Tomorrow is Thanksgiving (in the United States, that is), a day we celebrate the heart of the phrase "thank you" by overdosing on turkey and pumpkin pie. The fact that you can read this means you already have much to be thankful for. Lately, one thing has been near the top of my list. This is my homage to hockey, a sport that means so unbelievably much to me.
Americans live in a country that, as a whole, cares little about the NHL. We’ve fussed about it on Twitter, we’ve complained to ESPN, but most of us have faced the music: baseball and football are America’s sports and basketball isn’t too far behind. But the wonderful thing about NHL fans is they love their teams just the same. Baseball, football and basketball may take precedence over hockey, but we know hockey is the greatest sport and we hold true to the perfection that takes place every evening on the ice.
NHL players are a special breed of professional athlete. Their big guys aren’t branded as celebrities like the big guys from the NFL, NBA and MLB. Their drama would never end up on the front page of US Weekly, not that hockey players are notorious for creating major rifts anyway. They’re like that amazing unknown band you discovered in some China Town dive bar; they’re our best kept secrets.
The more we get to know the players as people, the more we realize these guys could make a living as sit-com stars. The proof we need is in HBO’s 24/7. The world watched as Matt Cooke, Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson emptied Ben Lovejoy’s and Mark Letestu’s hotel room in the lobby, as Cooke went undercover to cut the laces of Paul Bissonette’s skates, and as Fleury put Ralphie Parker to shame with his slew of curses in the shootout drill prior to the Winter Classic. Viewers were in stitches watching the antics of the Pens’ team and Pens fans could only watch proudly, thinking to themselves, "That’s my team."
Hockey players are different from any other kind of athlete. On top of their relatable personas, they play a sport that requires a balanced marriage of a sprinter’s endurance, a linebacker’s strength and a gymnast’s agility. This is all wrapped up in an exoskeleton of toughness that defines the sport hockey. You don’t see hockey players missing games because of sprained wrists or leg contusions, and during the playoffs, not even broken bones will stop some players. They play for the honor of the game and for the players who share the same logo on their chests. They play on because that’s just what they do.
This kind of love and sacrifice we see on a regular basis has become an inspiration to many. Especially during these tough economic times, sports as a whole have meant more to the fan. Watching hockey has given us the ability to forget about our real world problems for a few hours and immerse ourselves in the narratives written by these athletes. As fans, we have accepted our roles as spectators of the sport and the responsibilities that come with them. This includes the intense emotions that make losing every bit as miserable as it is electrifying to win. It’s the ultimate reality TV without the fake tans and whiny actors, and most importantly, it’s for everyone, no matter their health, socioeconomic status, politics, race or creed.
Hockey has brightened the spirits of the sick, it has provided kids an opportunity to develop skills, and it has given back to the community. The images of the toughest men in the world putting smiles on the faces of those battling terminal illness, the needy and the curious youngsters are among the most beautiful and touching things fans will see. They are demonstrating how much they care not only with their money, but their time and love. Hockey players are recognized as athletes primarily, but those moments away from the rink have taught us so much more about these men. They’re the total package, as is the sport they play, and they’re everything a fan could ever want, playing a sport that will never lose its purity through the ages.
So thank you, hockey, for being a hidden gem among other sports. Thank you for the ability to claim some of the greatest athletes and personalities in the world as your own. Thank you for the unabashed pride in the stories behind the bruises and broken noses. Thank you for your power to erase all other worldly problems.
Thank you, hockey, for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Thank you for the unprecedented attention the franchise gives to the fans through season ticket deliveries and student rush. Thank you for believing in the Pens during the Dark Ages and for the Consol Energy Center that was built from that belief. Thank you for the memories at Mellon Arena and the teams and coaching staff who made those memories tangible. Thank you for Mario Lemieux who is responsible for why we’re here.
Thank you, hockey, for Sidney Crosby who despite a life-altering concussion, is still the same player and man we know and love. And for contributing another unforgettable moment in Pittsburgh sports history Monday night.
Tomorrow, among many other wonderful aspects of my life, I will raise my Yuengling to you.