As previously established in these virtual pages, I came to hockey late.
The Sundays of my childhood were spent hurrying to finish the dinner (a Southern word for big-ass mid-day after-church nap-inducing lunch) dishes in time to catch kickoff of the Redskins game.
Later, I passed the sun-drizzled autumn nights of my 20s drinking in the smell of grass and the pop of leather, whether in the stands with ever-so-fuzzy friends or in the press box with looming deadlines.
Hockey is one of those rare, late-30s friends. Those are harder to come by than the casual bar conversations and opportunistic office bonding that take place when you take such things for granted, and, as such, are more cherished.
Oddly, I met hockey in the Sunshine State, in a square-cornered ice palace on the edge of the Everglades. Twenty minutes from the new life I started with my husband and stepdaughter, I learned to appreciate the sound of a blade carving cleanly through ice and the muffled oomph of a body slamming into Plexiglass. I came to savor the taste of cold beer in an environment where winter felt like winter, if only for three hours, and the look on my child’s face as her eyes processed a new experience and transmitted a smile to her mouth.
I’ve even strung some hockey, writing about it alongside grizzled beat boys. I’ve checked and re-checked overtime points rules and conference realignments and confusing spellings. I’ve stood inches from the padless post-game shoulder of Jaromir Jagr – easing into his golden years in South Florida like so many businessmen before him – and understood, even in my limited frame of reference, how completely cool that was.
I don’t pretend to understand the finer technical points of the game. I can’t intelligently discuss plus-minus. But, as I watch the Lightning and Rangers fight for the Eastern Conference title and a date to play for Lord Stanley, I do appreciate the game. Here are a few reasons why:
1) There is nothing – nothing – like the final few minutes of a hockey game, especially a tied or one-goal playoff one. The uninterrupted intensity is breathtaking – not in some gradual, romantic way, but in a sudden pain in your chest that lets you know you’ve neglected respiration a bit too long. There are no clock-cheating timeouts, no strategic fouls, no interminable free throws. There’s no two-minute warning to plan your last beer and/or bathroom break around. The final minute is drama in its highest sports form. The only thing that comes close is two outs, 3-2, bottom of the ninth. But that tableau, while beautiful, unfolds in sweet slowness, agonizing in its deliberateness. When the goalie hightails it to the bench and players wind up from the blue line, the barely channeled frenzy is bared-teeth, brutal desire.
2) I appreciate said goalies. I appreciate the butterfly and the standup and the hybrid. I appreciate how Washington goalie Braden Holtby stoned his elders for much of the Capitals’ playoff run, and how his remarkable effort in a game 7 overtime loss to the New York Rangers was trumped by the gritty determination of veteran counterpart Henrik Lundqvist.
3) I appreciate Henrik Lundqvist. A lot. On the ice and in a suit. Especially in a suit.
4) I appreciate that hockey coaches wear suits. It doesn’t seem that much harder to look nice while you work. Ahem, NFL.
5) I appreciate the fact that somehow, between-periods hockey interviews don’t annoy the shit out of me the way correctly lit, hair-flipping inane questions asked in-game of basketball coaches do.
6) I appreciate the 30 extra pounds of beer-bellied fan flesh pressed as close to the action as possible in cities where the game is God. I don’t understand this cold-blooded passion the way I understand white-knuckling bases loaded with no outs or fourth-and-goal on the final drive, but nonetheless, I drink it in.
7) I appreciate that I did not always appreciate hockey. That is a change. I appreciate that life is change, whether one plans, welcomes, or likes it. So by the convoluted logic that has your college basketball/baseball/lacrosse team winning an NCAA title if, in the first week of the season, it beat a team that played the eventual national champion, hockey is like life. Maybe?
Maybe that’s the second beer talking. In any case, I gotta go.
The game is on.