence. It’s not unlike my relationship with jazz. There’s plenty of stuff I like and lots of things I really like, but there’s a Plexiglass pane that separates me from the LOVE. I want to love jazz and have a set like John Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard do more than make me admire it. I want it to devastate me. And it’s the same with hockey. I want the connection.

With my beloved pro basketball gone, I decided I would learn to love the NHL, not unlike a protagonist in a Victorian novel or a Stephen Stills song. It would be good for me. I would learn new things. My already sizable love for Canada would only grow. And I might have something to write about for this sports website I was legally bound to write for. It all made perfect sense. But then the NBA came back and the notion of dedicating myself to pro hockey faded in an instant. “Thank you for coming back to me, basketball. I’m sorry I doubted for a second that you loved me!”

But then I got a sign the day after news that a deal had been reached. I am not embellishing this one iota, I swear. I was driving around listening to sports radio, hearing Actual Discussions about what the 2012 Knicks might look like. I stopped at a red light and looked at the car in front of me. There was a New York Rangers sticker on the lip of the trunk. Not the bumper. But it was the license plate that did me in. One word stared back at me: HOCKIE. Look, I know that ‘hockie’ isn’t a word, but cut me some slack on this one, alright? Do you really think that the dude who owns the New Jersey ‘Hockey’ license plate is still on the road? He’s gotta be reeeeeeeally old at this point.

So where were we before I started yelling at myself? That’s right: hockey. After seeing that license plate I knew what I had to do. I had to draw a line on myself. While others would run away, I would go the other way. Like a fireman. Like a hero. With God as my witness I would learn to love the National Hockey League.

But I cannot do this by myself. I have tried before and I have failed every time. I need you to help me with this. I beseech all hockey fans to teach me. I will willingly hand myself over to you and accept your wisdom and guidance throughout this process. Tell me which games to watch and who I should root for. Who are the old players whose past heroics will thrill me? (Some guidance: John Starks is my favorite NBA player of the last 20-plus years. I like overachievers who can actually play, unlike Wojo, whose skill set ended with ‘having a nose for the ball’) Do I need to have a team or can I root for players like I do in the NBA? Should I go to the Hockey Hall Of Fame? Will one of you goofballs take me to a game and show me what’s what? Can someone teach me how to appreciate hockey on TV?

Here is what I bring to the table:

  1. A flat-screen TV (jealous much?).
  2. Enough loose change to subscribe to NHL Center Ice and buy some tickets to games in the tri-state area
  3. The following books: The Game by Ken Dryden and Thin Ice: A Season in Hell with the New York Rangers by Larry Sloman, both unread.
  4. The desire to learn something new in my goddamn life.

Again, I really don’t know much about hockey at all—at this point Tim Horton might actually qualify as my favorite NHL player. So write me at ScharplingHockeyProject@yahoo.com and I will do your bidding. Or pour your heart out in the comments section. Either one is fine with me.

But no matter how well this experiment goes, I will never refer to hockey as “puck.” And I am equally open to someone teaching me how to love jazz. Which I will also refrain from referring to as “jass.”


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Comments

I’m not much of a gamer but i think NHL video games are great. Under my opinion you should try fantasy hockey
I think it’s complex and fun.

Once again my man Scharpling disses college basketball. I just don't get it. I'm an NBA fan but to reduce what is clearly a more exciting sport to Steve Wojciechowski is like reducing the NBA to John Salley.

During the farce that was the recent lockout most fans have noticed the great games that have kicked off this college basketball season. I have been enjoying the 40 minutes of madness that make up games like the recent Indiana/Kentucky...although I can't wait for the NBA to start so I can watch a Hornets/Jazz game on the edge of my seat while 8 guys stand around while Raja Bell bricks a fade away three with the Adams Family theme song playing over the PA...

You like college basketball? More power to you. It's good to have things you enjoy. I don't enjoy it. And the difference between Wojo and John Salley is that John Salley had to be able to play basketball to be allowed on the court.

And I know four different fellow NBA fans who tried to switch to college basketball and couldn't do it, with the general complaint being that the level of play was a constant bummer.

But again, enjoy! Life is short!

I think it's possible to be an enlightened fan of the NHL (appreciate players more than teams, be a fan of the technique and skill first and foremost, etc.), but as an entry point, it is probably best to pick a team to "follow," if for no other reason than repetition. The Devils are a pretty fun team to watch nowadays, no longer the slow-down neutral zone trap grind team they were not so long ago. And they have two ancient (near 40) goalies, which is always charming.

I think the most John Starks-y player of my generation was probably Dino Ciccarelli. He scored a fair number of goals and he was kinda small but man he had a serious attitude and liked to attack the front of the net. Consideration could also be given to Theo Fleury, who was all those things plus a raging alcoholic.

