Fire And Ice Despite those elemental charms, not to mention decapitations, U.S. viewers haven't warmed to playoff hockey

April 29, 2001

I love hockey players and their crossword-puzzle smiles. When I
stand for O Canada, so does the hair on my neck. I love that
Ottawans hate Hockey Night in Canada because its analysts, they
believe, love the Toronto Maple Leafs. I love that Hockey Night
analyst Harry Neale has said of Ottawans, "They can take a big
bite of my ass." I love that Ottawa Senators fan Bob Chiarelli
has said of Neale, "When he comes to Ottawa, he better be wearing
his hockey gear and keep his elbows high." I love, too, that
Chiarelli is the mayor of Ottawa.

I love that penalties are served in the kind of plexiglassed box
last deemed necessary at Nuremburg. Indeed, I love almost
everything about hockey, and it remains an eternal bafflement
that most Americans do not. National television ratings for NHL
games, it shames me to say, are lower than those for XFL games.
How in the name of Nikolai Khabibulin can this be?

The Stanley Cup playoffs are the most riveting spectacle in
sports. Last Thursday night St. Louis Blues center Pierre Turgeon
took a flying puck in the mouth--he more or less ate it, like a
vulcanized Hostess Ding Dong--yet missed only one shift. "I lost a
couple teeth," he said, his s's whistling. "But hey, that's
playoff hockey."

That same night in Edmonton, Dallas Stars center Mike Modano,
his nose shattered by a puck, also returned to the ice but
stitched up like a baseball, with 35 sutures on the outside of
his head and (for all we know) a cushioned-cork center implanted
on the inside. His schnozz visibly throbbed throughout the rest
of the game, blinking red like a traffic light at midnight--an
hour at which most of these games, incidentally, are just
beginning to heat up.

All hockey playoff games go to multiple overtimes. (Or so it
seems: Through Sunday 12 of 46 had gone to OT, including four of
six games in the Dallas-Edmonton series.) No penalties are ever
called after the second period. When New Jersey Devils defenseman
Scott Stevens (page 52) decapitates an opponent, and he does so
several times a game, a linemate simply flips the severed head
over the boards with his stick. "And play," as the announcers
like to say, "continues."

Does it ever. The Stanley Cup isn't merely the most fetching
trophy in North America, it is also the hardest-earned. The
action in OT, by which time most players are toothless, drained
and darned like socks, is an end-to-end, whistle-free,
whiplash-inducing blur: of slap shots ringing off the post, of
heads being speedbagged in the corners, of Toronto keeper Curtis
Joseph wandering so far from his crease that he sometimes becomes
confused and briefly defends his opponent's goal. On and on and
on it goes, until somebody finally lights the lamp, the goal
judge's siren turning as if atop an ambulance.

Then, when a series ends, the two teams line up to exchange
handshakes and pleasantries. ("Sorry about the teeth." "Better
get that nose looked at." "Your head will grow back," etc.) Why,
America, have you not embraced this?

I have. I love the mournful foghorn at the end of each period. I
love the sight, oddly Biblical, of hats and octopuses raining
down from the rafters. I love every lyrical Francophone name:
Sylvain Lefebvre, Patrick DesRochers, Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre; and
every sharp-cornered Eastern European one: Valery Zelepukin,
Roman Hamrlik, Igor Kravchuk. I live to hear NHL 2Night host John
Buccigross say Sven Butenschon. And vice versa.

To be sure, a few of hockey's traditions are idiotic and
indefensible, foremost among them the sanctioned cross-checking
of a player to the ice in the second or so after he has scored.
It's as if Pudge Rodriguez had license to sucker punch a base
runner who has just crossed home plate, though, I happily
concede, that practice would enliven many a baseball game.

But mostly I am captivated by hockey's manifold pleasures, even
the simplest ones. There remains something deeply hypnotic about
watching a Zamboni make its rounds, the oval of uncleaned ice
getting ever smaller and smaller, a tableau too few Americans
will ever appreciate.

Don't tell me it's not a television sport or that it's too
Canadian. While recently screening, for the 10th time, footage of
the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, my scalp was tingling. (I felt like a
subject in a Selsun Blue commercial.) I still get chills when
Mike Eruzione scores the game-winner against the Soviets, even
though I know precisely when, and how, it's going to happen. By
the time the U.S. celebrates its gold medal win over Finland and
Jim Craig is wrapped in the flag like a marathoner in a foil
blanket, I have full-body goose bumps.

Even now, just recalling the moment, my skin is pebbled like a
plucked chicken's. Hockey can make me shiver, and I am here to
tell you: It has nothing to do with the ice.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)