Nathan's Notations: Why watch hockey?

In my last column two weeks ago, I talked about alternative sports to watch during the NBA and NFL lockout. After I finished writing it, I realized that I’d left out one of my favorite sports, and arguably the  most exciting league in America: the NHL.

Hockey is one of my favorite sports, and the NHL is in a great situation right now. They’re coming off an amazing playoff season, which saw the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup after a hard-fought series against the Vancouver Canucks. The Bruins won the cup in a thrilling Game 7 in Vancouver. With the outlook bleak for an upcoming NBA season, the NHL is in prime position to move up on the sporting ladder.

For many years, the NHL was overlooked on the national stage, falling behind the NFL, NBA and MLB. Recently, though, the NHL has been gaining on the NBA in terms of attendance figures. In 2010, the NHL trailed the NBA in average attendance by a little more than 100 people. If the NBA lockout does last for much of the season, like many expect it will, the NHL could finally pass the NBA in attendance standings.

There are many things that make hockey so exciting, especially after the NHL updated many of its rules following the 2004-05 lockout, which made the league more exciting, and saw the number of goals increase dramatically.

My brother hates hockey because games tend to be low-scoring, but, in truth, this is what makes watching hockey so exciting. Often a game is decided by just one goal; every shot counts. The NHL also boasts the most exciting play in sports: the penalty shot.

Before the lockout in 2004, a penalty shot was rare, only happening when a defender committed a foul that directly affected a goal-scoring opportunity. It didn’t happen very often, but when it did, it was thrilling. One of the changes the league made after the lockout was to do away with ties. In the current format, if a game is tied after overtime, it goes to a penalty shootout.

On YouTube, there are many videos highlighting the excitement of a penalty shootout, and, in my opinion, there is nothing like it in sports. The crowd stands and cheers as loudly as they can. They relentlessly boo whoever the opposing team sends out to shoot. They taunt the visiting goalie. Then comes the intensity of the actual shot.

A player attempting to score a penalty will fly down the ice as fast as he can, decking, sometimes spinning and putting on a stick-handling clinic, before trying to sneak the puck past the goalie.

Of course, one of the big attractors in hockey is the fighting; it’s also something that is important to the sport. Hockey players police their own game. If someone is playing dirty and the refs didn’t catch it, there will be a fight. If someone overdoes the trash-talking, there will be a fight. If someone goes after a star player on the opposing team, there will be a fight. Players know that fighting is the consequence if they try to throw a cheap shot, or try to cheat. The knowledge that they will most likely end up in a fight keeps the game cleaner than it could be.

My favorite thing about hockey is the sportsmanship that is shown between two teams. When you think of hockey, sportsmanship probably isn’t what comes to mind; you probably think of fights, or toothless guys with really bad mullets. During a game, players go on the ice and battle for 60 minutes, but at the conclusion of every game, no matter how brutal it was, or how many fights there were, the two teams meet at center ice and shake hands. They put what happened in the game behind them and shake hands.

These are some reasons why I love hockey, and why it is becoming more popular around the country, but don’t take my word for it. In the fall when there’s no NBA season, give the NHL a chance.