This is going to stray a bit from writing specifically about the Islanders, but with training camps now open and the season less than a month away from starting, I have found myself involved in various conversations about the state of the game of hockey as it stands today and how that relates directly or indirectly to the New York Islanders, as well as other related topics. One of the subjects, however, that has been something that I have found myself pondering has come up jokingly in a few conversations in regard to “why” I like the game of hockey and, more precisely, “how” I enjoy the game as a blind person. It’s never really been something I have found myself contemplating in any depth, but I managed to sit down and do some thinking about the major reasons that immediately came to mind.
Any hockey fan will certainly list their own specific aspects of the game that draws them to it the most. I’m sure everyone could come up with their own individual list that could be debated until the cows come home. In fact, there are probably more along the lines of eight or ten that I found myself listing as I gave this topic considerable thought. Nevertheless, there are five that come to mind, and although only one is truly related to the fact that I’m blind, there are still the ingredients of hockey that makes me look forward to September and the opening of training camps every season after a summer of baseball. I can’t say these are in any particular order nor am I going to get into complete depth with each one, but here we go anyway.
1. The Pace and Suspense of the Game
Obviously, everyone has opinions, and mine aren’t any more important or “accurate” than anyone else can offer. I grew up as a baseball and Football fan and, to be precise, as a New York Mets and New York football Giants fan, which really were my passions for a number of years early on in my life. Nevertheless, when hockey was introduced to me and, because of my uncle, I became an Islander fan, my interest in the game of hockey and my desire to listen to games began to gradually grow until it was pretty much my “favorite” sport by the time I was in high school. Perhaps, the Islanders 4 Stanley Cup championships had a lot to do with the rise of my interest in the game, but at the same time, I discovered that there was quite a bit more to it than happening to have been lucky enough to be a fan of a “winning” team at the time.
As someone who cannot see the game being played, I have always relied on the play by play offered by radio and television broadcasts. Back in “the day”, it was Barry Landers and Jean Potvin on the Islanders radio broadcasts of the games. The thing that has always amazed me about Any broadcast, though, is the rapid pace of the game and the frequent intensity of the action that has to be described to the listener of the radio. Barry Landers had an incredible knack of doing this with so much excitement and enthusiasm, and Jean Potvin’s accompanying color commentary simply got me hooked on the games so easily. It was difficult Not to get caught up in the action and moments of suspense game in and game out, and as much as I still like baseball and football, I find my attention so much more drawn and riveted to hockey games than, in particular, baseball. I can sit down and listen to a hockey game from beginning to end, but I often find myself unable to do so with a baseball game every single inning from the first to its conclusion without getting up or straying away for brief periods.
So, overall, if there is a major reason why I love the game of hockey, it’s because of the action and non-stop pace of the game that can often lead to the most suspenseful moments. Frankly, as much as it can be argued, I simply think of these aspects as being related and linked. Even if it’s a game being played “between the blue lines”, there is always that sudden moment when someone breaks free or there is an odd man rush that turns up the intensity level and can change the complexion of the game entirely. You just never know what will and can happen at any given moment, as as much as this can be said in other sports, I think the added fluidity of hockey and constant motion of the players makes hockey that much more exciting. On top of that, well, any hockey fan knows that playoff time in the NHL is the most exciting and entertaining hockey of the year often filled with a great deal of suspense and drama. You need to look no further than last season’s match ups along the road to the Chicago Black Hawks’s championship to have witnessed that particular aspect of the NHL.
One of the biggest “treats” last season that I gave myself was subscribing to the NHL’s center ice package so I could catch games online that are out of market. I really had thought hard about doing this for a time prior to last season, but I took the plunge and truly enjoyed the experience. Having been a fan of the game for so long, my enjoyment and enthusiasm for the game only grew as I got to listen to a variety of games throughout the season. This truly enhanced my XM subscription, and, again, the overall excitement of the game of hockey and the non-stop action was, to me, captured just about every evening as I put on one game or another.
