Hockey providing reason to watch

This spring, I am much more interested in the National Hockey League playoffs than those of the National Basketball Association. I’m not completely sure why, but I have some ideas why I currently prefer action on the ice to the hardwood.

The puck pushers seem less spoiled and somewhat more humble than the ball bouncers. Maybe it’s the fact that I have never heard of most of them. The game itself feels fresher to me as well. Hockey players aren’t stolen as freshmen from my favorite college teams. I despise the one-and-done world college basketball has become. It may be happening in the NHL, but I am pretty sure a higher percentage of college skaters stay for all four years before going pro.

There are fewer rules in hockey, at least ones that slow down the game. Yeah, I know icing is weird, and off-sides is difficult to understand, but I don’t have to be able to spot those violations. The announcers will tell me when icing occurs and when it is waived off by the officials. Basically, if a player hits the puck over most of the lines that cross the rink, and nobody touches it before it passes the line parallel with the net, icing happens. The violation leads to a face-off on the offending team’s end. Off-sides is basically the same as in soccer. Oh, I forgot. Most people around here don’t watch that either.

Players in both sports can be called for penalties, but in hockey, they make the game more interesting as one team often has a numbers advantage for two minutes. The action picks up as the team with the penalized player is tasked with trying to survive, while the other team goes on the attack. Sometimes, the short-handed team ends up scoring. In pro basketball, a player is allowed six fouls before he is asked to take a seat, and he will not return.

Hockey players fly around their arenas on skates. Backwards. Forwards. Sideways. It’s amazing to watch. When they get tired, new players come on in a shift change while play continues. The collisions are often spectacular, but there don’t seem to be as many concussions as occur in other sports. When hockey players get hit and fall down, they get back up again and rejoin the action. Broken stick? No problem. Swing by the bench and pick up a new one.

Fights among hockey players are still fairly common, but they have decreased dramatically in number and intensity in recent decades. Basketball players seem to be brawling more often than ever. With all the body slamming that takes place, fights can be expected. That goes for hockey, too. Goalies may be the toughest, most unique guardians in modern sport. They have to track the tiny puck as it careens around the rink and be ready at any time to smother, swat, snatch or slap it away from the goal. They have cat-like reflexes, though they are dressed in full suits of armor.

Face-offs in hockey result in random possessions. There is no guarantee that, when the puck is dropped, one player or another will gain an advantage. If a skater jumps in early or too aggressively, he is “sent off” by the referee, who invites a new player into the circle. There is no three-point line. Hockey purists have kept the league from messing with the rules, particularly in the area of point scoring. Though games often finish with only a handful of goals being scored, there is enough action to satisfy even casual watchers of the contest.

I recognize that hockey is a foreign game to many southern North Americans. But, with NHL franchises in cities like Dallas and even Tampa, Fla., the sport has been moving south as steadily as armadillos have been trekking north. And, yes, it’s weird that there are three periods instead of just two halves. But, there is a reason for this. The surface needs to be tended to ever 20 minutes or so, or it gets too choppy. Unlike soccer, there is no added time as the clock stops when the puck goes out of bounds, a penalty is called or the goalie hangs on to the disc.

This is basketball country, and I am still a fan of that sport at its root level. I don’t expect to make many converts to the sport native to the frozen country to our north. But, I believe if sports enthusiasts will give it an honest look, they might find it more enjoyable than they thought.

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