Hockey Is Cool and Fun

I had had enough.

Thanks to the NBA’s near-universal adoption of advanced analytics–and the concomitant idea that it was in teams’ best interest to push the pace and shoot endless three pointers–the game was already becoming a glorified track meet. Then, in its annual “Points of Education” prior to the 2018/19 season, the league informed the public that referees would be instructed to essentially not allow defenders to get away with any off-ball contact. The results were quite predictable to even casual fans: the scoring revolution would continue unabated.

In retrospect, it was way worse than pessimists like me expected. Weeks into the regular season teams were routinely putting up over 120 points in regulation games. It wasn’t uncommon to see scores in the 140s. And these numbers weren’t just coming from offensive juggernauts like the Golden State Warriors; even cellar dwellers like the Knicks, who were intentionally tanking, were averaging over 100 points a game.

Beauty, to be certain, is in the eye of the beholder. But to my cranky eyes, the appeal of basketball had always been its combination of raw power and elegance. Now the former was stripped away, and the game was 48 minutes of insanely strong, physically gifted men taking uncontested jump shots with nary a light shove dissuading them. I could tolerate my hometown Cavs being horrendous; I couldn’t tolerate this new product.

So after a decade of encouragement from my small but hyper-dedicated group of hockey-fan friends, I gave up on the NBA and declared myself a fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets. (CBJ is the only Ohio-based team, and they’re named after the state’s impressive contributions to the Union’s Civil War effort.) Last night, my defection was rewarded with one of the most enjoyable experiences of my professional sports-viewing life.

I know very little about the NHL and literally had to Google “how many teams make nhl playoffs” two months ago. So I’ll spare the reader a phony technical analysis of the series. Suffice it to say, Columbus came into the playoffs as the lowest seed in their conference, a team that didn’t clinch a postseason berth until the second-last night of the regular season. And they were facing a Tampa Bay squad that people who actually know what they’re talking about said may be the best of the salary-cap era.

If this were the NBA–say, Warriors vs. Clippers–the game would be competitive for about five minutes. But Columbus came out swinging…literally. Their pace to start the game was excellent; NBC cameras could barely keep up with the action. And less than a minute into the game, Blue Jackets’ center Brandon Dubinsky took exception to a hit in the back of his head, going after former teammate Dan Girardi. It was awesome.

What was not awesome was the subsequent flurry of goals CBJ surrendered. They entered the second period down 3-0 to an historically great team and looked like they didn’t belong on the same ice. NBC analyst Jeremy Roenick wondered if Columbus would bench goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to help him save face in his impending free agency. The game was very clearly over.

The Blue Jackets had other ideas. Even down 3-0, CBJ to a man was skating and hitting with a fervor I could barely comprehend. They scored four unanswered goals and held the prolific Lightning offense in check for a harrowing final six and a half minutes of hockey.

Sure, it’s just one game, and Tampa Bay will still probably win the series. There’s also almost certainly a blowout or two in store in the next few games. But a team that I have zero emotional connection to and a sport that I know barely anything about kept me on the edge of my couch for 40+ minutes. That’s more than I can say about all but a handful of Cavs games, and certainly none of their first round contests.

Ironically, the combination of speed, physicality, and parity on display last night is in many ways what the NBA could be. But in the present, the NHL gives viewers a far superior offering. I’d encourage hockey neophytes to give it a shot.

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