Living Legend

When it was announced Crosby was returning, we all had visions of his brilliance on the ice, dreams of him stepping back on the ice and dominating the entire league at will as he had been through 2010. But we tempered our expectations with reality. He hasn’t played an NHL game in over ten months. He’ll probably need time to settle back in. He’ll have limited minutes, maybe even be held on the bench after a hit just to make sure he’s all right. Maybe he’ll get a point. Two, at the most.

We were wrong.

Sidney Crosby is a living legend. There’s no debate about that. Not after last night. Not after he picked up right where he left off.

This was the most anticipated comeback since Mario Lemieux in 2000, and all he had to beat was three years of retirement. He worked with a trainer, knew what to expect, and was brilliant in his return, meeting all expectations. Crosby, on the other hand, had to overcome the invisible specter of a concussion. There was never any set timeline, he never knew when he would reach the point of full recovery, and even then there would be lingering doubts. What if the symptoms came back? What if he took another hit to the head? What if he just wasn’t the same?

Crosby erased all those doubts last night, and obliterated the expectations of “just” a point or two. From the opening face-off through the end of the game, Crosby was the best player on the ice. And the best player in the world. Again. And he was playing his game. Flying around the ice at high speed, grinding it out in the corners, and driving to the net.

This is what I’ve been waiting for since January. This is what has been missing from the hockey world. Even while the Penguins were flying high without him, the best player not being able to play just left an emptiness on the ice. Something was missing. You always wondered what Crosby would’ve done in a certain situation. Would he have put the team over the top in those close games? Would the unsuccessful power-plays have been better with him? When Crosby had to stop playing and recover from his concussion, every sports fan was robbed of seeing a player dominate his league.

Now we can all see what we’ve been missing. What Crosby adds to the team, the league, and the sport of hockey. The brilliance, the work ethic, and the unparalleled skill. The Penguins have been great to start off the season, and were on top of the league before their southeast swing. Losing to the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning showed that without Crosby, there were some flaws in the team. Nothing could have fixed that faster than Sidney Crosby’s return. ((Or playing the New York Islanders.))

I’m no longer wondering what’s missing from this team. Now I can just watch in awe as they accomplish the unpredictable. I didn’t expect Crosby to get two points, let alone four. I didn’t expect to be on the edge of my seat at the chance of seeing another Sidney Crosby hat trick. I didn’t expect a shutout from Fleury, who was brilliant the entire night. I didn’t expect the power-play to get fixed so quickly. I didn’t expect the team to look like what we’ve all been hoping and wishing for. And that’s what Sidney Crosby brings to hockey: shattered expectations.

Action & Reaction

One of the best parts of hockey is that when you see something that takes a great amount of skill, even if it costs your team the lead, you can’t get angry over it. You just sit there in awe and admiration.

And if you’re lucky enough, your team will answer back.

The Return of Hockey

Consider this a rough draft. I needed to just post it and get it out, for now.

I’ve had a love of hockey for as long as I can remember. Whether its playing the game myself, or watching any level of hockey in person or on television, I’m thrilled by every second of it. Hockey returns at the best time of the year. The fluctuating period between summer and autumn. Leaves are just starting to change colors and fall, crackling and rustling along the ground. The temperature is fickle. Some days are perfect for a stroll around the block or a bike ride along your favorite route. Other days remind you that winter is coming with the sharp bite of a cold breeze. Daylight begins dwindling down, the twilight hour arrives earlier and earlier. To me, all are reminders that it’s the beginning of hockey season.

Whether you’re in an empty rink that you have all to yourself, or a sold-out Stanley Cup Final, every sound, every noise stands out and has its own cause and meaning. Hockey has a symphony unto itself, playing out over the course of a game. The dull clunk of a puck when it hits the ice during warmups. The clicks of skates stepping onto the ice. The slices and cuts and carves as players pivot and stop, spraying ice into the air. The echoing crack of a perfect slapshot. The high pitched ping as the puck ricochets off a post. The clicking and clacking of players’s sticks jostling against each other and the ice as they fight for puck and position. The shrill whistles of the referees. The dull thump of the puck hitting the goalie’s pads. Players calling out to one another on the ice. The bass-heavy thumping of players checked into the boards. And the organs, forever tying hockey to its past through old chants and revelries, sometimes interspersed with renditions of newer pop and rock songs. Each arena’s unique signifier of a goal, be it a horn or a siren or something else, equally as loud and consequential. When you’re at home, that sound is the end, be it a glorious win or a devastating loss. ((Although victories are ever more often being accompanied by a particular song of choice, emphasizing a great win.))

