NHL Playoffs: This Physical, Beautiful Game On Ice

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As both the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils head into decisive Game 5′s tonight, Guest contributor Justin Fritze discusses the violent beauty of the first round of the NHL Playoffs so far…

For as long as I can remember, I have had some sort of connection to hockey. My Uncle used to play ice hockey religiously growing up and even into his 20’s in an amateur league about a mile down the road from my grandma’s house. In the summer he would play deck hockey, and at the end of games he even used to ask the guys who ran the place to let him stay late and shoot around with me for about half an hour.

My Dad’s best friend growing up was a guy named Matt Janney, whose brother was Craig Janney, a first round pick of the Boston Bruins in 1986, and who according to the NHL Alumni board had the “softest hands in hockey”. To say he was a legend in Enfield was an understatement. He was pretty much god in that small Connecticut town, and despite being 6 years old, I still remember the insane party he had at his house after getting selected in the NHL Draft.

After that, I pretty much had hockey ingrained in my psyche. I went to Bruins games, went to Whalers games…that’s right. Look it up. Hartford Whalers. Pretty much the coolest jersey to ever exist. I watched every Craig Janney game I could, and the Bruins recent bruising of the Canucks on the way to the NHL Stanley Cup brought a smile that only a kid who grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts could understand.

I never did make it into ice hockey, but I did play roller hockey. Outdoors. In January. On Long Island, where the average nightly temperature was around 20 degrees. Not so fun getting checked into the boards when you’re having trouble feeling your fingers.

I also benefited from a next door neighbor whose father was a firefighter and brought us to the yearly NYPD vs. FDNY hockey game that took place in the hellhole that is Nassau Coliseum, where fighting was so rampant that the two fan-bases were literally separated on opposite sides by barricades. At one game I counted 12 fights on the ice, and probably about 6 more in the bathrooms. It was one of the greatest sports events I have ever been to.

And so, this year’s NHL Playoffs. Did the NHL make a mistake in not coming down “hand of god” style a la Roger Goodell against all this blatant violence? I’m not someone with a horse in the race, so to say I don’t like the violence of the NHL would be an outright lie.

You know what the best part of NHL 94 for Sega Genesis was? Watching some poor bastard come up the side from their own blue line, getting a head full of steam, and knocking him through the glass. That’s right. Through the glass. Oh yeah, and the inevitable 2nd period throwdown. THIS IS HOCKEY. Even the video games were preprogrammed with checking, guys getting carted off, and literal Mike Tyson Punchout matches in the middle of the ice.

Now, to play devils advocate, would I be able to sit comfortably if I was related to the leading scorer on any of the playoff teams? Of course not. I would be terrified. Everyone is one severe hit away from a concussion that could last months. But this is the ancient element of hockey. No escape. Locked in. And they’re coming from all directions. Even the goalies aren’t completely safe.

For the sake of objectivity, I will admit that hockey fans are a different breed. A guy who may be a corporate lawyer will turn into a Hell’s Angels when it comes to playoff hockey, especially when it’s a matchup like Flyers/Penguins. If the Bruins and Rangers make it to the next round, I’m going to have a dilemma so deep, because of the Boston roots and the teenage years in New York (remembering Messier/Richter/Leetch/Graves and that whole insanity of 94) I may just have to wear a different jersey every single night to help the balance.

But I’ll be damned if someone doesn’t admit playoff hockey is exciting unlike any other sport in the world. It’s what soccer should be. Goals/Saves/Hits at a rate that turns your nerves into downed power lines in a hurricane. Your blood boils and your brain is on the edge of adrenaline overload. Your eyes can’t keep up, and you’re beginning to scream for no reason other than the eventual hit that is about to send someone backwards or into the boards with the force of two Mac trucks hitting each other at 35mph.

Thank You NHL. Now shorten the season, and let’s hope no one gets seriously hurt.