Tension grows, the whistle blows, the puck goes down the ice

May 13, 2014 was a Tuesday. I remember it well. Okay. That’s a lie. I remember what happened on Tuesday, May 13, 2014. I was flipping through channels and stopped at NBCSN. There was a hockey game on. I decided to stop and watch for a minute. The Pittsburgh Penguins were playing the New York Rangers. That’s all I knew. I wasn’t keeping up with the series at all. In fact, I didn’t know anything about NHL hockey. I mean, sure, I knew some names and some teams, but I didn’t know the schedule or many rules or how the league worked, really. After watching the game for a few minutes, I decided that I was cheering for the New York Rangers. I don’t remember if there was a moment or a play that made me decide that, but that’s the conclusion I came to. I watched as the New York Rangers won the game, and the series. I watched as the two teams came together and shook hands. They all seemed friendly to each other, despite the fact that half of them no longer had any hockey to play until October. I watched, and not much of it meant anything to me.

Oh what a difference 5 months makes. 

Over the summer, and as October grew nearer and nearer, I started to become more and more aware of hockey. It wasn’t really gradual, either. It just happened all at once. It seemed a natural progression, for me to start to watch professional hockey. I mean, I had already loved watching it during the Olympics, and I loved going to college games. So why not watch the NHL? Why not? As October, and the start of the regular season, grew nearer, I became a hockey fan. It was weird, yes, but I was accepting it, full force.

I’m glad I did.

First off, I had to choose a team. I had the thought to just stick with the Rangers. That was a fleeting thought. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried, I always came back to the Penguins. Always. I would try to learn a different roster or coaching staff, but I would always come back to the Pens. Instead of trying to fight it, I just went with it. I became a Penguins fan. Never thought it would happen on May 13th, but it did.

I tried to pick another team, just in case the Penguins really did turn out to be a source of complete sadness or anger in my life. I chose the Chicago Blackhawks. They seemed like a safe bet. They seemed really talented and like they had really good direction. Well. I wasn’t wrong.

As I learned more and more about the Penguins, I remember one thought creeping into my head countless times. Sidney Crosby. When I watched that game back in May, I couldn’t stand him. I thought he was overrated and just kinda unlikable. I was completely wrong. Completely. He’s the best player in a generation. And, from what I’ve heard and read, one of the most likable guys in the whole league.

Oh what a difference 5 months makes.

As the first day of the season grew closer, I tried to get a little more comfortable with the game. I tried to learn the rules a bit better. I tried to learn all the teams and their strengths so I at least knew what to look for when watching. I tried to become a normal hockey fan. I succeeded. The first day of the season came and I was so excited to actually watch some hockey to see if this new endeavor had been wise. I don’t remember who they played, but I watched the Buffalo Sabres. I remember being really excited when they scored a goal. I don’t remember who won, but I knew that I was in for a season of a lot of fun.

And then I passed the realm of normal. I knew all of the players on the Penguins roster, all of their numbers, and half of their strengths. I was ecstatic when they won, relieved when they killed a penalty, and sad when they were scored on. It was a trying year for the Penguins, with one player being sidelined with a blood clot all season, another with cancer discovered in his neck, and many others sidelined with injuries. I found myself being sad along with the team when new injuries were discovered, heartbroken when Duper announced his blood clot, and happy when players were cleared to come back. When it came to the Blackhawks, I had less to worry about injury wise and lot more to worry about yelling wise. I knew all the players on the roster, and I knew they were all immensely talented, but they just needed to put the TALENT TOGETHER! AND SCORE! (I’m still doing it. Sorry, the Blackhawks did lose tonight in OT. Their season is still going.)

I also found the rules easier and easier to understand. It was all coming together for me. I knew a gist of what was going on, I knew who I wanted to win, I was even beginning to piece together what lines and line combinations worked the best.

Besides there was more than just the on-ice stuff to keep up with. Each team has a media team that puts together silly videos of the players doing silly things. Even the league does it too. The Canadiens had this ridiculous series this season where different players played games against each other; two players raced to change a diaper on a doll (no. I’m not kidding.). The Blackhawks put all of their players together before the season started and asked them questions like, “Who spends the most time on his hair?” and “Who naps the most?” It was ridiculous. But so funny. The Penguins have an Emmy winning media team that puts together a mini series every season about what life is like with the Pens. It is really well done and really interesting to watch. A lot of the other teams have mini series for their own behind the scenes stuff. It is all incredibly interesting and fun to watch. The sport tries so hard to make itself accessible to the fans, and they do a great job at it.

As the season moved along, I realized something slightly startling. I love this game. It’s weird. I didn’t think I would actually become this attached to hockey. I was kinda hoping it would be fun for me to watch, but I didn’t realize it would become so fun. I honestly started watching so I would have something to keep up with during the racing offseason.

Then racing started again, and I didn’t stop watching hockey. I thought I might start losing interest as my focus turned on track again, but the complete opposite was true. I started watching more hockey. The season was winding down. Playoffs were soon. The Penguins weren’t looking so good. The Pens have a reputation as one of the best teams in the league and they weren’t playing that way. It suddenly occurred to me that I might have to accept the sadness that came when they were out of playoffs. I was going to have to go into playoffs wanting the Pens to win, but also with a hidden acceptance that they probably weren’t going to make it very far.

Playoffs started. It was stressful, but fun to watch the intensity of the games. Teams really wanted to make it through to the next round. Everyone wants to win the Stanley Cup, and they will fight to the bitter end to get to it–or at least live to see another game. The team that wins the Cup must win 16 games. 4 games in each of 4 series. Playoffs started, and I buckled down for a stressful time.

Oh what a difference a year makes.

The Penguins were out. Again at the hand of the Rangers. I watched their final game of the season. I was heartbroken, but also a little relieved that such a terrible season was done with. I so badly wanted to be wrong that they wouldn’t make it out of the first round. But they were matched against the Rangers. The team that scored the most points in the regular season. I’m still a little sad that they are out. I find myself strangely missing them. I think it’s fair to say that I’m attached to those 20 men in the Black and Gold. Sigh. As if I needed another sport to follow. What am I saying? I’m a Penguins fan. I’ve accepted it. The time to stop this was 12 months ago.

May 13, 2015. The New York Rangers were playing once again. But this time it was different. They were playing the Washington Capitals. I don’t like the Caps, really at all. I wanted the Rangers to win. If they won this, they would win the series and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. I watched as they won in overtime. I watched as the players lined up to shake hands. I watched as they were friendly with each other, despite half of them facing a summer without the Cup, and no hockey to play until October.

Now playoffs are deep into the Conference Finals. The Ducks are playing the Blackhawks, and the Rangers are playing the Lightning. It is so completely stressful, but I wouldn’t stop watching. It’s almost like I can’t stop watching. I started watching in October, I have to finish the whole season. I have to see who will win the Cup. Last year’s winners, the LA Kings, didn’t even make it to playoffs, which made me strangely happy. I honestly want the Blackhawks to win the Cup, but I’m not sure they will…

Is the league perfect? No. No sports league is. Are they working towards sorting out the issues? Slowly, slowly. Is the game fun to watch? Yes, yes it is.

This hockey season, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned the rules of hockey. I’ve learned that it is a wonderful game and I’m glad I started watching. I’ve learned that I will probably be a lifelong fan, and I’m completely fine with that. I can only learn more and get better at watching. And that is a challenge I can’t turn down. The good old hockey game.

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