One can use the example of an ace pitcher verses a .300 batter or a 40 home run hitter matchup or a great quarterback going up against a top defense in the NFL as examples of “exciting” or “suspenseful” contests. However, to me, there is nothing like a break away in a hockey game or, even better, the shootout sequence if a game needs to be decided by such an ending. Heck, a 2 on 1 or 3 on 2 rush or a 5 on 3 power play are some of the most suspenseful, exciting and entertaining moments of any hockey game which doesn’t even include mentioning the end to end play of overtime. Changing on the fly, a team desperately trying to ice the puck or freeze the puck, or a goaltender stoning a sniper all alone in front are elements of a game that, as many times as I’ve heard them described, still cause me to react with the appropriate emotion depending on what teams or players are involved. You just can’t beat even the more “mundane” aspects of the average hockey game, as far as I’m concerned.
2. The Sounds of the Game
Perhaps an element of hockey that I am more aware of or more “in tune” with, I simply find the sounds of any hockey game to add to the excitement and enthusiasm for sitting down to listen to one. Every sport has its unique sounds, so I am not discounting this fact. The crack of a bat when a hitter makes successful contact with a ball, the solid thump of a fast ball impacting with the catcher’s glove or the racing footsteps of a runner flying down the first base line trying to beat out a infield hit are all specific sounds of baseball that immediately come to mind for me. Of course, the cadence of a quarterback calling signals behind the center, the crashing of pads when offensive and defensive lines meet after the snap of the ball and the booming thud of a punter or field goal kicker sending the ball on its way are equally recognizable sounds in any football game for me.
Hockey, of course, has its own set of various sounds that have become oh so familiar to me. The smack of a slap shot being launched from the point, the frustrating or grateful ringing of a post from a puck blasted on goal, the thumping of a goaltender’s pads absorbing a shot or the impact of players smashing into the glass are just some of my “favorite” sounds of a hockey game. The distinct sound a puck makes hitting the glass on a shot sent wide of the net or when a player either sends the puck into the offensive zone or out of the defensive zone, the characteristic, distinct clanking noise a puck solidly entering the net to beat a goaltender, and, of course, the basic sounds of players skating are other noises that are like music to my ears. After so many years of listening to hockey games, they have really not become so common place to me, and, especially at the start of a season, are so enjoyable and comforting to hear once again.
Beyond the whistle blowing to stop play or the various, entertaining horns and sirens every arena has to celebrate a home team’s goal, I particularly enjoy the calls and basic communication of the players on the ice. Hearing someone emphatically call for the puck or a goaltender directing traffic in the defensive zone are elements to which I like to pay attention. I enjoy the fact that many TV and radio broadcasts have microphones at ice level or even wire the occasional player for sound. Yes, the language can be colorful at times, and you might not even be able to tell exactly what is being said at a given moment. Still, as someone who can’t see, it is an element of any hockey game that enables me to really “get into the action” in a way that is different for me than baseball or football.
I know that the various sounds of a game might not at all be among the major factors most hockey fans would include as being part of the reasons why they love the game. Perhaps, this is truly an aspect of being a blind hockey fan. Still, especially when I am able to get out to the “old barn”, AKA, the Nassau Veterans Memorial Colosseum, to catch the Islanders play, I enjoy listening to the games even more with a combination of the radio play by play and the actual sounds coming from the ice. I am honestly in my proverbial glory at those times, and as many Mets games that I have been to, I really find myself completely “getting into” the Islanders games because of the way the sounds of the game enhance my experience for me. In particular, you just can’t beat that blaring horn going off when the home team scores a goal folks.
3. The Toughness of the Game
I guess one can argue whether football or hockey players are the toughest breeds in professional sports. Sorry, but I simply do not put the often questionable attitudes of many baseball players with bruised toes and the like in the same league as hockey or football players. However, any guy who can get five or ten or twenty stitches between periods and come back out to finish a game after being clipped by a stick or hit with a puck is one tough bugger in my book. Playing with fingers in casts or through all kinds of bruises and strains game in and game out demonstrates a level of toughness that is beyond admirable. Just think of even the average open ice hit or the mild check against the boards and consider the beating a body can take from such a collision. Yet, the hockey player either picks himself off the ice or peals himself from the glass, shakes off the cobwebs, and skates on to continue playing. When a hockey player is out of the line up for any length of time, you can bet that it’s for a very good reason and most baseball player’s would sit out twice or three times the number of games or months in comparison.
