By Joseph Beyda
Not an NFL player.
What has 32 teeth and isn’t afraid to lose a few of them?
Not an NBA pro.
What runs at above 100 beats per minute for the most intense two-and-a-half hours in professional sports?
Most definitely not an MLB star.
By my count I’ve written about hockey on five occasions in the last 14 months, which makes for at least half of The Daily’s coverage of the game over that time. More often than not, my message has been simple: Give hockey, a sport so oft-overlooked in the American market, a try.
I don’t think I’ve been convincing enough to this point. There’s an interesting little sneer that people give when you tell them you follow the NHL, not the NBA, and believe me when I tell you those haven’t been getting any less frequent in the wake of this year’s lockout.
But these three months have given me a little extra time to hone my message, and I’m about to give it my best shot as we get ready to start a shortened NHL season this Saturday. That’s because I’ve heard enough whining about the other three major American sports that I’ve grown to understand why hockey fills the void perfectly.
It’s faster than football. It’s more physical than basketball. It’s less boring than baseball.
I’ll admit that the NFL has gotten pretty fast nowadays, with track stars like RGIII and Colin Kaepernick running college-style offenses in the pros and Chip Kelly about to take his speedy system to the league. But ice, which is what makes hockey unique in the first place, will always be quicker than grass. Usain Bolt approaches 25 miles per hour sprinting on a straightaway; the world’s fastest speed-skaters approach 40 miles per hour sprinting on a round track. And, of course, a hockey rink is much smaller than a football field.
That makes for a much more exciting game with more frequent momentum changes. A pick-six is easily the most devastating play in football, when a team goes from an opportunity to score to being scored against in a heartbeat. The hockey equivalent is an odd-man rush, when one team’s attackers outnumber the defenders between them and the goalie. By simple subtraction, that means the team now playing defense had the body-count advantage on offense just a few seconds ago; anything from a bad bounce off the boards to a slip by the puck handler flipped the switch and put one team at a disadvantage.
In 264 NFL games this year, there were 71 pick-sixes thrown — about one every four games and a new league record. By contrast, a single hockey game can easily have 10 or more odd-man rushes between the two teams.
The comparison isn’t perfect; a pick-six is a guaranteed score, and an odd-man rush is not. But odd-man rushes account for so many of the goals scored in the NHL that those instantaneous momentum swings have the same, gut-wrenching implications if you’re in the stands.
Plus, the average hockey game is an hour shorter than its football counterpart. And if you’ve never heard complaints about the length of a football game, you’ve never sat in the Red Zone.
This is no news to the skeptical basketball fans in the crowd. Fast breaks are even more common in the NBA than odd-man rushes are in the NHL, the game moves from end to end just as often and, no, basketball games don’t take very long either.
Even with their common speed, there’s something fundamentally different between the two sports: basketball is high-scoring, hockey is low-scoring. That means that an NHL player has to scratch and claw a lot harder for a goal than an NBA player has to for a basket, and the physicality of hockey follows naturally.
A lot of people are put off by hockey’s perceived violence, but when those of us familiar with the sport praise its physicality, we aren’t talking fistfights. The puck handler can be leveled by an opponent at all times, so he has to sacrifice for every foot he skates towards the goal. Defenders aren’t allowed to do that in basketball — they’re actually encouraged to let the dribbler run over them, resulting in an epidemic of flopping.
Seriously, if you think the most physical play in sports should be one guy standing still while another guy tips him over like a bowling pin on sleeping pills, basketball is for you.
I’m not saying that strength isn’t an asset in the NBA; you’ve still got to muscle your way to the basket every now and then. But going up against Chris Pronger is just a wee bit more dangerous than going up against Shaq. (And if you’re not reading this online, I advise you look up Chris Pronger.)
As for America’s pastime, baseball? I do think there’s a lot more to the sport than a lot of its detractors realize. Even in such a slow-paced game there’s still tension, and more than in any other sport it’s built on the fans’ intimate understanding of the different situations and players out on that field.
But today’s fan isn’t always built on that depth of knowledge. Thanks to ESPN and other mega-networks, sports have their own 24-hour news cycle and are more accessible than ever. When both sports freaks and bandwagoners are as likely to catch a Yankees game as a Giants game, baseball’s personal side doesn’t carry the same weight and the game loses the sentimentality that makes it so interesting to the devoted, monogamous fan.
Hockey is, by comparison, faceless — and how could it not be, when the players move quickly, wear faceguards and are on the ice no more than a third of the time? Until the late-season and playoff intrigue rolls in, an Oilers game is just as exciting for me as a Sharks game. And an NHL game grabs your attention quicker than any other in sports; how could you change the channel when a team is on the power play? Whichever marketing guru invented the term, which shouts, “If someone’s going to score it’s going to be in the next two minutes!” deserves a raise. (We can all agree that “runners at the corners” doesn’t have the same zing.)
More than anything else, there’s just no standing around in the outfield in hockey. Even the guys on the bench have to do a tango, ducking away from pucks as they wait to hurdle the boards in the quickest substitution in sports.
The MLB’s pace of play just can’t compare. In baseball you’re lucky if you see two pitches in a minute, but in hockey that’s long enough for every skater on the ice to exhaust themselves.
And now that I’ve exhausted myself just to convince you to watch the greatest sport on Earth, would it be that tough to give it a try? Let me remind you why, one last time:
Hockey is faster than football. It’s more physical than basketball. It’s less boring than baseball.
Joseph Beyda uses the NHL to fill the void left by Rollerball, the real fastest show on skates. To reminisce about the glory days of chanting JON-A-THAN, email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @DailyJBeyda.