When I was younger I used to be a basketball fanatic. On vacation in India, I'd wake up at 4 in the morning to watch the NBA playoffs. I began my conversion one day in 2001, when I flipped on the TV to Joe Sakic putting out the New Jersey Devils. From then on, whenever it didn't conflict with the NBA, I watched the Stanley Cup Finals. And, slowly but surely, I moved away from basketball to the best sport to watch on Earth. On to the 5 reasons...
5. The internet coverage
Who would have expected that the NHL, of all leagues, would pioneer online coverage? While the league has since fallen behind, initially, it had the jump on the others in terms of using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and so on. In Washington, D.C., with tech-savvy owner Ted Leonsis at the helm of the Capitals franchise, blogs started popping up like daisies and continue to do so. With the mainstream media still not fully convinced of hockey's marketing power (with good reason) and hence limiting coverage, especially in struggling markets and newspapers sold over a large geographic area (i.e. New York Times), online coverage has been how I keep up with all things hockey. Blogs like this and a half-dozen or so others provide my daily dose of laughs and information, not only about my preferred team, but others as well. Why do I spend so much time learning about the Toronto Maple Leafs when instead I could be doing more productive things? Because I'm a hockey fan.
4. The speed and star power
Last spring I tried to watch the NBA Finals after watching every hockey game I could over the regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs. And I tell you, the basketball was painfully slow. There were so many stoppages of play, so many TV timeouts, and the play itself, while back-and-forth, was lacking the speed of hockey. There isn't another team sport where players can move so quickly and so skillfully (no wonder new viewers have trouble catching on!). And the new youth movement in the NHL is only reinforcing the speed & skill aspect of the "new NHL." I love being able to follow the fast-paced action up and down the ice--remember overtime of the 2010 World Junior Championships? The NHL promotes this fast-paced action, and it makes the game exciting. Scoring chances abound due to the speed and dazzling skill of the players. When a player has his skill game on, there's nothing like it (Alexander Semin is the perfect example of this). Combine that with speed and you have a highlight machine in hockey. While maybe more conservative and older hockey fans would like to see the return of physicality more than scoring, for me, as a younger fan (not even legally allowed to drink!), it's terrific, the only thing that will get me to push off my homework until later during my prime-study time in the evenings.
3. The arena experience
It's one thing to go to a half-empty arena and watch a game. It's a different matter entirely to go to a shaking building filled to capacity (and then some, sometimes). Unfortunately, I've never been to see a game in a venue other than Verizon (MCI) Center. In recent years, though, Verizon Center has been, to say the least, crazy. From my seat I could feel the building shaking at every "Let's go Caps!" I hear the crowd drown out the announcers on NBC and TSN (when I was in Canada, briefly). I see everyone on the edge of the seats, audibly holding their breath, as Alex Ovechkin skates down the wing. And that was in the regular season. In the playoffs, even louder. To think that Montreal and Toronto are even crazier is almost beyond me.
In addition, TV does not provide the same experience as in the arena. With the legalization of the two-line pass, it becomes important to be able to see a rush developing away from the puck, something TV cannot provide. Surprisingly, even from the upper reaches of Verizon Center and no doubt most other hockey venues, the view of the ice is very good. You can hear the call out to each other, even. The names and numbers are readable if you're marginally familiar with the names. In this respect, it's a lot like other team sports, except for the speed aspect, again. The eyes are much better to follow the play with than a camera. That's just the reality of it. And with relatively few and short stoppages, hockey makes for an enriching live and in-person experience.
2. The Olympics
There's only one better tournament in team sports, if you ask me (see below). Olympic hockey falls to #2 because of its four-year intervals between tournaments and the fact that really, only seven countries or so are competitive, and the field as it is is pretty small. However, living in one of those countries, being a citizen, is there a better feeling? The Olympics, no matter what the sport, bring nations together. The Olympics are the ultimate nationalism-creator, as the people can set aside their differences for a few weeks to cheer on their boys. Living in the United States, I've seen my country capture Olympic silver in Salt Lake City (2002) and Vancouver (2010). While in 2002 I was more enthralled with Apollo Anton Ohno's exploits in speed skating, in 2010 I was all about the ice hockey, and I can say that I've never felt prouder or closer to other Americans, knowing as I jumped off the couch and celebrated when Zach Parise put a rebound past Roberto Luongo that there were millions of people doing the exact same thing.
1. The Stanley Cup Playoffs
The reason that I got hooked in the first place gets the nod here. There's a reason that the Stanley Cup Finals continue to be the NHL's biggest TV-rights bargaining chip--people watch it. Playoff hockey is intense. Playoff hockey is fast. Playoff hockey is rough. Playoff hockey sends entire fan bases to bed crying. On the other hand, it elates fans like no other postseason in professional team sports. The tension through that best of seven series, unparalleled in other sports, makes victory that much sweeter. And when your team is competing, when your team is legitimately a Stanley Cup contender, when your team could be anointed the best in hockey by June...that's special. Even if your team is out, you can still watch, knowing that you'll get a terrific hockey game (well, Capitals-Penguins 2009 Game 7 and Red Wings-Penguins 2009 Game 5 aside) and all the better if it goes to sudden-death OT. All that it takes is a bounce. The Stanley Cup Playoffs: where legends are made and amazing happens.
I've also never experienced my favorite team winning the Stanley Cup (had to take Detroit as an adopted team the last two seasons, of course, but it's not the same feeling). And just like the Capitals are hungry this season (as are several other teams), so are the fan bases. The desired result will produce a mass satisfaction.