The Return of the Hockey Dope

A man who wants to know the NHL appeals to our readers, again.
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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 . 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.

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There's less standing in the way of your being a Rangers fan now: Olivia Munn dumped Brad Richards.

I think you've got the right attitude with hockey, take it easy and really let it soak in. I was way into hockey as a kid and then fell off for a number of years. But when I came back a few seasons ago I did it slowly.

It’s the only way to go as hockey fandom is about two things in my opinion, first nuance—there are subtleties and calculations in every move comparable to only one other sport, basketball, which you have an appreciation for already. A fan of the sport learns these tricks over time and soon begins to anticipate the action on a new level. Plus if they screw-up you’re allowed to aggressively shout your ideas at the bench. Second, as you’ve already gathered loyalty. There is no wavering in hockey, no going with who ever is hot right now. If your team is a losing team, then you’re a proud/angry loser. Once you’ve got a team, that’s your team for life and you’re proud of it. I know Kevin Smith is a major turn off as a human being, but you seem to be Jersey through and through, I say stick with the Devils.

Side note on Philly—in 1995 my father & I went to visit my brother at Swarthmore College in PA. As a treat he got us tickets to see the Flyers play the Penguins on Easter Sunday where I saw two Flyers fans pummel, and I mean pummel, a Penguins fan in the beer line. You’d have thought this was pederast for the beating he took.

Hooray for hockey. It's awesome you want to get into it, but I have one issue with your characterizing of the Devils and the Rangers. Right now, at this moment in hockey history, the Rangers are absolutely a blue-collar team, or as blue-collar as professional athletes can be. Despite highly paid Munn-dating alternate captains, they lead the league in fights and hits, and do the single most terrifying thing in all of hockey, at least in my mind: they block shots. I saw the difference this week when I watched a couple games featuring teams that weren't the Rangers, and I was struck by the absence of people sliding in front of shooters and the amount of pucks that made it through to the net. And while there are definitely plenty of banker shithead types in the stands at the Garden, there are plenty of poor motherfuckers like me that love them some Rangers, even if we can only afford to see them when they play a team like the Predators.

On another note, you should definitely learn The Hockey Song, It is so, so good.

Baseball as my main sport, I've been a honest Yankee fan since the 90s. Even stuck it out through some "bad" years (Spike Owen? Randy Velarde?) The run of World Series titles were amazing, but I've always wondered if I'd taken 'em for granted as a kiddo.

Then I think of the '94 Rangers and their playoff run. I was 8 years old then. Beside the two Mystique and Aura games at Yankee Stadium in the '01 World Series vs the DBacks, I can't remember ever being more captivated by what was unfolding in those weeks. The day after the Rangers won the series vs the Devils on the Game 7, Stefan Matteau wrap-around goal which sent them to the Cup series, I was one of fifty 8-year-olds screaming "Let's Go Rangers" on the school bus, pounding the backs of the seats (the driver must have been freaked). I could have swore no one in school had even heard of hockey before then. It was awesome.

This season looks to be the first Rangers are a legitimate force. They've been bumped from the first round recently, but this squad is looking like it will make a run. Tortorella and co. have a long-term plan that is now bearing fruit. This is the time to jump on board. Rangers, Tom. Rangers.

As far as the whole Devils/Rangers things goes, the Devils are a team that seem to be at a cross roads. Marty is done, either this year or next, and when he goes so does the image of Devils as the hard-nosed, defensive first team. Zach Parise is the face of the franchise and could be for years to come. He is an exciting, young player but the fact is he might not be on the team next year. Ilya Koalchuk is owed millions of dollars and a decade left on his contract but hasn't been the type of player that the Devils expected. There is a young core of players there to build around, Larrson and Henrique have a lot of promise, but it seems unclear what direction this team is going to take. All that being said, the last game I attended at the Prudential Center there was, no lie, a woman with a mustache in the row in front of me and a guy in my row, by himself, who read a book during the entire game.

As for the Rangers, my Flyers fandom won't allow my to say anything nice about the team. They have recently surpassed the Penguins as the team I dislike the most. Perhaps, I bought into the HBO narrative or maybe it is because the Rangers have beat the Flyers three times in a row including the Winter Classic, but I can't stand a single member of the Rangers.

So in my totally biased opinion, I would rather be surrounded by females with facial hair and Kevin Smith than be a Rangers fan.

Ken Dryden's 'The Game' is a really, really phenomenal hockey book.

It digs into one of the greatest teams of all-time, the Montreal Canadiens, and it just really worth a read. Dryden continues to have lots of interesting things to say about hockey. It's worth reading whatever he writes.

Anyway, so glad to see you are embarking on this project! I played hockey from age 4-18 and still love everything about it. Hopefully you'll find the hockey community helpful, welcoming, and informative!