In my five-year-old mind, ice hockey stood head and shoulders above every other sport.
I lived and breathed hockey, reading my beloved Islanders’ box scores after every game and anxiously putting stickers in my skating-lesson book after each successful session. I couldn’t wait until the day I would finally grab a stick, put on a helmet and take to the ice, beginning my dream of becoming an NHL superstar.
But that day never came. After a few months, my parents inexplicably pulled me out of ice skating lessons, and to this day, I can’t do much more than skate forward and turn left.
Sadly, my skating lesson experience wouldn’t be the last time hockey left me disappointed.
I was seven years old in 1993, when my dad managed to score a pair of tickets for the Islanders’ second-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He brought me to Nassau Coliseum, where I sat, wide-eyed, as the Islanders skated to a victory in front of an ecstatic crowd. On the way back from the game, my dad asked me if I had a good time.
“I liked it,” I replied. “But it was a little too loud for me.”
Of course, Nassau Coliseum never got that loud again because the Islanders haven’t won a single playoff series since they dispatched the Penguins that year.
Fast forward to 2004. The Islanders were finally decent again, looking poised to finally win a playoff series. Of course, it was too good to be true. They – along with the rest of the NHL – sat out the season due to a labor dispute.
So there you go – hockey and I have had a pretty rocky past. It’s my first love, the one that builds my hopes up, only to leave me disappointed every time.
But still, I always seem to give hockey another chance. Despite my heartbreaks over the past 15 years, I can’t help but be just a little excited for the NHL’s return tonight (which ironically, coincides with my birthday). Hoping to reclaim disillusioned fans like me, the NHL has instituted the most dramatic set of rule changes any major sport has attempted in decades.
The rule prohibiting the two-line pass? Gone. Ridiculously oversized goalie pads? Gone. Icing the puck to allow for a line change? No longer allowed. And finally, the most exciting new rule – ties not decided in five minutes of overtime will proceed to a shootout.
Traditionalists are screaming bloody murder, claiming that the NHL is selling out its truly loyal fans to fill up arenas. And although some of these new rules do represent a sharp break from the NHL’s past, the league is in a tough position. In the wake of the lockout, the NHL lost its TV deal with ESPN, and instead inked a contract with the Outdoor Life Network. Does anyone even get the Outdoor Life Network? And does hockey have anything to do with outdoor life?
So, given the circumstances, it’s hard to blame Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL’s leaders for trying to broaden their league’s appeal.
Plus, nostalgia notwithstanding, the new rules are pretty damn sweet. I know quite a few die-hard hockey fans, ones who appreciate the finer points of a neutral-zone trap or a well-played puck behind the net. Not one of them went to games hoping for a zero-zero tie. It’s not like the NHL doubled the size of the net – the games won’t turn into circuses. But I’ll trade in 2-1 games for 4-3 games any day.
And call me a product of the ADD-riddled, MTV-addicted generation, but I can’t wait to see my first shootout in person. There’s no more exciting play in sports than the penalty shot, but they come about once in a blue moon. Now every game will have the potential for an edge-of-your-seat, game-deciding shootout. That familiar, empty feeling of leaving an arena after a tie game will become a thing of the past. And finally, the loser of the shootout will still earn one point, fair consolation for fighting hard for 65 minutes.
Of course, knowing my history, hockey will probably find some way to disappoint me. Maybe the revamped Islanders will stink again. Maybe I won’t be able to find Outdoor Life Network among the hundreds of channels on my satellite dish. Maybe I’ll never attend a game that ends in a shootout.
But for today at least, I’ll push my doubts aside, open my arms and happily welcome back the NHL, new rules and all.
– Matt has long since forgiven his parents for canceling skating lessons – he wouldn’t have made the NHL anyway. He can be reached at email@example.com.