I Love Hockey

I love hockey.

Which is ironic because I hate the cold.  (Which reminds me, if anyone knows of any jobs in Phoenix or Vegas, please let me know…)

When I was a kid growing up in downstate Illinois nobody watched hockey.   And I mean nobody, despite being just three hours away from the Chicago Blackhawks and about the same from the St. Louis Blues.

To make matters worse, my family was one of the last in America to get cable TV, so I couldn’t even watch hockey growing up.   So although I was interested, I never really got a chance to watch the game, and as a result I formed no allegiance to either of the local teams.

When my family finally did get cable (while I was in high school), one of the first things I did was watch National Hockey Night on ESPN.

And that was how I discovered the Buffalo Sabres.

I had never even heard of the Sabres.  But they had a cool logo and a badass young Russian defector (yes, it’s all Cold War politics to me) named Alexander Mogilny, and after one night I had my favorite team.

It is a decision I have come to regret.  Over and over again.

It didn’t start out all bad.  Despite being the last team in the playoffs from the Adams Division, they swept top-seeded Boston 4-0 in the first round.  I thought it was meant to be.

But then they got swept themselves in the next round by Montreal.  And since then it’s been nothing but heartache.

–There was the no-goal in the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals.  Or the less-remembered 2000 “Six Hole” playoff game against Philly, where the puck went through a hole in the net and the refs counted it anyway.

–There was the magical run in 2006, brought to a screeching halt by injuries that forced the Sabres to play three minor-league defensemen in the 7th game of the Eastern Conference Finals.

–There was the brand new scoreboard falling to the ice in the brand new arena.

–There was the team owner and his son being indicted for embezzling more than two BILLION dollars in 2002.

–And now there’s this year.  It started off with much excitement: a new owner that for the first time in franchise history was willing to spend money to build a winner.  The Sabres entered the season with the highest payroll in the NHL… and currently sit in 11th place… in the Eastern Conference.  They’re 23rd out of 30 teams at the moment, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

So it’s safe to say that the Sabres have been the bane of my existence for the past 20 years or so.  And yet, like an abusive spouse, I just keep coming back for more.

But this post isn’t meant to be an angry tirade against my poor decisions in sports teams.  No, this is my attempt to create a few more hockey fans.  So, in that spirit, I give you, the non-hockey fan, five reasons why you should give the sport a try.  (And I promise, “the fights” will not be one of my reasons.)

Chicago Blackhawks

#5- Best logos in sports — Maybe it’s because the logos are bigger in the chest of a hockey jersey than on a football helmet or on the shorts of a basketball player, but hockey logos are more stylish, more intricate, and just all around much, much cooler than other sports.  Here are just a few of my favorites:

Minnesota Wild

Columbus Blue Jackets

Winnipeg Jets

#4- Sudden Death — There is nothing more exciting than the drama of overtime playoff hockey.  By comparison, overtime basketball is boring, and the NFL’s farce of sudden death doesn’t come close.  It’s edge of your seat excitement from the first drop of the puck until it finally finds the back of the net, whether it takes two minutes or three extra OT periods.

#3- The Olympics — If the 1980 Miracle On Ice team doesn’t give you goosebumps then you’re no doubt a commie pinko spy.  And while that drama of beating the Evil Empire may never be matched again, the excitement of Olympic hockey is still pretty amazing.  This goal in the 2010 Olympics that forced overtime with Canada will forever be one of my favorite sports moments:

#2- Ice Girls! — Most sports have stupid kids wipe up the sweat or pick up the kicking tee.  But not hockey!

Need I say more?

#1- David Backes — Ok, I lied.  A little.  I don’t normally like hockey fights all that much, I think they’re way overrated.  (Let’s face it, the guys are on skates, it’s not that hard to knock someone off balance.  One lucky punch, or tug for that matter.  Doesn’t mean you whipped someone’s ass just because they fell down.)  But in 2010, in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, American David Backes decided to send a message to Team Canada before the games even started.  On January 2nd, he picked a fight with Canadian Olympian Jonathan Toews:

On January 7th he introduced himself to Canadian Olympian Cory Perry:

And on January 12th he let Canadian Olympian Rick Nash know the games were right around the corner:

Now if that’s not patriotism I don’t know what is!

So what d’ya say?  How ’bout you give hockey a chance?  Who knows, it might just grow on you.

Devastating Losses, Part II- The Patriotic Edition

My buddy Gotham and I were debating my post on the most devastating losses of our lives, and we decided that since not everyone who reads this is a Fighting Illini fan (and count yourself lucky if you’re not!), we should try to come up with a list of excruciating losses that most any sports fan could relate to.  Maybe we’ll even make a series of posts, with guest entries from all my readers.  But for Part II, I’ll limit myself to the worst losses for Team USA in the Olympics.  If these don’t get your blood boiling then get the &%^$ out of my country!

