Sunday, December 04, 2005

game seven - it's why we watch sports!!!

[For the time being, Sundays will be reserved for sports posts here at A Bit O' Pampering. To show how happy I am to see the NHL back in action after a year of strikes and lock-outs, I've chosen republish this piece I did for a writing course a year ago.]

Zednik gets stuck in against the old enemy

I was browsing through the TV guide before going to bed one evening when something caught my eye.

Live from Boston Garden at midnight, an ice hockey game between the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens. Normally my decision to set the VCR would be motivated by the fact that I fork out an extra fifteen euro a month to the cable company for the North American Sports Network (NASN) channel, but this time I didn’t need financial persuasion. This wasn’t just to be any old game of ice hockey. This was entertainment guaranteed. This was a Stanley Cup Playoff Game Seven.

Although Ice Hockey comes a poor fourth in American sports culture behind the traditional favourites of baseball, “gridiron” football and basketball, it is the easiest sport for European fans to comprehend owing to its many similarities to soccer. Yet having seen many games in all codes, I have to say that it is by far the most consistently entertaining. What’s not to like – although there isn’t a lot of scoring, anyone can score at anytime. In baseball, only the batting team can score; football, it is generally the team on “offence” and in basketball there’s scores going in all over the place. It is only the proliferation of foreigners especially from north of the border in Canada that makes the American public at large relatively indifferent to the National Hockey League (NHL).

Despite the fact that there is a Hockey World Cup played between nations, anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of the sport will tell you its premier tournament is the Stanley Cup. The 30 NHL teams play a gruelling 84-game schedule which proceeds to weed them down to the best 16, who then play a knockout format to earn the right to lift the enormous trophy. HOWEVER – to get past a team in the playoffs you must first win four games against them. Not easy! The NHL is structured like most American Sports – there is no League Cup, FA Cup or UEFA Cup. There is only one prize. This prize is the Stanley Cup. Once you are eliminated, your season is over, and it’s time to break out the golf clubs. With this in mind it is surely not difficult for a European sports fan to grasp the tension and excitement of a deciding seventh game when two teams have already skated through 6 hard-hitting battles and are locked at 3 wins each.

As if the stage was not set enough by all of this, the Bruins/Canadiens match-up has a long history of rivalry to add spice to the occasion. When the NHL was first formed in 1927, there were but six teams, of which these were two. Throw in the facts that Montreal is in the fervent French speaking separatist region of Quebec and Boston is arguably the center of American patriotism and you have yourself an enmity which is right up there with any Real Madrid/Barcelona or Rangers/Celtic clash.

So allow me to recap. Two bitter rivals, coming off a long hard season, play a winner-take-all game in a sport where anyone can score at anytime, with the victors living to fight another day and the vanquished hanging up their skates until the following season. Are you getting the excitement? As in any sport it adds to your enjoyment if you throw your weight behind one of the teams. Considering I lived in Boston for a year AND had a couple of bad experiences with some grumpy Quebecois on a visit to Montreal, I guess my good guy/bad guy lines pretty much drew themselves!!! With that I donned my Boston cap the following evening and settled into my comfortable armchair to feast on this surefire sporting banquet.

Although there had been no goals, the first 54 of the 60 minutes of the hockey game were anything but boring. Tempers were high both on the ice and in the crowd, with the tougher players dropping their sticks and punching lumps out of each other at the slightest provocation, and home fans at rink side banging their fists furiously off the surrounding perspex at every Canadien transgression. As each second ticked by the consequences of the opening goal became more and more critical. No spectators were complaining, pinned as they were to the edge of their seats. As I had recorded the game the night before, I even had the luxury of fast forwarding through the numerous ad breaks!

Then out of the blue it came. A Canadien player brought the puck behind the Boston net, took an apprehensive shot, after which it took an awkward rebound off a combination of the goaltender’s skate and the goalpost, leaving it sitting invitingly in front of the goal. It was pounced on by gleeful Montreal forward Richard Zetnik who flicked it into the top corner with comparative ease.

All that was left was a frantic six minutes as the Bruins tried to salvage their season to no avail; the Quebecois goalie Jose Theodore had an inspired night, stopping all 32 shots fired his way, and even when Boston took their own goalie off the ice in the dying seconds to give themselves an extra attacker, it was fruitless as Zetnik helped himself to a second into the empty net with 8 seconds left.

Those remaining few seconds were of course an anti-climax, but by no means did they take from what had been an incredibly intense contest. The Canadiens went on to fight another day with their 2-0 victory (I was to receive some consolation as they were to lose to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay in the next round), while the Bruins players packed their bags and rued the loss of bragging rights to their bitter rivals.

Game Seven is an event rarely matched in any other discipline, and is a phenomenon that fully deserves its place in popular sports culture.

This is why we watch sports.

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