Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Old-time hockey

"Boys; were' going to play old-time hockey, eh?"

-The Buffalo Crowd cheering on the hometown Sabres-

-I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out-

Given the paltry interest that professional hockey currently generates in the United States, one could be forgiven with the usual New Year’s glut of second rate college football, for missing one of the more intriguing sporting events I’ve witnessed in awhile.

The National Hockey League, hoping to do something to stop its downward slide in popularity, decided to stage an outdoor game on New Year’s Day, in snowy Buffalo, New York. Featuring the hometown Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the club that boasts the league’s top young superstar, Sidney Crosby, the league is pinning faint hopes that the second ever outdoor professional hockey game helps generate new interest in a sport that now lags NASCAR, nationally.

The game is being held on a specially constructed rink, built in the middle of Rich Stadium, the home field of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. This is an interesting venue, given that the stadium resides near Lake Erie and is prone to bursts of lake effect snow. Billed as the Winter Classic and televised by NBC, it’s one of the television events that if you happened to be channel surfing and saw the rink, snow banks flanking the boards and snow and sleet obscuring the usually graphic-driven visuals of modern televised sports, you thought, “what the heck? Did I fall into a time hole and get transported back to 1965?”

You ‘gotta give the NHL credit. This format was fraught with a variety of obstacles and a potential nightmare scenario of being snowed out and having to be replayed. Instead, it was one of the most intriguing televised sporting events I’ve ever witnessed in awhile. The announcers, including longtime NHL play-by-play man, Mike Emrick, are being stationed out in the elements, on one of the camera stands. Several times you heard the banter about the cold and the sleet that was blowing sideways and hitting them in the face. Watching the players trying to deal with snow building up on the ice, some uneven ice and at times, near blizzard conditions during the third period, I think this was a real win for the league and the sport. Certainly the fact that 73,000 fans turned out, many beginning the day with a parking lot tailgate, shows that there are still pockets of fervor for the game imported from north of the border.

One of the best aspects of the game, for me, was the between period interplay between Bob Costas, one of my favorite sports announcers and former NHL tough guy and coach, Mike Milbury, who is well-known to Boston hockey fans. Costas talked a lot about “old-time hockey” with Milbury, who was known more for his fighting than anything else. Costas’ bit about the real life Ogie Oglethorpe, from Slapshot fame, was a classic.

Apparently the character from the movie, was closely based on the exploits of a former rough-and-tumble player for the Syracuse Blazers, Bill “Goldie” Goldthorpe, back in the days of the old North American Hockey League. Costas talked about being the Blazers’ play-by-play man, during the 73-74 season, when he had a run-in, or two with Goldthorpe, just as surly off the ice, as was his reported on-ice demeanor. Costas related a story about reading the New York Times on the team bus (the NAHL was known for its long bus rides from outposts like Johnstown, PA, to Lewiston, ME, home of the old Maine Nordiques) and Oglethorpe apparently took offence. According to Costas, after Goldthorpe made a comment about Costas’ reading material, he said to Goldthorpe, “it’s ok Goldie, I’ll help you learn to read, if you’d like.” That was the wrong thing to say to a guy who is purported to have registered 25 fights before Christmas, during his rookie season. As Costas told the story, Goldthorpe ripped up the newspaper and let it fall like confetti on Costas’ head and then made some menacing gestures and threats toward Costas and it required the coach and several Blazer players to intervene, rescuing him from immediate harm. Some classic stuff and the kind of history that professional sports was known for, when it was played by men, more out of love, or even desperation, rather than the size of their paycheck.

Actually, the concept probably wasn’t that foreign to many of the Canadian players and possibly some of the others, who undoubtedly learned the game, playing a version of “shinny,” or pond hockey, on cold outdoor rinks, in their hometowns. I’m sure many of the fans, either at the game, or those watching on television remember skating on an outdoor rink, either under the lights, on a weeknight, or a weekend afternoon.

Growing up in Lisbon Falls, I remember Saturday and Sunday afternoon outdoor grudge matches, behind the late Dr. Mendes’ house, on Pleasant Street. This was a rite of winter for many of us, as we’d congregate in Doc’s breezeway, to put on our skate and hit the ice. I remember the teams to be made up of a diverse mix of younger players, as young as eight, or nine, older players in their teens, as well as a handful of parents. It wasn’t uncommon for one of the dads, to get a little too aggressive and knock one of the younger players on their backside with an errant elbow. True to the nature of our games, that same dad might find himself the object of a cross-check from behind, or a well-placed hip check courtesy of one of the youngsters.

The current professional sports landscape tends to make me cynical and more likely to avoid the hype and hoopla altogether. On the other hand, NBC’s coverage and the drama of a sporting event that was a nod to the past and some of the best things about the sport might make me come back and watch NBC’s weekly, nationally-televised games during January.

[Postscript-Sydney Crosby, the young man with the weight of the NHL on his young shoulders, scored a shootout goal, shoveling the puck past Sabres goalie, Ryan Miller, with snow swirling, to lift his Pittsburgh Penguins past hometown Buffalo, 2-1. Here's a good article capturing the spectacle that was the Ice Bowl, in Buffalo, from Bucky Gleason, of the Buffalo News. --JB]

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