Even the crowd is part of a game. Each arena has its distinct sound, some are more open and sounds drift out into the concourse. Others are more enclosed and you can tell when you cross the boundary between at the rink and away from it. The clamor preceding a game; conversations, cheers, screams and whistles all meshing together in an undefined cacophony. It drops off into respectful silence for the start of each anthem, then sometimes sings along, sometimes not. On the last note, the commotion returns and grows until the opening faceoff, and then slowly falls to its normal sustained level at the drop of the puck, following and responding to the actions on the ice for the rest of the night. The constant discord becomes its own character, responding to every moment on the ice. Disbelieving jeers and boos at infractions, real or imagined, by the opposing team. Jubilance greets an opponent’s penalty. A building roar preceding a power play. The rise in volume of the crowd as a player nears the goal, some fans screaming, some simply holding their breath. Despondent moans and groans if the goal is denied or the puck goes wide of an open net. The exuberant roar when a goal is scored, followed by the horn. The even louder cacophony when you win a game. And in the playoffs, everything is amplified. On the upper levels of the Civic Arena, the sections rattled and shook from the cheers of the fans.

Then there’s everything you see. The brightness of the ice. The patterns of the lines around the rink, light blue for the territory of the netminder, red faceoff circles, dark blue lines denoting the neutral zone. The team logo at center ice. The aesthetics of the jerseys. The comfortable familiarity of your home team. Your blood boiling at the sight of rival colors.

Stepping onto the ice is one of the best feelings in the world. The smell of fresh ice right after the Zamboni is finished. There’s nothing like it. Clean and crisp. You breathe in as deep as you can and feel the coldness in your lungs. You take a couple strides and just glide, the boards and glass flying by. Lean to each side and turn, angle and dig in to stop. The boards and glass fly by.

Then there’s the speed. When you’re playing, you’re flying down the ice You have to be able to stop on a dime. And whether you’re playing, or watching, you always have to think ahead to where the puck is going to be. If you’re skating to where the puck is, you’re behind the play. Hockey doesn’t have set plays. You can have a plan for entering the offensive zone, or positioning on the powerplay, but it never works exactly to plan. At its core, hockey is split-second reaction and improvisation. The best players have to be able to temper their instincts with their knowledge of the game.

this is why Sidney Crosby is the best player in the game; he’s among the smartest. Add that to a machine-like dedication to conditioning, diet, and practice and it becomes clear why he’s been able to dominate the league at such a young age. When he began in the league, Crosby was more known for his playmaking skills and had a reputation as the setup man. He would dish out perfect passes to the exact spot his teammates would want the puck at. He racked up the assists, chipping in goals every so often, and won the Art Ross trophy in his second year, the youngest player to ever accomplish that feat.

The Crosby decided he wanted to score more goals. He worked on it for an entire Summer, and the result was dominating the league in scoring, hitting 51 goals and winning the Rocket Richard trophy. This continued in the next season as Crosby put up points at a torrid pace. He had the longest scoring streak in ?? years and was on pace to have a ?? season. he was clear cut the best player the game had seen in almost a decade, and was imitating all the greats in their primes. Then the concussion happened and an MVP season was ended far too short.

This year’s opener has a bit of a dampener on it, however. Sidney Crosby is still out. The Captain is not leading his team on the ice. The best player in the league is not in the game. Yet. As hockey has returned from a long summer, Sidney Crosby is due to return from a long injury. He’ll be back eventually. Until then, everyone will see why it’s such a great TEAM sport. Everyone has their role, and when someone is out, they pull together even stronger.

I love this sport. it’s had some tough times in the past twenty years or so dealing with the neutral zone trap, the lockout, and the loss and an entire season. But it’s recovering. It’s doing better financially than it ever has before. The skill level of the game — at every position — is higher than it ever has been before. Every single aspect of the sport is amazing and I’m glad it’s back. It’s been too long. Drop the puck.

NCAA Dominoes

Aside from hockey, I’m not a huge college sports junkie. That most likely has something to do with my sports preferences overall, though Boston College being mediocre since Matt Ryan left (and horrific this season) probably doesn’t help. However, it’s been interesting to watch the rounds of musical chairs the various college sports conferences have been going through for the last few years. I wasn’t paying much attention until I started reading rumors about the SEC poaching Virginia Tech or Florida State on the way to creating a behemoth superconference. With Miami wrapped in its own scandals, it looked like the ACC was on the verge of a collapse.

Then the domino toppled the other way.

