As I’ve watched the Penguins and Red Wings battle it out over the first three games of the Stanley Cup finals, I am again reminded that nothing in all of sports tops playoff hockey for pure excitement. That is why hockey fans are so loyal to the sport.
The game features incredible skill, lightning speed, tough physical play, non-stop drama, and unmatched sportsmanship. It has something for everyone.
Those qualities are what make it so special, and no other sport comes close to matching it. It is hockey that produced the greatest sports moment in U.S. history in the 1980 Olympics.
This year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs has been one of the best in memory. There was the first playoff matchup between the league’s two premier young guns when Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin put on a show over a seven-game series between the Penguins and the Capitals.
There was also a major upset when the eighth-seeded Anaheim Mighty Ducks knocked off the best regular season team, the San Jose Sharks, in the first round.
There was a matchup featuring two of the oldest franchises when Chicago and Detroit clashed.
There is the presence of a true dynasty in the Detroit Red Wings, a veteran team loaded with talent from top to bottom, a team that boasts its own collection of superstars in Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrick Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and Chris Osgood.
And there is a finals rematch of a young upstart team featuring two the game’s most exciting players against the savvy veterans.
So, what are the characteristics that make hockey the most exciting sport?
In a closely contested series between two great teams, the action is so intense and constant that viewers have to remind themselves to breathe.
Every goal is critical. That is why each odd-man rush is literally a "hold your breath" experience.
Some people may complain that there isn’t enough scoring. But that is what makes the action so intense to watch.
In an average hockey game, a viewer can expect to see between four and seven goals. That isn’t that high of a number. But, numbers can be deceiving. Those numbers can mask the intensity of the action that leads to those goals.
When teams with the offensive firepower of the Penguins and Red Wings match up, the two teams trade scoring chances all game.
And it isn’t like basketball where, if you give up a couple easy baskets, not that big of a deal. Every goal is critical.
A single defensive breakdown can cost a team the game.
There is the added excitement that comes with the power play, which is also somewhat unique to hockey. When a basketball player commits a foul, you get to watch free throws. It is about as exciting as watching paint dry.
But, when a hockey player gets called for a foul, his team gets to play a man short for at least two minutes.
That’s something to behold as the four, and sometimes three, defenders try to prevent their zone from turning into a shooting gallery.
Even overtime in playoff hockey is loaded with drama. The next goal wins. And frequently a series hinges on that next goal.
The Penguins were down 2-0 to the Capitals and playing in overtime of game three for their playoff lives. The situation reversed itself in Game 6. The Capitals were down 3-2 and playing in overtime for their playoff survival.
In those situations, the players play with desperation and fury, like wild beast backed into a corner. It is a glorious thing to watch.
Skill has to top the list. No other sport requires a player to master so many skills.
A hockey player has to be an excellent skater, puck handler, checker, and passer.
He has to masterfully handle a puck while skating at full speed up the ice. Or, he has to fend off an attack by those same speedsters while skating backwards towards his own goal.
He has to do all this while keeping his eyes up at all time or risk being flattened like a pancake.
Great hockey players also must have superb vision so they can track where their teammates are at while keeping tabs on the defenders, all of whom are moving constantly.
No other sport requires as diverse of a skill set.
Most people can go out and play a pick-up game of basketball or football and not look too foolish in the process. Very few people can go out and play a credible game of pick-up hockey.
This is not meant to take away from the incredible skills of the superstars in all of the other sports. It is simply to say that they do not have to master as diverse a set of skills.
Even a casual fan should be able to appreciate the tremendous skill set of the game’s top players. I grew up watching Mario Lemieux, who almost seemed like a magician at times with what he was able to do with the puck.
For Penguins fans, lightning struck twice as we now get to marvel at the superlative abilities of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Speed and Endurance
The game is incredibly fast paced. Skating is much faster than running so the players can rocket from one side of the ice to the other.
And there aren’t that many stops in the action, not compared to all other sports.
Even football has minimal action when compared to hockey with long breaks between most plays. And the last two minutes of a basketball game can last for two days.
That is not the case with hockey. The game is played fast and goes fast.
It is this speed of the game that leads detractors to claim that it is too hard to follow, that they can’t keep up with the puck.
