Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Extra! Extra! Bonus Column from TNH

I'm back with an actual piece of intelligent writing, since the last post sickens me as I read it days later. I know I get angry when my teams lose but the bitterness sometimes surprises even me. I would delete the post but hey, it's part of my life; it's gonna stay.

The main reason I return so soon is because I spent a lot of time this weekend writing my first edition of the "From the Bullpen" column that is often featured in the college newspaper I work for, The New Hampshire. So, as a bit of a bonus, here's what I feel is one of my better pieces of the year (it can also be found online at the paper's website, www.tnhonline.com).

From the Bullpen: the NHL is back, and you should all take notice

Noise wrapped itself around me with the force of a freight train. My voice screamed to be heard but was lost in the ceaseless clamor. I sat deep in the crowd at game five of the Stanley Cup Finals last June when my ears stopped working and my heart pounded with excitement.

It was early last summer when I booked a flight to Detroit and paid $500 for a ticket to watch the Detroit Red Wings play the Pittsburgh Penguins for hockey's greatest prize. The experience was unforgettable, but I bet some of you are already skeptical at the ridiculous cost I paid to see a hockey game.

It wasn't a rational price; I can't argue that it was. But when you combine my obsession for the Detroit Red Wings, which has had a firm hold on me since I was a seven-year-old kid living in Canton, Mich., and the chance to see the pinnacle of professional playoff hockey, the decision to drain my bank account and take a day trip halfway across the country was an easy one. Why? Because hockey is finally up off the mat from its lockout knockout and there are plenty of reasons why the students at UNH should all be paying attention.

During the cancellation of a full season in 2004-2005, the NHL was kicked to the curb by ESPN, replaced in the four major sports by NASCAR, and virtually forgotten by all but their most loyal fans. Despite the gag reflex brought on by that realization, I find solace in the fact that changes have since been made to make the game more entertaining for even the most casual hockey fan.

To create more scoring and more excitement, two-line passes are now allowed, the blue lines have been moved back to create a larger offensive zone, and goalie equipment size limits have been decreased. Electrifying shootouts are used to break ties after a single five-minute overtime period and can produce plenty of highlight-reel goals from some of the league's best players.

The league has also introduced the annual Winter Classic game, held on New Year's Day and played outdoors in the bitter cold. Last season, the inaugural game featured the Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres, who played an overtime thriller in snowy conditions at Ralph Wilson Stadium, home to the Buffalo Bills of the NFL. This year's classic will renew the rivalry between the Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks, who play at Wrigley Field on the first of 2009. A couple years down the road, who knows, maybe it'll be the Boston Bruins doing the same against the Montreal Canadiens at Fenway Park. Can you imagine?

Speaking of the Bruins, they have a great young team. The Celtics aren't the only cure for a Red Sox hang over and they won't be the only Boston team winning this winter. Their captain, Zdeno Chara, is a 6'9" giant with a cannon for a shot, winning last year's fastest shot competition with a 103.1 mph blast. Their playoff appearance last April is only the beginning of a bright future for the B's, who have great young players in Milan Lucic and Phil Kessel to complement veterans like Chara and Marc Savard.

Even if I can't convince you to flip to NESN and catch a regular season game, there's nothing that should stop you from watching the playoffs. The NHL postseason is the toughest exhibition of athletic competition in all of sports. Players grow playoff bears for months; heck, even Penguins' 21-year-old golden boy Sidney Crosby managed some peach fuzz by the Finals last June. Every game redefines intensity and fights can break out at any moment. And even though the fights aren't up to pre-lockout standards quite yet (the 1997 brawl between the Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche made 300 look like The Notebook), those battles are coming back. Since the lockout, the average number of fights per game has almost doubled, rising from 0.38 to 0.74 per game.

You can also throw out the excuse of not being able to watch games on TV, since the new lineup of television channels for on-campus UNH students, installed this September, now provides both Versus and the NHL Network to go along with NESN's coverage of the resurgent Bruins. Hockey games usually last a half an hour less than NFL or MLB games as well, not including their two 20-minute intermissions, which saves you time in front of the tube.

The list goes on and on. Fresh faces like 19-year-old Patrick Kane and 18-year-old Steven Stamkos vitalize the league with youth. Flashy stick handlers like Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk bring a new level of skill that hasn't been seen in decades. Concussion-causing hits are dished out by bruisers like Dion Phaneuf and Niklas Kronwall on a nightly basis.

The Red Wings lost that game back in June. They were only a win away from clinching the Stanley Cup on home ice and held a 3-2 lead in the third until Maxime Talbot broke my heart and scored the game-tying goal with 34.3 seconds left. Petr Sykora furthered my misery with a game-ending blast in triple overtime. But even the loss of $800 and a frequent flyer ticket couldn't keep me from thinking: "This is the best game in the world."

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