Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

Hockey is beauty

As a fan of the sport who grew up in California and Arizona, you can imagine how giddy I am that the battle for the Western Conference title will be waged by the LA Kings and the Phoenix Coyotes. Even more exciting is what is about to transpire in the next 72 hours in Portland and Edmonton, as the Winterhawks and the Oil Kings battle it out for WHL supremacy. I was busy explaining all this to some dude on the elevator at work when he stopped me and asked “so, what is it about hockey that’s so great?”  It was then that I realized the answer would take much longer than the elevator ride. Which got me to thinking, how do I really explain to people why I love hockey?

There is beauty in ugliness. Let’s face it, hockey is loud, smelly, rude and sometimes, flat out ugly. But sometimes loud is beautiful, like it will be tonight when the Winterhawks skate onto the ice of a sold out Rose Garden for Game 4 against the Edmonton Oil Kings. If you hang around hockey players frequently enough, you learn to either ignore the smell or—if you’re in really tippy top physical condition—live without breathing for longer than a minute. And even an ugly win is a win, and in playoffs we’ll take it thank you. But in the midst of all that, there is beauty. Like a laser-perfect slapshot from Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Joe Morrow. Or the move of the day from Sven Bartschi, like the one he pulled off in Sunday’s Game 3, or his three goals in five emergency call-up games for the Calgary Flames. I personally like a nice top shelf goal on a breakaway, especially when it is scored by one Brad Ross. I love shootouts. And let’s face it, I do love a good scrap now and again. Whatever else it may be in its darkest hours, when hockey is played at its highest, purest and best level, it is a sport of uncommon grace and truly staggering beauty.

They can do things I can’t. I took a figure skating class about two years ago, hoping to eventually graduate to learning how to play hockey. But I soon realized that all that would really happen was an ambulance ride to the nearest ER to staple my kneecaps back together. So, I will remain merely a spectator to the sport of hockey, and that just makes it all the more amazing. Just learning to wobble around on skates makes one appreciate all the other things players do while flying up the ice or winding up for a slapshot, or putting their face in front of a shot to stop it from reaching the net. And that I do, even when I’m covering my eyes after my favorite team has just missed a perfectly good scoring opportunity. Because just getting to the net with the puck still in hand, body parts still attached and opportunity still within reach is more than I will ever do. On the other hand:

If they can do it, we can too. Excellence in any sport reminds us all of our own potential that we can reach in life. Maybe not necessarily in sports, but in whatever we are good at and whatever we strive to be in life. When hockey players show us the best of what they are as athletes, they show all of us the best of what we can be as human beings. By doing the impossible, they show us what is possible to achieve when we believe in ourselves and others. And who doesn’t love that?

We can unleash the hounds. I’m pretty sure most of us don’t have a job where we can yell, ring cowbells, spill beer, bang glass, swear, boo referees and opposing teams, jump up and down in front of our seats and slap high fives with fellow fans. And if you do have a job where you can do all of the above, where do you work and how do the rest of us apply? That being said, once we leave the place of employment and hit the rink, not only are such things allowed, they are expected. At the Rose Garden tonight, for example, all of the above will be happening. Well, ok, maybe we’ll keep the swearing to a minimum out of respect for the family entertainment values, but you get the idea. For the most part, the way we live life at a game isn’t so different than the way we should live the rest of our lives: honestly, loudly (in a good way) and to the fullest reaches of its potential.

They make all of us look good. Hockey has returned with a vengeance to Portland, where there has never been a better time to be a Winterhawks fan. The team has brought pride to more than just their organization. They have made a whole city, fans and non-fans alike, proud to live here. Today in downtown Portland, there are bars promoting Winterhawks games on TV. I saw two Hawks banners flying off of people’s car antennas on my commute to work. The Oregonian ran not one but two articles on the team in the morning edition. Players are on the radio nearly every day talking about their playoff run. No longer the joke they were just four short years ago, the Winterhawks are literally the talk of the town. But look on Twitter, listen to them in interviews or read Mike Johnston’s quotes on oregonlive, and fans are the superstars to them. Sven told local media that he was humbled by fans who stuck around after a losing game. Mike praised fans who greeted the team upon their return to prop them up after losing two road games against Kamloops. Ty Rattie calls Winterhawks fans the team’s 7th man. Of course, we now have expectation placed on us to deliver as well, and I have no doubt that we will. So if you live in Portland and have friends who are Winterhawks fans, you may need to leave a message on the mobile device. Because tonight from about 7 to 9:30, the 7th man is going to be a little busy helping his team win a game.

I have the need for speed. I love hockey for the same reason I love my car. I like things that go really fast. Mind, speed is also what makes the game dangerous. But most of the time, it’s in a good way. In addition to the above mentioned top shelf on a breakaway, I firmly believe that no game is complete without a rocket of a shot from the point by Joe Morrow. Like say, the one he let rip during the Western Conference finals that was probably going about 100 miles an hour when it blew Ty Rimmer’s goalie mask right off.

Even if only for a moment, life is perfect. Pick your play, your goal, your save. It could be Sven’s move of the night. Or Brad Ross with a perfectly placed top shelf zinger on a breakaway, won for the little four year old fan who asks him to score goals for her. Maybe it’s top prospect Derrick Pouliot parting the hockey version of the Red Sea to score on the Kamloops Blazers. Take your pick. Every time your player or team makes their move, for a brief and shining moment life is perfect. I always ask the boys after a game when they scored that perfect goal or made that pretty play, “practice or a single moment of inspired genius?” They usually tell me both. They’re right. It isn’t just the moment itself that makes it perfect. It’s all the things it took to get there. So in the end, I’d tell that dude on the elevator one simple thing: hockey and beauty are the same. As for the rest…well, he’ll just have to duck into one of those bars, tune into Comcast SportsNet and see for himself.

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com