April 24, 2014

HOROWITZ | There’s Nothing Else Like Playoff Hockey

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In the regular cycle of major professional and collegiate sports seasons, the springtime is packed with games for fans to watch. Baseball is underway, as teams look to set the tone for the long season ahead. March Madness provides densely packed days of thrilling basketball action, with results always seeming to defy the experts’ predictions. Nevertheless, even March Madness is not the tournament that intrigues me most at this time of year. Rather, that title goes to the NHL playoffs.

The NHL playoffs are a test of endurance and grit unparalleled in other sports, and no other playoff tournament even comes close. After playing 82 regular season NHL games, plus up to six games at this year’s Sochi Olympics in the case of many NHL players, a team must win 16 more games to capture the Stanley Cup. These 16 games take the form of four best-of-seven rounds, and they must be won in under two months, from the middle of April until the beginning of June. With the abundance of talent and relative parity between many NHL teams, many series go to six or seven games. The first two games are played at the venue of the team with home-ice advantage, the next two games are at the other venue, game five is back at the first, game six goes back to the second, and game seven is back to the first venue again. With many teams at significant distances from each other, the series format demands a heavy travel schedule. On top of this, teams rarely receive more than one day off between games. In short, there is no time to rest. It’s a full throttle sprint to the cup from the very beginning.

Now, one must understand the tremendous effort that goes into even a single hockey game in order to appreciate the grind of this tournament. Hockey is a very physical game, with an emphasis on full-body physicality and quick bursts of movement. Because it is so intense and high paced, players cannot be on the ice for more than a minute. Keep in mind, these players are probably the most cardiovascularly fit athletes in all of sports. Teams rotate between four lines of players for most of the game, but when the third period comes and the game is down to the wire, it is possible for three or two lines to see almost all of the playing time. All in all, players are left sore and incredibly exhausted after even a single game.

Multiply by this experience by up to 28 games in under two months and one can see how the NHL playoffs might be the most grueling endurance test in all sports. But there’s more to the experience than the nature of the play. Since the road to winning it all is long and arduous, players know they won’t have many chances to win the cup over the course of a career. And so, they play with a desperation that can’t be replicated in other sports. Because in hockey, sheer effort and grit can actually make a huge difference in a game. Hustling more than the other team, crashing the net harder and being more physical on defense can be the only things separating a win and a loss. In sports like baseball and basketball, the pace is slower and games usually come down to team’s level of skill, whether it be in pitching or three-point shooting. Not so in hockey. Teams that have superstar talent but aren’t able to dig into the trenches are sent home again and again (e.g, Washington Capital, San Jose Sharks…).

The epic journey ends in perhaps the most thrilling moment in sports, when the winning team hoists the venerated Stanley Cup. Originally commissioned in 1892, before the NHL even existed, this 34.5 piece of pure silver has been the highest trophy in hockey ever since. When a team wins the Cup, the names of all the team’s players are engraved on it. To prevent it from growing, the oldest bands are taken off and stored in the hockey hall of fame for eternity. All in all, winning the cup is more than just a championship, it’s literally etching a place in hockey history.

It’s quite a sight to see very large athletes, with cavemen-like beards following the no-shaving playoff tradition, gleefully skate around while kissing and hoisting the cup again and again. I still remember strangely feeling happy seeing Ray Bourque, a hall of fame captain and defenseman, raise the cup for the first time in his 21st and final NHL season. It was the 2001 Stanley Cup finals, and his Colorado Avalanche had just beat the New Jersey Devils, the one and only team I root for. And just as that moment of magic mesmerized me as a nine year old, the wonder of playoff hockey has never grown old.