The ACC made the surprise move of adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East. I loved this just for the addition of Pittsburgh because now I’ll have some great intra-familial sports bragging to look forward to. ((That is, if BC ever decides to recover from its self-inflicted Spaz.)) In making the first big move and adding two academically-aligned colleges with good sports pedigrees and large television markets, the ACC bought itself a great deal of breathing room. Additionally, it dealt a heavy blow to the Big East, and it’s quite clear the schools getting left behind have a bitter taste in their mouths. The ACC probably won’t stand firm at fourteen teams, but it now has time to pursue the more desirable candidates to round out the conference at sixteen, which seems to be the magic number. It’ll be interesting to see who the ACC goes after and how the other conferences will react, but to look at why some schools are panicking, I want to turn back to hockey.

It’s interesting to note that these superconferences and the panic over them seemed to happen in college hockey first. Or at least that’s where everyone got to watch a worst-case-scenario play out. After Penn State was gifted a new arena and scholarships to field varsity men’s and women’s hockey teams, speculation began on if and when the Big 10 would form their own hockey “superconference.” ((It may be a superconference in terms of college hockey, but it pales in comparison to a football superconference.)) Despite various assurances that the officials involved would “do what was best for college hockey,” they did what was best for themselves. Namely, creating their own conference and adding to their television broadcast rights package.

Then the dominoes fell.

The CCHA effectively collapsed, unprepared to deal with change. It first lost Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State to the Big 10. Then Miami panicked and joined with an exodus of five teams from the WCHA to form the National College Hockey Conference. ((Enough acronyms yet?)) The WCHA invited four members of the CCHA to join, leaving Western Michigan and Notre Dame behind. These remaining two teams are being courted by the NCHC, although Notre Dame is rumored to be considering Hockey East as well.

The WCHA initially took a small, but manageable hit from the Big 10 conference, losing only Minnesota and Wisconsin. The crushing blow came when Colorado College, Denver, North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, and Minnesota-Duluth decided to leave and form the NCHC as their own superconference. This left five teams behind, none of which had won the national championship in the past thirty-five years. The WCHA invited the CCHA leftovers to join, but when the realignment actually occurs it will only be a shadow of its former self.

What remains to be seen is how the WCHA survives financially. The Big 10 and NCHC conferences are referred to as superconferences largely because they’re financially stable. The leftovers in the WCHA has previously survived on rivalries with the larger, more successful schools. There is uncertainty if these smaller schools will be able to field teams for long without the sustaining rivalry matchups, in addition to what will no doubt be a higher cost of travel with two Alaskan-based teams in the conference.

The eastern hockey conferences (Hockey East, ECAC, and Atlantic Hockey) were generally unaffected by the shuffling of the teams in the midwest. Hockey East has been a de-facto superconference for some time both on the ice and on the balance sheet, and that will continue. What they should do, however, is court Notre Dame for expansion, and that brings us back to the musical chairs in the football conferences.

Notre Dame’s hockey alignment will probably reflect where they go the rest of their sports. If the ACC manages to snag them, Notre Dame will probably join Hockey East. It’s the dream scenario for those two conferences. Notre Dame constantly touts their football independence, but that was with a stable Big East conference for the rest of their sports. That doesn’t exist anymore. The purpose of the football superconferences is to command a much larger broadcast rights contract. The ACC just added Pittsburgh and New York to its media footprint, and it also will be able to renegotiate its contract with ESPN to reflect that monetarily. Adding Notre Dame would cement the ACC as one of the premier conferences in college sports. The SEC would probably still hold the top spot since they seem to be able to rake in the championships every year, but the ACC would be in a good number two position. If Notre Dame chose to stay with the Big East, they’d have a much weaker conference with much less exposure. The ACC now can offer the entire eastern seaboard from Boston to Miami, and all the way out west to Pittsburgh for exposure. Madison Square Garden is now a potential host for the ACC basketball tournament. Army hosts games at Yankee Stadium for the foreseeable future, but now Syracuse could fill that option as well, especially after winning the Pinstripe Bowl there. If Notre Dame ends up joining one of the other conferences (or stays in the Big East), their hockey choice will probably be the NCHC. In this case, the ACC will probably look for another big name to join, but I don’t know what that would be. Connecticut and Rutgers seem like a backup plan in case the conference has to expand to sixteen.

The only certainty for now is that the dominos are falling.

Hockey Guilty Pleasures

PuckDaddy is running a series of questionnaire interviews with hockey personalities, bloggers, and a few famous fans. ((I enjoyed John Buccigross’, Wil Wheaton’s, and Dave Dameshek’s responses in particular.)) I decided to ape it and answer them myself.

1. The Player You Most Love To Hate

What I hate are the showboaters. They’re rare in hockey, and for a reason. The players hate a showboater. Even teammates hate them. When you’re scored on, you’re mad at yourselves for not stopping it. When that player then skates around celebrating in some over the top fashion, you make him and his team the object of your anger. Your adrenaline rises and you promise to make them pay.