Now, this is not at all to say that baseball players are wimps or the like. If one cannot hold a bat to swing it, ones ability to run down the line or chase a fly ball is impaired, or a pitcher has torn ligaments in his elbow or a ripped muscle in his shoulder, there is good reason to be on the disabled list for any length of time. There are certainly some baseball players who will play through painful injuries and “suck it up” as the expression goes. More than a few have delayed surgery in the same way hockey players have been known to do until after the playoffs or a season is over.
Still, let’s face it. hockey players are just a tough bunch of boys. You gotta Really be hurt to keep you off the ice for any length of time in hockey. As I have read a few guys comment, the cuts, bumps and bruises accumulated during a hockey season can sometimes take until the middle of July to disappear from the body. What kind of pain tolerance some of the guys in hockey have is something that is quite incredible to me. And, of course, who needs teeth? They’re overrated as far as I’m concerned…..
Is hockey a violent sport? Yes, of course it is. I realize that this aspect of the game and the matter of overall toughness might not be on the radar of other fans at all. It also might be listed among the reasons why some folks “dislike” the game of hockey. Even so, it is simply a facet of the game that appeals to me, as it is an element that is quite necessary as being integrated with the sport itself. Hockey is a full contact sport, and even the average check or hit may not be entertaining or even be the least bit appreciated by the faint of heart. To me, though, it is, and, well, this is my list.
Oh, and let us not confuse the subject of “fighting” as specifically being a part of the “toughness” of the game definition in my book. As far as I am concerned, fighting is a part of hockey and it has a particular place in the game that the “real” hockey fan instinctively understands. Without a doubt, most of the “fighters” in the NHL surely qualify as being “tough”, but I am referring to the “toughness” of the game as being the overall ability to handle injuries and tolerate the every day bumps and bruises one receives. It’s the basic reality that most hockey players end up playing more than a few games during a season in various degrees of pain that would frequently cause players of other sports to sit out and “rest” or “recuperate”. This does not even include the fact that the average player is constantly in motion on the ice, and some players will play a third or even close to half an entire game without overtime games being considered.
Again, I understand perfectly well that anyone can come up with the names of football and baseball players who they would define as examples of real “toughness”. Additionally, it can also be claimed that football games can be quite physically challenging and just as grueling as a hockey game. in regard to the players, you definitely will find guys who fit this definition completely, so I am not at all saying they don’t exist. By and large, however, your average hockey player is basically a breed of his own. Whether you consider this to be an admirable or impressive trait is your own call, but it is one of my favorite aspects of the game of hockey. Maybe I am just that old school and have the “warrior” mentality, but there you go.
4. Hockey is a Thinking Man’s Sport
OK, I am quite familiar with that old joke about going to a fight and a hockey game breaking out. Yeah, it is an unfortunate connection that the toughness and physicality of the game are often associated with fighting and roughness. As Darius Kasparites once said, “hockey is no baby sport.” I’ve just talked about the toughness of the players and the game, which is a part of what draws it to me, but the level and degree of “smarts” needed to be successful is just as valuable and impressive as far as I am concerned.
Yet, the intelligence and awareness of the players is something even the casual fan often overlooks. There are certainly plays that come from “instinct” and the like, but one rarely considers how the best play makers and scorers in the NHL are frequently quite intelligent individuals. Hockey is probably much more of a mental sport than a physical one. One has to have ones mind in the game and have their focus and concentration at all times. A split second can make a major difference, and a thoughtless or careless pass or move can cost a goal or a game in the end.
