THROWING IT OUT THERE | By Desmond Bieler

NHL Lovers Believe The Cup is Half Full

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Monday, October 8, 2007

Just like that, NHL action is under way. We could go on about how nobody noticed the season starting for what's supposed to be a major sports league, and how hockey gets lower TV ratings than mah-jongg tournaments, but that wouldn't be kind. We wanted to go in a different direction and find out what people actually like about the NHL, eh?

OneThe Stanley Cup Playoffs

Let's start with the fact that the NHL easily has the coolest championship trophy going. The Stanley Cup looks the part, while the NFL has a football on a stick and the NBA has a basketball perched on the lid of a Big Gulp. The Cup actually has held its share of beverages and, thanks to the NHL's excellent policy of letting each winning player spend quality time with it, has also found itself onstage at a gentlemen's club and at the bottom of Mario Lemieux's swimming pool. Of course, before the Cup makes its annual appearance, you have to wait out a regular season that goes on for longer than the presidential campaign, but it all makes sense once the stakes are raised. The checks just seem harder, the passes crisper and, impossibly enough, Barry Melrose's hair more lacquered. In addition to the best trophy, the NHL playoffs have the best overtimes, especially when sudden death doesn't come so suddenly. As one period bleeds into another, tension mounts, exhausted players drag themselves all over the ice and fans get whipped into such a frenzy, they actually don't mind that beer sales got cut off two hours ago. Finally, only the NHL has a cultural highlight specific to its postseason: the Playoff Beard, a tremendous custom in which players go unshorn during the postseason, until the Stanley Cup winners resemble oddly hulking castaways.

TwoThe Zamboni

Anyone who has seen an NHL game in person knows what a kinetic spectacle it is. The players are constantly dashing up and down the ice, crashing into each other and leaping over the boards. But then the period ends, the Zamboni takes to the ice and it's all . . . so . . . peaceful. There's something charmingly quaint yet disturbingly hypnotic about watching the Zamboni slowly circle its way around the rink, transforming chopped-up ice into a pristine surface. If baseball could have figured out a way to rig Zambonis to drag the infield, the Expos would never have left Montreal.

ThreeThe Fighting

Ah, the NHL's decidedly less peaceful side. It would seem our crack staff doesn't mind feeling the bloodlust well within it, as several parties nominated the NHL's predilection toward pugilism as their favorite aspect of the game. One even specified "fighting in the preseason," giving an appreciative nod toward those who have the professionalism to work out the kinks in their goonery during exhibition games.

FourThe Hockey Song

Played at NHL arenas across North America, hockey's answer to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" is this ode by a fellow named Stompin' Tom Connors. The chorus (for you heathens out there) goes, "Oh, the good old hockey game/Is the best game you can name/And the best game you can name/Is the good old hockey game." Apparently, what Tom was stompin' on was any notion of lyrical complexity, but the song sure is a crowd-pleaser.

FiveThe Contrarianism

From one member of our crack staff who may have been a wee bit tired of all the snide comments at the expense of his favorite sport: "You know what I like about hockey? The fact that most other people don't like it. . . . Hockey is like the unknown face-melting band before its breakthrough single; we true believers don't have to share it with the great unwashed." Well, there you have it.

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