Anyone making this claim has never tried to follow hockey. If you watch a few games, following the action is not hard.
Players also have to have incredible endurance. A one-minute hockey shift, because of the speed of the game, is incredibly exhausting.
If players get trapped on the ice for an extended shift, as happened during the power play in Game Three when the Penguins were able to keep the puck in the Detroit zone for almost 1:30 before scoring, the players are so tired they can barely skate.
The Penguins have also been victims of exhaustion a couple times in the series, unable to make line changes following icing calls, which has led to two Detroit goals.
Most fans like the physical nature of the game. There is the old saying that, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” That isn’t quite the case anymore.
I remember when the Penguins had Jay Caufield. The guy barely had a lick of hockey ability. If he jumped over the glass, bad things were about to happen.
Fights are not quite as common as they were at one point and there aren’t as many pure goons, players you knew would drop the gloves as soon as they showed up on the ice.
But, the game is plenty physical. And, the physical nature of the game gets amped up over a seven game series as the players get to know, and dislike, one another more and more.
Even a seemingly innocent looking series, like the Penguins and Hurricanes, can turn plenty nasty after a few games.
The players hammer each other all over the ice. While the sport doesn’t quite match football for pure violence, it comes close.
Even the star players get in on the action, as happened at the end of game two of this year's finals when Evgeni Malkin and Henrik Zetterberg had a spirited chat in the game’s waning moments.
For me, this is one of the greatest selling points of hockey. Despite the fact that these players go to war against one another on the ice, there is a tremendous amount of respect between them.
The handshakes at center ice after a tough-fought hockey series is a thing of beauty.
This is an element that is missing far too often in other sports where players make a few too many headlines with misconduct away from their sports.
Baseball has its steroids scandal.
Football is loaded with “it’s all about me” players like Terrell Owens, Jeremy Shockey, Michael Vick, and the entire Cincinnati Bengals’ roster.
Basketball has its king march off the court without so much as congratulating the other team after a playoff series.
In hockey, even the game’s biggest rivals put aside on-ice grudges to congratulate one another after every series.
Many of the league’s top players are regular contributors in their communities. Sportsmanship seems to be a huge part of the sport and that makes hockey special.
So, why isn’t hockey a more popular sport in the U.S.?
That is the age-old sports question, much more interesting than debating whether Peyton Manning is superior to Tom Brady or whether Sidney Crosby is better than Alexander Ovechkin.
The main reason is that it isn’t looked at as a primarily American sport as opposed to football, basketball and baseball, all sports with roots in the U.S. Most of the players are from Canada or Europe, particularly Eastern Europe.
That has changed somewhat. There are more solid hockey players coming out of the U.S. than in years past. But, they are still largely overshadowed by players from other countries who live and breathe hockey from the time they are toddlers.
While this does nothing to diminish the game for many fans, it likely is a sticking point for some.
The NHL has also never been able to expand its appeal beyond its core hockey cities, despite repeated attempts.
This is especially true in areas of the U.S. where people did not grow up ice skating. There are very few successful hockey franchises in primarily warm weather areas. I’m not sure any sport sees quite as big of a regional disparity as hockey in its viewership.
The lockout also didn’t help. Any momentum the league was building in these areas came grinding to a halt and once momentum is lost, it is hard to build again.
But, I’m guessing that the long-term prospects of the sport are good. The criminality and thuggish behavior that seem to be plaguing some of the other sports are diminishing their appeal to many fans.
Despite its physical nature, hockey is not plagued with these types of problems. Do I think that will help the appeal of the NHL? Absolutely. It would be wise for the league to continue to emphasize sportsmanship and a sense of community.
The league is also benefiting from a host of exciting young stars, such as Crosby, Ovechkin, Malkin, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews. That does not hurt the league’s cause in expanding its viewership.
Hockey is too good of a product to not eventually be recognized for what it is: the most exciting professional team sport in America, especially come playoff time.
For the NHL, it won’t be a sprint but more of a marathon as the league slowly broadens its appeal over time.
In the meantime, I’m getting ready for game four of the Stanley Cup finals which will undoubtedly be another “don’t dare to breathe” experience. Go Penguins!