Mar 4, 2010

Dropping the Puck on Hockey

When it comes to sports, I have always been a football guy.  That has been my favorite sport since I was a kid.  I had favorite teams as young as Kindergarten.  I remember watching games with my dad when I was five or six years old.  (Something my children seem entirely opposed to.)  My brother was always more of a basketball fan.  And none of us liked baseball very much.

As I've aged, I still have been a football fan.  That is the one sport that I follow.  Fantasy football is the only sport I have enough knowledge of to play.  I tried fantasy baseball one year and quit after five weeks.  I have tried to get into basketball more.  When I lived in Orlando for college, I was the most into the roundball.  Shaq was on the Magic and they were challenging for the title.  UCF had a good team that went to the NCAA tournament.  And, most importantly, basketball was easily accessible.  In college, I also got into soccer.  The World Cup was in America in 1994 and Orlando was a host site.  I watched a TON of soccer that year.  I really enjoyed it.  But, after the World Cup, it went back to being tough to get into or even find.

In college, I also had a brief flirtation with hockey.  We had an IHL team in Orlando.  The mighty Orlando Solar Bears.  They actually were very good.  And it was a cheap outing - like four bucks a ticket.  We went to a few games and followed their playoff run as well.  I really liked the game.  But, like soccer, it was not easily accessible.  I moved to Tampa where the Lightning were located.  The Lightning are ACTUALLY located in Downtown Tampa.  "A matter of semantics?" you may ask.  "Uh, no," I would snarkily respond.  I lived over on the northeast side of Tampa.  Downtown Tampa is over on the southwest side on the way to St. Pete.  And to get there, you had to drive through the concrete version of the River Styx - the I-4 and I-275 interchange.  It just was not worth it to have to drive through some of the most heinous traffic you can imagine, fight through downtown gridlock, try to find a parking space where your car won't get towed or stolen, and then fork out tons of money to watch what was a truly horrifying hockey team.

Well, I have always enjoyed watching hockey.  And lately, my feelings about some other sports have been changing.  Baseball is dead to me.  I have never liked baseball very much, but it degenerated to where I never watch it.  Basketball is hit or miss.  I know that it makes me a bad person, but I pay attention to the NBA when Orlando is doing well.  And I watch the NCAA tournament sometimes - always if UCF makes it.  I love the Olympics.  So every two years I have that to look forward to.  And then there's football.  I still love football.  I like going to Jaguars games.  I watch UCF every time they are on tv - about five times a year.  And getting ESPN 360 with Comcast allows me to watch games online too.  But football has become a different game.  It makes so much money, it is hard to really get attached to it.  The players switch teams all the time.  The money is ridiculous.  And now there is talk of a lockout after this next season because they can't agree how to split up the $8 billion pot.  Yeah, I can relate.  Just the other day me and some buddies were fighting over how to split up $8 billion.  I just can't survive with just $2 billion.  Sheesh.