I like Krellner's suggestion of Tim Thomas for a modern-day Starks, though the attitude doesn't quite match. I also second the suggestion to play a hockey video game. Not only are they a lot of fun, they introduce you to all the players and their styles in such an unconsciously thorough way that you probably won't realize what you've learned until you find yourself recalling the name of the Minnesota Wild third-line center in conversation as though you've always known it (Kyle Brodziak).

first rule: no matter what anyone tells you about the red wings...watch them as long as pavel datsyuk is on them. he does shit like this on the reg: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZq-zSOIVco

second rule: don't worry about the details (formation, strategy, whatever), just watch it like you would basketball if you're a novice. hockey is a momentum game a lot like basketball or soccer...it's worth watching just for the equivalent of a guy making awesome runs or slashing to the basket, extreme stick handling and possession is akin to a sick crossover...there's all sorts of stuff like this going on all the time.

third rule: fuck boston.

fourth rule: decide whether you wanna watch 1 team or watch it like most of us watch the nba (for stars doing their thing, if you're getting center ice i'd rec this method.) if you pick one team you'll end up knowing within 2 weeks who is on all 4 lines (maxim lapierre best 4th liner in the league!), who the d pairings are (hamhuis is a bawse!), who sucks (mason raymond is back? lame), who is awesome (sedins!), who you think is criminally underrated (chris higgins!). i moved to vancouver this year and got sucked into this along w/ my wife and her canucks. shit is kinda awesome. the center ice method is what would replace the nba more easily.

LAST ONE: embrace your inner USA USA USA guy and root for players that are from your country...everyone thinks canadians are super nice, respectful, and all that shit. try telling them that ryan kesler, ryan miller, or zach parise would be worthy of a spot on their beloved team canada. red faced rage is what happens. then try saying chris higgins would be too. pants will be shat.

also, watch the world juniors this month and read puck daddy...they'd probably even want you to come on their podcast, FAMOUS GUY.

before you go to Rangers game, because you should be a Rangers fan, look up "Potvin Sucks" and Dancing (sometimes referred to as 'homo') Larry. just so you know whats going on in the crowd. and yes 24/7 starts tmrw night!! gonna be sick!!

I look forward very much to seeing how this progresses, as I live with a hockey nut roomate, so hopefully I can use Tom's finding to put me on my own path to not be being bored when I see Hockey on our TeeVee screen.

In terms of a team Tom, how about the Winnipeg Jets? Returning home after a longish absence, could their first season back be an exciting way to take in your own first season?

Plus if nothing else, you can bond all the more with Philly Boy Roy about how nem Flyers season is going....

I'm from Indiana (where only one winter sport exists), and hockey never registered on my radar until I moved to DC a few years ago. Over the course of last season, I went from not knowing what constituted offside in October to having fully formed opinions on my favorite blue line combos and throwing a MAJOR tantrum when the Capitals got swept by the Lightning in the playoffs. My roommates can attest to how scary it got. Here are the four things that turned me into a hockey fanatic in the course of just one season:

1. Get a favorite team and make a point to watch them as often as possible. This is not the NBA where I'm a Pacers fan, but also have several other favorite players and teams. I can't explain it, but it helps to appreciate one team (preferable one on local cable three times a week) on a base level. The NHL is just not the NBA, despite many superficial similarities.

2. Play an NHL video game. Seriously. I'm not much of a gamer, but I played countless hours of NHL 11 last year, and it really familiarized me with the intricacies of the game. Plus you can fight!!!

3. Go to a few games. I made it to a couple of Caps games last year (and I'm going to my second one of the year tonight ... let's beat Philly!), and it's simply incomparable to watching on TV. You learn so much by seeing the line changes and passes, and seeing goals and fights live is exhilarating. Also, there are no bad seats, at least at the Verizon Center there aren't. Being close to the action has its obvious advantages, but being higher up can give you its own superior vantage point that you don't get with basketball nosebleeds.

4. Watch 24/7 on HBO. Last year's edition personalized the players and coaches so well, and up to that point I was still trying to remember everybody's names. If you're in New York, and you're thinking about becoming a fan of the Blueshirts, this year's 24/7 will give you a great look at the team. Hell, I hate both of these teams, but I can't wait to watch every second of it.

If you do these four things, and learn Canadian time zones, you'll be a full-fledged hockey fan by the time the playoffs roll around.

I agree with these, especially 2 & 3. NHL video games are the best. Especially when you're wearing a hockey sweater.

Also, you should get a hockey sweater and call it a hockey sweater. That's pure credibility.

