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The Scarlet & Black

Kunal says when there’s no NBA, watch Hockey

Alas Grinnellians, it looks like we won’t have the privilege of watching NBA action for quite some time. How do I feel about it? Salty, I was looking forward to experiencing a majority of the NBA season as a second semester senior. Most of my job applications done, and my second-semester course load easier than pie, I was going to indulge my NBA craving hard. At the beginning of the lockout, I was feeling even better about my NBA-watching prospects. I figured the owners and players, allegedly rational human beings, would come to an agreement around now, and the NBA season would start before Christmas and end in July or August. Hell, I would have graduated before the playoffs even started! Now I feel salty, though, and I’m simply trying to focus on the one positive that comes out of this immense tragedy: the rise of the NHL in public consciousness.

Of course, I’m being a bit of an idealist. Who is to say that people will actually care about the NHL now that the NBA is on a temporary hiatus? A lot of people don’t care about hockey because they can’t relate; it’s certainly not the most accessible sport in the world. Basketball, on the other hand, is a sport that has been played at least a few times by most everybody in this nation. Even if people can relate to hockey, who is to say that they will enjoy watching the particular brand of hockey played in the NHL? The neutral zone trap is undergoing a rebirth of sorts in the NHL, and scoring and excitement are down as teams become content to dump the puck in the offensive zone and chase. The NHL and NHL Players Association thought that it had solved the problem of  “boring hockey” with the 2004-2005 rules change. Enacted in order to decrease the effectiveness of the neutral zone trap, as made famous by the successful New Jersey Devils teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The rules changes included the calling of every obstruction penalty, regardless of circumstance and the elimination of the rule that prohibited passes across two lines. However, NHL defensemen have become more skilled at avoiding costly penalties, and passes across two lines are risky and turnover-prone. The Washington Capitals, who before last season were known for their shoddy defensive play, employed a 1-3-1 for long periods of time last season, and enjoyed relative success. The Caps went from consistently ranking in the bottom third of the league in goals given up per game, to finishing in the top five last season. Unfortunately for the Caps, their division rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning, dispatched them in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Despite the fact that the Lightning swept the Caps in four games, Tampa Head Coach Guy Boucher saw something he liked in the 1-3-1 formation, and the Lightning have employed the strategy with great effectiveness at the start of this season.

That being said, the NHL is a great product. As the ever-observant Bill Simmons points out, the NHL has “the best in-game format (long period, long break, long period, long break, long period, go home), best regular-season in-game wrinkle (the shootout), best secretly awesome moment (any fight), highest percentage of “most likable players” (hands down), and highest percentage of “true fans in attendance” of the four major sports (indisputable). NBA fans that don’t use the lockout of their favorite league as an opportunity to check out the product being offered by the NHL are being truly closed-minded.  You don’t have to play hockey, or even know how to ice skate, to appreciate the speed, grace, and toughness on display in any NHL game. In a lot of ways, the NHL is like the NBA; the transition from offense to defense is seamless, and players have to incorporate more than a bit of finesse into their game in order to be successful. The NHL is also similar to the NBA in that both leagues are ripe with young superstars that promise to provide tons of fireworks over the next few years. Obviously, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby come to mind when mentioning NHL stars, but these guys are grizzled veterans now. That is not to say that either of these guys is on the decline – Ovechkin is 26 and Crosby is 24 – but these guys were the face of the rebuilding NHL after the lockout, and they don’t represent the newest crop of NHL talents. The Edmonton Oilers, who have been absolutely dreadful over the last few years, have been stockpiling top-level talent, and they are beginning to see their grand plans come to fruition. Edmonton currently sits only three points out of the Northwest Division lead, ahead of the defending Western Conference Champion Vancouver Canucks, in spite of the fact that three of their four best players are 21 years of age or less. Eighteen-year old Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, has 14 points on the season…as many as Alex Ovechkin. However, the Oilers are not the only team benefitting from the extreme youth movement that has swept the NHL over the last few years. Many of the best players in the league, including Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Tyler Myers, Jeff Skinner, John Tavares, and Tyler Seguin, are 21 years of age or less. Sure, goals may be on the decline, but with players of such high caliber on the ice, good enough to excel at the highest level of the game at 21, one can hardly say that the quality of the game is worsening.

Finally, if you need one last reason to tune into the NHL during the NBA lockout, keep in mind that the NHL has the coolest All-Star Game format of any of the major sports. The fans vote for captains, and then the captains pick which players they want on their team, playground-style. There are no conference or player-nationality restrictions – and hence, the talent level of the two teams is so far greater than in past hockey all-star games. Additionally, there is a personal aspect added to the game, as players are eager to play well for the captains that picked them, and to humiliate the captains that did not pick them. The personality of the All-Star Game fits the personality of the sport — laid-back and understated, but awesome at its core. That, my friends, is why you all should try to, at least casually, watch some hockey:  it’s the coolest game on Earth.

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    Paul D. Leitch 72Nov 19, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    I am a big Detroit RedWings fan. Grew up in Michigan where pond hockey (outdoors) during the 50s and 1960s were great fun and refreshing. Grinnell had an outdoor rink in the early 1970s. I sincerely hope there is a good place on campus for kids to go out and play pond hockey or just skate for fun.