So after the Olympics, I realized that I could adopt a new sport to shower with attention and affection.  Hockey.  (Since there is not a professional curling league.)  I like watching hockey.  The Gold Medal US/Canada game was insane.  And it is so beautiful in high-def.  So I watched a couple of games on Versus HD this week.  And I can myself getting hooked.  There are some big things that makes hockey attractive to me.
  1. It is exciting.  You never know when something is going to happen.  You feel yourself tensing up the whole game - on the off chance that someone is going to whiz a puck under the goalie's legs.  And let's face it, the ending of a tie hockey game is unparalleled.  An overtime Game Seven of a hockey playoff series is the most stressful thing you can watch.
  2. It doesn't take forever.  This is something that I learned to appreciate down in Australia.  Rugby, Australian Rules Football, Soccer, Hockey.  They all have a pretty set time limit.  Baseball can take forever.  NFL games stretch one about forty minutes too long thanks to tv timeouts.  (Preseason games are much faster.)  I like being able to know that when I go to a game, or sit down to watch a game, I won't have to either sacrifice three and a half hours or miss chunks.  We went to a rugby match in Australia.  It was over in less than two hours.  Hockey is of that vein - reasonable time investment.
  3. Smaller fan base = more passionate fans.  As I said earlier, it is hard to be too passionate about the big three sports any more.  Unless you were born in a fanatical city and raised from birth as a team's fan, you probably have a kind of ambivalence to your favorite team.  It used to be you were a Red Sox fan or a Giants fan for life.  You cheered for no one else.  Your father and grandfather cheered for them.  Your kids would cheer for them.  Part of this was that sports coverage was very local until the playoffs, so it was hard to be a Raiders fan and live in Kentucky.  Now, though, kids can pick any team and be guaranteed to see them at least once on tv.  Their highlights will be shown just like every team.  Their merchandise can be ordered online.  And, with the parity out there in football, there is a good chance they will be in the running before too long (unless you are a Lions or Browns fan).  So the fans of these sports have multiple "favorite teams."  Players move around, so you don't get too invested.  And the money makes it impossible to relate.  Hockey fans, though, are a different breed.  You pick a team, you stick with it.  You cheer for them.  You are very invested.  Why?  Well, it is because if you don't, the league may fold.  The NHL isn't able to have the same view on life as the NFL.  They NEED their fans.  And the fans respond.  I like that.
So, I made the decision to become a hockey person.  I started watching some games, reading the NHL pages on ESPN.  I even downloaded the Versus Channel iPhone App so I could check scores and such. Now I just need a team.  Picking a team is hard.  It is kind of cool.  As a sports fan, you are supposed to stick with your team no matter what.  Good sports fans choose a team as a child (or have it thrust upon them by overbearing parents).  And then they stay with that until they die.  I am not a good sports fan.  I have switched teams over the years.  Why?  Because I have changed as a person and I don't care what sports fans think of me.  In the NFL I was a huge Cowboys fan until they did too much stuff I couldn't stomach.  So when I moved to Tampa, I switched to the Bucs.  Then they became the Florida Cowboys in their business dealings.  So, when I started going with my father-in-law to Jaguars games.  The team really resonated with me.  So I switched to Jacksonville, who I plan on staying with for good - unless they move to London.  In baseball, I was a Yankees fan my whole life.  I defended everything they did.  Until 26 players ended up on the Mitchell Steroid Report.  26 players on the same team accused of cheating?  Hmmmm.  So I dumped them and dumped baseball. I followed the Rays' run to the World Series, but I don't plan on getting back into "America's Pastime" again.  In the NBA, I was a Hawks fan because that is what I could watch on TBS.  I also liked Dominique Wilkens.  Then Jordan came along and I became a Bulls follower.  Once I moved to Orlando, I switched over to the Magic.  Actually, I have cheered for them for 18 years now.  And college sports, I was a UGA fan from age 5.  I added FSU when I thought I was going there and held onto them for about ten years.  But UCF became my team when I enrolled there.  And they still are my favorite team - in any sport.  UGA is my auxiliary team once UCF gets eliminated from competition (you know, when the season starts).  

