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Stanley Cup Blues

Sunday, June 8, 2014

As much as I’ve grown to love hockey, I can’t bring myself to watch the ongoing Stanley Cup finals.

The Stanley Cup finals, in which the New York Rangers play the Los Angeles Kings, have begun, and I shall not be at my post — or more precisely, in my chair, footstool at the ready, a glass of ice water on the lamp table to my right. I suffered too greatly watching my home team, the Chicago Blackhawks, lose to the Kings, 5-4 in overtime of the seventh and deciding game for the western conference title. The Blackhawks jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, and the Kings kept tying things up, and never led until that deadly overtime, on a slightly flukey goal that left the ice and flew over the shoulder of the Hawks’ splendid goalie Corey Crawford.

The time was around 10:30 p.m. (CST), and I turned off the television set and hobbled, dejected, into the bathroom for my bedtime ablutions. “Don’t let yourself take this seriously,” I told myself, “the Blackhawks had a good season, and you, as a camp follower, were given a good ride. Perspective, old boy. It’s only a game, and one that doesn’t really touch your life.” From this conversation with myself you can see what a sensible fellow I am.

I am not a sore loser, not in the least, only a mildly depressed one. This seventh game could have gone either way, and it didn’t go the Blackhawks’ (and my) way. I shall of course live with this loss. What choice have I? Yet, I cannot help reflect, it is a real setback. Because of it I shall not get to watch the Blackhawks play for the Stanley Cup, which, to my great pleasure, they won last year. I shall be derived, at a maximum, of seven hours of excitement watching heavily-padded Canadians and Eastern Europeans race up and back over the ice, banging one another into the boards, in the hope of winning a large silver cup, which each member of the victorious team gets to hoist over his head.

In interviews at least, hockey players seem more modest than do athletes in other professional sports.

I should add that my watching hockey is less than subtle. I never played the game as a boy, and I don’t even now know all its fundamental rules. I went to a few games at the old Chicago Stadium as a kid, but only last year did I learn the meaning of icing and the role the blue line plays in the game. I understand penalties, but rarely do I notice the actual infractions that bring them about. The only players I know are those on my home team. I would fail a quick quiz in which you asked me what cities the Sharks, Sabres, or Predators represent. Since I watch most Blackhawk games, as I watch most sporting events on television, with the sound off, I am not likely soon to improve my knowledge.

What I do know is that watching hockey, even at my crude level, is immensely stimulating. So much so that during close games late in the third period I sometimes find my fists clenched; at the last two minutes or so, with the Blackhawks a goal up or behind, I have been known to leave my chair and watch the ending of a game on my feet. I do not pump my fists when the Blackhawks win such close games, but, somehow, the world seems an infinitesimally but genuinely brighter place when they do.

The mostly young men who play hockey strike me as physically tougher than most other athletes. I don’t believe there is a DL, or Disabled List, in hockey. Stories of players finishing games with serious injuries abound. I remember many years ago hearing about a Blackhawks player — I cannot recall his name – requiring no fewer than 33 stitches in his face from having been slashed by a hockey stick in the first period, and returning to play in the third period. In interviews at least, hockey players seem more modest than do athletes in other professional sports. The import of their utterances are no weightier than that of other athletes, nor are they asked more penetrating questions by the Medes, as I have come to call television newscasters and sports announcers, but they appear less willing to rattle on about themselves in what any sensible person would realize is an egregiously vain way.

Such is the speed of hockey that it makes all other sports look as if they are played in slow motion. I don’t say that this makes hockey superior to other sports — it is nowhere near as subtle as baseball, or as elegant as basketball, or as strategy-based as tennis. But the intensity of hockey is such that it calls for a spectator’s full attention. So fast is it that I only occasionally actually see goals scored, and only really witness them, from various angles, on television replay. I watch other sporting events with a Times Literary Supplement or a biography on my lap. Hockey allows no space for reading, except at commercials or intervals between periods. What I mildly resent about this sport is that it doesn’t allow me to get much reading done. 

Dreary to support a seasons-long losing team — as a Cubs fan I can attest to this — but there is something dispiriting to support a winning team that does not go all the way to a triumphant conclusion to its season. In conversations with my fellow couch-potatoes — among old friends, young men and women where I bank, men at my local supermarket — I sensed a dampening of spirits at the Blackhawks defeat. “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports ... the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat,” Jim McKay used dramatically to announce, to the accompaniment of trumpets, at the opening of the old Wide World of Sports show, though when first I heard it I thought he was saying the agony of da feet. 

The mostly young men who play hockey strike me as physically tougher than most other athletes.

Television sports is nicely rigged to keep the couch potato in a nearly permanent state of distraction. Now that the hockey season is (for me, at least) over, the National Basketball Association Finals begin, the baseball season is well underway, the French Open tennis tournament is into its third week, and at the end of the month Wimbledon will have begun. A faithful television soldier, I shall be at my post for all of it.

Yet I should like to have it known that I have taken to sleeping in a black, short-sleeved shirt with the Blackhawks logo on its front, the number 19 and the name Toews (the team’s captain is Jonathan Toews) on the back. Which I guess means that I have now officially become a hockey fan.

A number of years ago I requested my son, to whom I did not pass on the sports-watching disease — scientists aver that it is not hereditary — to shoot out both my kneecaps and commit me to a sanatorium if ever he caught me watching NASCAR, and I almost included hockey in the request. Whew! That, in retrospect, was a close call.

Joseph Epstein is The American’s couch potato and the author of the book Essays in Biography.

FURTHER READING: Joseph Epstein also writes “The Playoffs: A Couch Potato’s High Holidays” “The Artist Athlete,” “Football’s Head Games: The Concussion Question,” and “The Long, Hot Summer.” Robert McHenry offers “Reflections of a Casual Fan.” Jon Entine discusses “What Makes a Great Olympian? Sometimes It's Genetics.”


Image by Meg Bosse / Bergman Group



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