At times, I have, unfortunately, heard some ignorant people claim that hockey is played by mainly a bunch of “dumb kids”. Anyone who has been around the game for a long time and has heard interviews with the best players understands this perception to be completely foolish. The intelligence and awareness that is needed on the ice to be successful cannot be emphasized enough. I tend to like the “subtle” in every day life, and how the most subtle of plays can make the biggest difference in a game often leaves the greatest impression on me after the fact. Yes, skill surely is a big factor for a player and the reflexes and hand-eye coordination of a goal scorer is a thing of beauty. Yet, “seeing the ice”, reading the play, and being where the puck is going to be before it gets there are elements that come a lot more from smarts than that raw skill or talent.
I think, to me, the true mental and intelligence part of a hockey game comes from listening to the broadcasts. When you hear a play broken down into its smallest elements and you understand the role “thinking” plays in those split seconds, you really get a full understanding of this factor. The lifting of a stick at the last moment, the awareness to get ones stick down in a passing lane to block a potentially dangerous pass, a defenseman activating and engaging to facilitate a goal being scored, or a forward skating to a spot on the ice where a puck ends up going before it actually gets there are just a few of those “subtle” aspects that add up to cause me to enjoy the game of hockey so much. A lot of the time, it is things that, as a fan, you don’t even think of yourself, yet they are integral things the average hockey player has to be aware of almost at all times while on the ice.
5. Hockey is a Team Sport
Yes, we have all heard the saying, “there is no, I, in, Team.” It is often used in just about any sport to convey the importance of group effort and a unified mindset. Without a doubt, to me, the game of hockey typifies and defines the importance of a team mentality. Whether it’s the six skaters on the ice for your team or all twenty guys suited up to play on a given night, winning or losing that game starts and ends with the overall team effort.
As in any sport, a bad play or choice by an individual can have a devastating effect on the outcome of a hockey game. Without a doubt, a bad penalty by a defenseman, a missed assignment by a back-checking winger or a misplayed puck by a goaltender can have just as much of a negative impact on the result of a game as a pitcher throwing a fastball right down the pipe to have it knocked out of the park or a quarterback delivering a pass directly into the waiting arms of a safety or linebacker. One can certainly “single” out the play of a specific player to “blame for a loss just as easily as the heroics of a player can be pointed out as being the “major” reason why a game was won. I am not at all debating the power of the individual’s play and the effect each person can have on the outcome of any game.
However, to me, hockey is all about the team. Yes, a bad play by one guy can directly result in a goal against just as a heads up play of another guy can single-handedly attribute in a goal being scored, but when you get right down to it, the effort of a team or the lack there of is even more critical. If the vast majority of your twenty skaters don’t have their collective heads in a game, the chances are, you are going to lose that game. Bad plays by one guy can be compensated by the hard work of a team, and a bad team effort can overshadow the positive exploits of a single player. In my opinion, I simply think that the game of hockey really relies a lot more on the team as a whole than the individual parts.
Thus, with that said, it is the team mentality that is another big factor in why I love the sport of hockey so much. The camaraderie in the locker room and the importance of chemistry are paramount ingredients to a successful hockey team. Stanley Cup championship teams, to me, demonstrate the ultimate in team mindset as they, as a group, survived the torturous four rounds of playoffs to come together as a strong unit and prevail over the other fifteen teams that start the playoff journey. I really don’t think there is a greater display in any sport of the importance of being a team when it comes to hockey and the arduous playoff and championship meetings over the month and a half it goes on.
Of course, breaking down the team concept to the six players on the ice for your team at any given time and the offensive and defensive units themselves only is a microcosm of the team idea at work. How well line of forwards can click and work together, how a defensive pairing communicates and covers for one another and how everyone interacts at any point in a game are just more aspects of how the importance of hockey as a “team sport” plays out each game. If you don’t have a cohesive, tight group of guys in your locker room, your chances of success in hockey are seriously diminished. It’s as simple as that, and for as much as the team concept can be applied to baseball and football, the hockey fan understands this relationship to be a bit more profound as far as our game goes. Yes, that might be a matter of opinion to be sure, but it is my opinion just the same.