But with hockey, I want to do things right and pick a team and stick with it.  I want to have this team to pass on to my sons.  It is a neat thought, to be an adult and think through your pick.  Kids pick teams based on who is on television or who looks more like a Storm Trooper.  Adults think through things and try to make an intelligent choice.  Bill Simmons of ESPN documented this process as a he chose a soccer team to root for over in England.  He had all these criteria and thoughtful approaches.  I am not that thorough or that sports savvy.  So my criteria are a bit goofier.
  • CITY ISSUES:  There are some cities that I detest every sports team they offer.  For example, the Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics are all down at the bottom of of their respective leagues to me.  I wouldn't be caught dead cheering for a team from Boston.  The same for Detroit, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and Miami.  Yes, Miami.  I hate Miami teams.  And, NYC has been added to that list.  I was a Yankees fan, but I find NYC teams and fans annoying, arrogant, entitled, and abrasive (for the most part).  So, that eliminates the Red Wings, Bruins, Capitals, Kings, Panthers, Rangers, Islanders, and Devils (by NYC association).  Bonus points for cities I like: Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas.
  • GEOGRAPHY:  I have never liked a Western Time Zone team.  Shoot, I've never liked a team in a Western Conference.  It is too difficult to follow them. In the NFL it is easier due to standard start times.  But having a game start at 10:30pm is ridiculous.  So I am not going to pick a West Coast team when I will be frustrated in following them.  (A bunch of these teams would also be knocked out by the next category anyway.)  Out goes the Kings, Sharks, Ducks, Canucks.
  • REAL TEAMS:  There are some places that just don't seem like they are a real team.  You know?  I find it hard to actually believe there is a team in Phoenix.  It seems wrong.  Don't ask for logic.  This is a real issue.  Bye to the Coyotes, Blue Jackets, Thrashers.  One half of the league down.
  • THE FUTURE:  I don't mean, "Is this team going to be good in the future?"  I mean, "Is this team going to exist in the future?"  Most of these teams have been eliminated already (Miami, looking at you).  Tampa would have been in this if not for the recent purchase by the owner of the (shudder) Boston Red Sox.  So the only two in this one now are the Oilers and Ottawa Senators.
  • NO SNAP:  These are those nameless teams that don't give you any hit of excitement when you think of them.  There is nothing to turn you off, per se.  But there is nothing to grab onto either.  You know?  Like the Buffalo Bills, Indiana Pacers, and 2/3 of Major League Baseball.  If I can't get excited about the team at all, I'm not going to force myself.  (There is no explanation for this.  So don't ask.)  Goodbye to the Stars, Wild, Maple Leafs, Blues, Flyers.
That leaves eight teams, by my count.  Buffalo, Calgary, Carolina, Colorado, Montreal, Nashville, Pittsburgh, and Tampa.  I guess that I can judge those teams individually, now.  These are the things that I will think about.  How much of my affection for those teams are from their players?  With how players change teams so much, this is not a good reason.  The Bucs went from being a great team of great players to a bunch of troublemakers in two seasons.  Is this a bandwagon thing?  I hate bandwagon.  They have splinters and stuff.  I won't pick a team on a bandwagon.  (Again.  You know, not like when I was a kid and picked the Cowboys, Bulldogs, and Yankees who all had been in the title hunt when I was five.)  Do I like their uniforms?  What about their mascots and logos?  I am a graphic designer.  If I can't get down with the color scheme and logos, I won't like them.  There's nothing worse than liking a team that has a stupid logo.  Any other lurking issues?  Any random benefits?  This is the "when all else fails" category.
  • BUFFALO SABRES:  Sweet uniforms and logo.  I like the color scheme.  Even their throwback unis are cool.  After the Olympics, like any other sports loving American, I love Ryan Miller - the Sabres' goalie.  This is not a good sign for future attraction to the team.  They are not a bandwagon team.  They need fans.  BUT, they are in freaking Buffalo.  And with all due respect to our dear friend and reader, Nila the Buffalo Bills diehard, I don't know if I can do Buffalo.  I don't think that matches too good.
  • CALGARY FLAMES: Good logo and uniform.  I don't know anyone on the team except Jerome Iginla, so I'm not relying on players.  It certainly isn't a bandwagon deal, since Calgary hasn't won a title since 1989.  I don't know where the draw even came from, but I am sympathetic to the team.  But, it is in CANADA.  I know I'm going to have trouble going to see any of these teams, but Canada?  That seems a bit hard to stomach.
