Hockey is a sport where it’s just as easy, if not easier, to root for the fringe players as the superstars. With NHL players coming from all over the world, each team has quirky characters. Team chemistry and the way personalities blend together in a locker room has proven to be a huge factor in who wins the Stanley Cup.
The best players might sell the most tickets when they come into town, but they’re not always the most fun. Illya Bryzgalov is not the best goalie in the league. He’s had an up-and-down career and doesn’t rank in the top 30 or so goaltenders this year. Despite that, he’s one of the best personalities the league has. Imagine HBO’s 24/7 with the most uptight player ever Roberto Luongo. No. Thanks.
Hardcore Rangers fans were probably excited to see Dan Blackburn in the Old Timers/Alumni Game in Philadelphia, even though he isn’t as much of a star as Mark Messier. Hockey fans have been beat to death with the story of how Messier led the blueshirts to the Stanley Cup in 1994, but to me Dan Blackburn is even more interesting because his story is more common. He was drafted high, and one of the goalies that was part of the bridge between Mike Richter and current backstop Henrik Lundqvist. Blackburn was seen as having mounds of potential before getting injured but before he retired in his early ‘20s he filled his goalies-are-weirdos requirement by playing with two blockers. My fondest memory of the player is lighting him up in NHL 03.
Growing up, my favorite hockey player was Valery Kamensky. He won the Cup with the Avalanche in 1996, but in his best year only scored 85 points in 81 games. That doesn’t sound bad but when on “The UN Line” with Peter Forsberg and Claude Lemiuex, he should’ve been a hall of famer. That line is ranked right behind the Legion of Doom for Pete’s sake! Why would a 6-year-old kid from Buffalo identify most with an enigmatic Russian on a team from Colorado that had Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic, Adam Foote, and others? Even though the usual Russian criticisms were lobbed at him (talented but lazy, as well as blazing a new path for terms like unmotivated and injury prone), I’m still kind of surprised Kamensky wasn’t better. I wish my parents bought me his jersey.
Players like Bryz and soft Europeans can cause rifts in their locker rooms for sure, but they can’t hurt the reputation of a league that is rigid and takes itself too seriously. People don’t pay attention to hockey not because it’s a boring sport to watch (I’d stack it up against baseball any day) but because the NHL executives don’t sell the product the right way. Hockey is a regional sport, and people that have been around the game know that the best part of it is the locker room bonds and practical jokes. It’s nice to see hockey starting to take root in some southern cities, but that’s at the price of watching incredibly mediocre teams. Sean Avery (rightly) gets a lot of flak, but he was dead on when he said the league should promote its heroes and villains.
Announcers should be doing homework before every game. During the Winter Classic today, Doc Emrick must’ve remarked where players were from a dozen times. Why is it important to point out that Brayden Schenn played hockey in Saskatoon? Wouldn’t American television viewers the league is trying attract rather hear about the funny superstitions that a particular player might have? Instead of filling dead air with retread information, they could have pointed out why the Flyers use the video of Kate Smith before big games. There are examples of this laziness during every game, today is just fresh in my mind.
Even as a Sabres fan, this always gives me chills:
Hockey will never be given as much attention as other sports, so why doesn’t the NHL celebrate what it has going for them?