If I were you, starting from scratch, I'd go with the Habs. I have many reasons, not the least of which is maximum exposure to quebecois, again credibility, and giving myself reasons to visit Montreal.

Is this Roch Carrier?

I tend to agree with the assessment of the Oilers being the OKC of the NHL, but as a die-hard Maple Leaf fan I can't in good conscience suggest you to root for anyone else.

This is one thing that I believe separates hockey from the rest of the "big 4": the rivalries. The wounds of playoff losses of years past, a dirty check, an opportune goal, these scars span decades. There is not a Leaf fan on earth that does not remember Eddie Belfour choking in the Conference Finals, or Gretzky beating the Leafs in '93 and then losing to the Canadians (of all teams!?) in the Cup final. . these are memories burned into not only the psyche of the fan, but of the organization as a whole.

Naturally, rivalries do exist in other sports, (Celtics/Lakers, Yankees/Red Sox, Bears/Packers) but in no other sport does every single team, from top to bottom, have a team that they would like nothing more than to beat the living snot out of. And of course, this being hockey, the NHL fan gets to see this every single night.

So, my suggestion is (once you have become acclimated to the game itself) to go to the TD Gardens in Boston for a Leafs (or Habs)/Bruins game, sit in the lower bowl, and wear a fairly neutral t-shirt (no Boston, Toronto, Montreal colors) and just observe the hatred in the eyes of the players and the fans alike. Although the reasons for these rivalries existed long before any of these people we're born.. they know; it is born when they pull on the jersey, they know who the enemy is.

Anyway, I hope you find a team. This is ultimately the first step. Find a team and buy the jersey. The rest will take care of itself.

I of course support this endeavor all the way, and look forward to following it (and doing some lite copy-editing of it as needed). But I want to make clear that no one who is not actually on a hockey team is under any obligation to buy a hockey jersey. I like the sport fine, but those things are just goofy looking, and I defy anyone not actually wearing a jersey for hockey-playing purposes to look cool in one.

Quite possibly the coolest non-hockey related hockey jersey fashion choice of all time: http://goo.gl/03VtU

I would like to reiterate what Chupacabra said about the 24/7 series. HBO has done an amazing job with it, and I have plenty of friends who aren't hockey fans who loved it and watched the Winter Classic due to it. Plus is has the Rangers this year, which might be a good way to develop an allegiance towards a team.

Definitely go to a live game. If anything, go to a live game before you start watching it on television. I grew up in a Sunbelt market (Dallas/Fort Worth) which made it difficult to find friends who were interested in the sport. However, many who went to live games with me grew to love it. With out sounding pretentious, hockey is even a better game in person. You feel the cold moist air of the rink, you get the organ music and you heard each time the stick hits the puck. Luckily, with HD television the image is much more clear, so you are better off trying now than in the 90s with standard definition and the glowing puck.

I'm really glad that the Classical is doing something like this, good luck Tom!

Hey now, I also hail from the Metroplex. Still here actually. Stars fans here in DFW are hardcore, but so small in numbers that attendance has more closely resembled that of a half-empty lecture hall :-(

I'm glad to see a fellow Stars fan here. I remember how amazing those crowds were at Reunion, it is sad to see how they dwindled (but still spirited). I hope that Galgardi and Neuwy can turn it around.

Sidebar for Tom: Be prepared for most hockey players to have a nickname that is the abbreviation of their last name then either -y or -ie.

This is exciting! I had a tiny worry that The Classical would ignore hockey altogether. First, you definitely need to go see the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. It will confirm all of your hockey/church analogies even more. The Stanley Cup is set up in a cathedral-like room, stained glass and everything.

As for teams, I would suggest jumping on board with the Edmonton Oilers. After a few years in the wilderness, they have had some great drafts and now have the most exciting young players in hockey - Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who all play on the same line. I see them as the OKC Thunder of the NHL.

YES. YES YES YES. I've waited patiently for a hockey article from The Classical and now the Dollar Menu Dickens himself delivers.

I would recommend watching the documentary Broadstreet Bullies (about the 1970s Flyers) and the HBO 24/7 series about last year's Penguins/Capitals and this year's Rangers/Flyers.

I can't recommend the Broad Street Bullies documentary enough. I almost cried the first time I watched it. It is a amazing look into those early Flyer teams.

If John Starks is model, those early Flyers team are full of Starks-esque players. I think the story of the Red Army game is right up Tom's alley also.

As for a modern day hockey Starks, maybe Tim Thomas is the best example. A guy who everyone thought couldn't be an NHL goalie based on his style, who made it to the NHL, bounced around between a few teams, sent up and down from the minors, won the Vezina in 09, got benched the next year, fought for his job back, and is one of the top 5 goalies in the game right now.