There’s a couple players that are guilty of this. They might be fun to watch in retrospect, but when it happens against your team, you really get steamed.

I’m not talking about a spinorama trick shot in the shootout. Honestly, that’s one area that deserves something you don’t always see. Just don’t follow it up with gloating.

2. Other Than Your Own, The Team You Can’t Help Rooting For

When the Penguins were in danger of moving, I had to consider what I would do if the worst case scenario came to pass. I wouldn’t have been able to root for the Wherever My-Team-In-Another-Citys. I looked around the league and legitimately could not see myself rooting for any other team. I was prepared to give up my hockey fandom if the Penguins were forced to go elsewhere.

Luckily that didn’t happen. As a result, if I ever root for another team, it’s usually one that is the underdog in a season. In 2008 it was the Chicago Blackhawks. Then they Chelsea Daggered themselves into overly annoying territory. After that, it was fun to see the Avalanche come back from the depths of irrelevance. After they regressed over the past year, I gave by the L. A. Kings a chance… until they rescued Mike Richards from Dry Island. But the Winnipeg Jets are back, so I’ll give them a shot this year.

3. Favorite Fight or Brawl of All-Time

This comes out as a three-way tie, if only for the fact that I witnessed the two of these firsthand. I was at the infamous four-overtime game between the Penguins and the Capitals, watching from high above in the nosebleeds when this happened:

The Penguins eventually won, of course. Hours later.

I also got to see Sidney Crosby’s first NHL fight in person while I was in Boston:

That made up for the Laraque vs. Chara “fight” that occurred earlier when they pretty much just grabbed each other and fell to the ice. ((Sidenote: is awesome. ))

And of course, the best fight from last season, Brent Johnson vs Rick DiPietro:

Instant classic.

4. The Hideous-Looking Hockey Jersey You Secretly Love The Most

The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim Wildwing jersey. Only Disney could do that to hockey.

I’d never wear that though, so if limited to that stipulation, I’d have to go with the good old California Golden Seals, and only the primarily green jersey at that. The yellow jersey is harsh on the eyes and the seafoam green variant should just be set on fire.

5. Your Favorite Hockey Cliché (terminology, traditions, announcer-speak, etc.)

Old time hockey.

It’s my last game, and I wanna play it straight. No more “Nail ’em.” No more “[Mess] with ’em.” That’s finished. I wanna win that championship tonight, but I wanna win it clean.

Old-time hockey, like when I got started, you know?

Toe Blake, Dit Clapper, Eddie Shore, those guys were the greats.

— Reggie Dunlop, Slap Shot

It’s lost a little bit of its appeal to me due to its commercialization as a clothing brand, but old time hockey has a certain meaning to any true fan. Though in the movie it referred to a clean style of play, today it’s a throwback to toughness, intimidation, and letting the players settle their scores on the ice.

6. The Injury You Couldn’t Stop Staring At (Non-Skate Lacerations Only)

Any concussion. I’ve had three and they’re not fun. It used to be part of hockey where players would just skate it off, but over the past few years, it’s becoming clear these have a major impact on players for the rest of their lives. ((It’s been a problem for a lot longer, but it’s just now being addressed within the sport. Before it was “just part of the game.”)) And not just in hockey, in football too. Concussions are the type of injury that nobody can clearly explain or treat, and as a result of the leagues learning how devastating multiple concussions can be later on in someone’s life, major changes are being made in hockey and football to try minimize the likelihood of the epidemics that have appeared recently.

7. Your Favorite Cheesy Hockey Reference in Popular Culture

Is there hockey in pop culture right now? I don’t think so. ((Unless you mean really bad Mike Myers movies.)) Thanks to the neutral zone trap, the lockout, and being ignored by the Worldwide Leader ((ESPN)), hockey isn’t a big part of pop culture right now.

Resorting to more nostalgic times, I’ll go with The Mighty Ducks. Flying V, knucklepuck, etc.

7a. Your Favorite Terrible Hockey Card Or Hockey Action Figure.

I still have this solely because of the four-overtime game against the Caps in ’96.

8. Finally, What’s The Thing You Secretly Respect Gary Bettman For The Most?

He doesn’t give up on trying to keep teams from moving. It worked in Pittsburgh, and I’m thankful for that. And now he’s doing the same for Phoenix and the Islanders. He tried his best in Atlanta, but wide enthusiasm and support was just never there, especially when having to compete with the the Falcons, Braves, and Hawks for attention.

The Best Laid Plans

I was going to use today to write an article on why I love hockey, but then BC decided to choke and I resigned myself to a daiquiri induced coma as a means of denial. Whoops.