I learned one thing after putting out the request to hockey fans to teach me about the NHL: you are all the nicest bunch of people around! The comments and emails were so thoughtful and considerate, taking the time to spell out the subtleties and shadings of being a hockey fan in so many ways. The only negative reply I got was from a snooty college basketball fan (there’s a shocker!) irked that I dared to question the competitive level of his beloved sport. He countered with the notion of a Hornets/Jazz game as the worst that the NBA has to offer. Two things about this, then I’ll get back to the matter at hand:
1) I can think of about twenty reasons why I’d love to watch the Hornets play the Jazz.
2) There are thirty teams in the NBA. There are over three hundred Division 1 teams, comprised mainly of American college students. You tell me which one has a thinner talent pool. And trying to match my Wojo comparison with John Salley is just bonkers. If you were trying to drop a shitty NBA player on me, you had TWO O’Bannon brothers to choose from! But I’m a lover not a fighter, so I’ll let it go if you will, Anonymous Crabapple.
A few recurring suggestions came out of my solicitation. The first was that I have to see live hockey to get the full impact of the sport. And that is the first thing I will do—by this time next week I will have seen at least one hockey game in person. (If you’re a hockey expert in the tri-state area with tickets and a desire to walk me through a game, let me know! I will pay my way AND buy you a pretzel!)
The other point that came up repeatedly was that I should take the leap and pick a team to root for. I was told that my carpet bagging NBA ways would not fly with hockey. And it makes sense; I didn’t grow up as someone who could jump from player to player or team to team like I do now with basketball. I ended up there after being a fan for decades.
I grew up a Knicks fan in a Knicks household and it was only when I started writing about the NBA that I learned to let go of my allegiances. Interviewing Reggie Miller in ’99 for SLAM magazine was the breaking point. He was The Enemy and I was hired to write a cover story about him. So I took a step back and allowed myself to see Miller as a great player, not the guy who killed my team from downtown while wearing horrible black-and-gold pinstripes. I couldn’t have made that leap without having acquired an institutional knowledge about basketball. I definitely don’t have any of that with hockey.
I also realized that there’s a regionalism woven into being a fan that just isn’t mandatory in other sports. People seem to root for the team in their backyard. Maybe that’s a symptom of the sport being such a thrilling live experience—who wants to go to a game to constantly root for the visitor?—but part of it comes from somewhere else. And according to Will Arnett, that somewhere else is Canada. He told me, “Hockey culture, no matter where it is, is heavily influenced by Canadian culture. Meaning that even US players and American people in hockey talk and act like Canadians. It’s about the modest to a fault attitude—never taking credit when it’s being given to you, etc. Whether or not it’s authentic or not isn’t really the issue. It’s just about making sure you never boast.”
That wholesome attitude was on constant display throughout HBO’s 24/7 Flyers-Rangers, the four-part series documenting the ramp-up to the NHL’s Winter Classic on January 2nd. Watching the players conduct themselves with such an insistent lack of pretense, one more guileless than the next, was a minor revelation. All of the attitude and aggression and one-upsmanship were reserved for the ice. It’s like an entire sport where nearly everybody acts like Tim Duncan!
The 24/7 episodes helped me pick out a team. As a New Jersey resident I opened my initial considerations to include four teams: the Devils, Rangers, Islanders and Flyers. I eliminated the Islanders when I realized how far away Long Island is and after remembering all of the ribbing that WFAN’s Steve Somers used to serve up at the team’s expense—there’s no way I can cheer on a team that I’ve thought of as “the Fishsticks” for far too many years.
The Flyers were out after contemplating the idea of joining the ranks of the Philadelphia sporting community. I did like a lot of things about the team’s style from the HBO series, like coach Peter Laviolette telling a player on the Dallas Stars to “go fuck himself,” but there’s no way I make the leap to a team in The World’s Second Angriest City (Number one? Providence, RI!) I don’t have the fortitude for Philly sports. I know my limits.
That leaves the Rangers and the Devils, and there are advantages and disadvantages to rooting for each team. The Devils play at the Prudential Center, which is about twenty minutes away from me. They embody the scrappy blue-collar kind of team that I gravitate toward. But the main drawback is that they’re the New Jersey Devils, the team of meatheads like Kevin Smith and David Puddy. The black and red uniforms have always driven me nuts. They do have the all-time winningest goalie NHL history, but he’s about to retire. If I became a Devils fan it would mean embracing the proud but whiny second-class vibe that comes with living in the shadow of New York. I have lived with that for too long already.
The Rangers are one of the Original Six. There’s an undeniable sense of history to the team. There’s also a definite sense of NYC snobbery attached to rooting for them, the kind that makes me feel like I would be part of the problem. The Garden is a perfect place to see any game, but the stands are packed with guys who have been on the wrong end of a Zuccotti Park bullhorn for the last few months. And Rangers alternate captain Brad Richards has been dating Olivia Munn, [whose singular talent for cloying makes her] one of my Least Favorite Humans Ever. But I was truly hypnotized watching coach John Tortorella on 24/7—that is the kind of coach I like!—and it would be so easy to jump on the bandwagon. I am in a unique place: I am an adult without allegiances who can choose whoever I want to root for. So for the time being I plan on playing both sides of the street. I will try the Devils and Rangers on for size and see which I prefer.
I still need your help to go forward with this project. I want to read a few books on hockey, so tell me which best capture the game and the men behind it? I’m all ears. You can either drop a line in the comments below or hit me up over at ScharplingHockeyProject@yahoo.com . And feel free to keep telling me what’s what—if there’s a must-watch game, let me know and I’ll watch. And I’m game to see some live hockey, so drop me a line on that front. But please be kind and realize that I approach this with nothing but humility and a desire to welcome something new into my life. And don’t be like that crank that won’t zip it with college basketball.