So with a big assist from Gotham (who, BTW, hosts the definitive site for everything Illinois sports, www.illinoisloyalty.com) here’s a few of the worst days ever in the life of American sports fans.

#4- 1988 Olympics, USA basketball vs USSR.

I’m a child of the Cold War, so my hatred for the Soviets will never leave me.  In my book they’re even worse than the Nazis.  So when you combine my passion for sports with my pathological hatred for a country that murdered uncounted millions of people (40-60 million of their own people, God only knows how many hundreds of millions more worldwide), it’s no longer just a game.

1988 was supposed to be payback for the ’72 Olympics (more on that later).  After losing our first Olympic basketball game ever in 1972, and a US boycott in 1980 followed by a Soviet boycott in ’84, this would be the first chance at redemption.  Unfortunately, the US had the misfortune of having possibly the most overrated coach of all time, John Thompson.  Besides only putting one true shooter on the roster (Hersey Hawkins), Thompson’s ego also compelled him to constantly berate and belittle a young center you might have heard of, David Robinson.  When Hawkins went down with an injury early in the semifinal matchup with the Sovs, they were toast.  The commies packed in the paint, daring the US to shoot, while using 7’4″ monster Arvydas Sabonis to rough up the younger, slighter (and now short on confidence) Robinson.  The result was a demoralizing defeat to the Evil Empire.

In retrospect, there is small consolation in the fact that this was about the last thing the Soviets would ever win in anything, sports or geopolitics, and by the next Olympics most of the Soviet players the free world despised so much would be wearing the uniform of their newly freed republics and disavowing everything the Evil Empire stood for.

#3- 1988 Olympics, Roy Jones vs. Park Si-Hun

The most blatant case of bribery in Olympic history.  Jones outpunched Hun 86 to 32 in three rounds and dominated every second of the fight.  The referee admitted he was “dumbstruck” by the judges’ decision.  Legend has it Hun even apologized to Roy for his undeserved victory.  This fight led to massive reform in international boxing; reviews of how judges are selected, a new scoring system, and investigations into bribery of judges.

The silver lining to this travesty was it no doubt helped contribute to the fire in Jones’ belly that made him the most dominant fighter in the world for a good 14 years.  For my money he’s the greatest pound-for-pound fighter ever, and watching him claim titles from middleweight all the way through heavyweight was a true joy.

#2- 2010 Olympics, USA Hockey vs. Canada

At the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City nobody really thought the US had a chance.  But playing in their home country, they pulled together and made a great run to the gold medal game against the Birthplace of Hockey, Canada.  Unfortunately, the amazing run came to a screeching halt against one of the greatest teams ever assembled.  (Even non-hockey fans will recognize names like Lemieux, Yzerman, Brodeur, Iginla and Sakic.)

After Team Canada celebrated Olympic Gold on our home ice, 2010 loomed large as a chance for payback.  This time it would be on Canadian ice, and although Canada would again be the most talented team in the world (most people didn’t think the US even had a shot at a medal), GM Brian Burke assembled a group of gritty, gutsy youngsters that would capture the hearts of all American hockey fans.  When they beat Canada 5-3 in the preliminary round, you could just sense it was going to be a magical ride.

The Gold Medal game was a rematch with the Canadians, and it was everything it was hyped up to be and more.  USA goalie Ryan Miller stood on his head, making 36 saves and keeping it close until Zach Parise could tie it up with just 24 seconds remaining in regulation.  Parise’s goal, and Doc Emrick’s call, to me is still one of the greatest moments in sports history:

Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be.  After the emotionally draining comeback, the US came out flat in overtime, and although Miller made several big saves, he couldn’t stop Sidney Crosby from putting the clincher in the back of the net.

A sad day to be sure, but I’m already counting down the days to 2014!

#1- 1972 Olympics, USA Basketball vs. USSR

Without a doubt the greatest travesty in the history of sports.  Kind of like the United Nations, the Olympics are rife with politics, and this game was a shining example of anti-American zealots banding together to steal our victory.

It would take pages and pages to adequately describe everything that happened in this game.  The short version is the Soviets, down 1 with three seconds left, were given three tries until they finally managed to score the winning basket.  The officials bent, broke and made up rules to hand the game to the commies.

Here’s a fairly good video of all the BS that transpired in order for the Soviets to steal our Gold:

But even that doesn’t do justice to the full extent of the conspiracy involved to steal our Gold.  In 1972, the US was undefeated all time in Olympic Basketball, 63-0 and 7-for-7 in Gold Medals.  The biased officiating, the corrupt scoretable crew, the 3-to-2 jury of appeals (three commies vs. two free-world), it was a perfect storm of corruption and indecency.

I don’t often have much nice to say about President Richard Nixon, but I’ll give him credit for his restraint on this one.  If I had been President there would have been a nuclear war that night.

*If you would like to make a contibution to future “devastating losses” posts, share your pain with the world, contact me and we’ll see what we can do to “put you on the therapy couch.”*