  • CAROLINA HURRICANES:  Let me just say, Hurricanes is the STUPIDEST mascot ever.  I have no clue why we name teams after weather patterns.  (More proof to why Miami sucks - they have TWO teams named after weather.  The Heat and the Hurricanes.)  And why would Carolina name a team after a hurricane.  This is a state where one of the biggest storms ever did huge damage.  (Hurricane Hugo)  Their logo is stupid.  There is no over-reliance on players or on bandwagon tickets.  But, what  makes me keep them around instead of knocking them out on three of the above categories is accessibility.  There is a better than average chance that we will end up in Charlotte in three years for Heather's residency. (Orlando, Jacksonville, Charlotte are the front runners.)  That means I actually would have a great chance of following this team from close up.  Does that make up for their stupid logo?  Hmmmmm.
  • COLORADO AVALANCHE:  Good team with a winning tradition (you know, since they got to Colorado).  They have some good players, but no one that I'm hanging on.  This would be a good choice if I wanted someone who would be "in it" all the time.  Not too fond of their logo.  They have some cool uniforms, though.  I also don't like it when a mascot is not a plural item (SaintS, PantherS).  But I can handle it with the Magic.  There is the West Coast problem, though. And I just don't know if I'm feeling it.
  • MONTREAL CANADIANS:  You could say they are the Yankees of the NHL.  They have great ownership, classic uniforms and logos, the most titles in NHL history.  They are one of the oldest franchises in the NHL - formed in 1909.  They have had a rough stretch through the late 90s and early 00s, but they are kind of picking it back up.  Not really drawn to any players.  I loved Montreal when I visited and would like to go back.  It would be a solid, safe choice.  Like buying a Ford Taurus.  (Not sure if that is a good thing.)
  • NASHVILLE PREDATORS:  Now, this is a solid option.  I love Nashville.  It is one my favorite cities in America.  Any time there is a conference in Nashville, it becomes 20% more attractive to me.  They have a frickin AWESOME logo and uniform set.  As Kevin, a friend of mine, said, "Their mascot is a Saber Toothed Tiger!!! How can you beat that?"  That is a solid point, my friend.  They have eight Olympians on their team (from different countries).  Ryan Suter of the USA team is one.  Their goalie, Dan Ellis, has a great story and funny Twitter feed.  Their arena is really neat looking.  They are a newer team, so they are still establishing themselves and could use fans.  Their ownership is a complete wacky mess.  And their is a chance they could move at some point if the owners aren't happy with the Nashville area.  That's a BIG bummer.  But their current ownership is majority held by 30 businessmen in Nashville who fought to keep the team there.  Lots of positives.  Not a big fan of the moving junk.
  • PITTSBURGH PENGUINS:  They have the best player in the NHL (and the one who drove the stake through the heart of the American team), Sidney Crosby.  They won the title last year.  So there are bandwagon and player allegiance issues.  I like their uniforms and logo.  Penguins are cool.  (Ha ha.)  I have a friend, Courtney, who is a die hard Pens fan.  She's the biggest hockey fan I know personally.  So I would have someone to cheer with.  They are a gutsy team that nearly got moved and sold, until it was bought by Mario Lemieux - a former player who overcame cancer and saved the team!  So they have that "easy to get behind" vibe.  They are in Pittsburgh, which is tainted by the stink of the Steelers and Pirates (especially the Pirates).  And, truth be told, once upon a time in the debate of Gretzky vs. Lemieux, I was firmly on the Gretzky side.  I kind of loathed Lemieux and the Pens for a while.  Hard to shake that memory.
  • TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING:  Another stupid weather phenomenon.  They have a dumb logo, boring uniforms, a pathetic history, and a Red Sox owner.  Sure, they won the Stanley cup in 2004.  But I am very ambivalent to the franchise.  I lived in Tampa for four years and went to one game.  The ONLY reason that I would side with Lightning is proximity.  They are the closest team.  They will be even closer to us when we go back to Orlando.  And that means I actually have a few friends who follow the team.  But, man, it is the Lightning.  That's like CHOOSING to cheer for the Kansas City Royals or Detroit Lions now.  
So, after 3200 words and numerous stupid points that no one probably cares about, what will I do?  Do I go with the closest teams (Lightning or Hurricanes), despite hating their names?  Do I go for history and stability (Montreal or Colorado)?  Every one of those eight teams have good points and bad.  After all of the thinking, I kind of just went with my gut.  Which team could I see myself rooting for?  The answer was the Nashville Predators.  It just felt right.  I remember when I was in Nashville the last time, I saw the arena the Preds play at.  They had big banners for the team and ads for tickets.  I remember looking at the arena and thinking, "Man, if I liked the NHL, it would be fun to root for that team."  I guess that got stuck in my head somewhere.  I've tried it out.  I have been checked their scores, reading up on the team.  And I can actually feel myself getting excited about that team.  Now, ask me in a couple years if they are on the verge of moving Hamilton, Ontario.  I may be posting a sequel.

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