Why Hockey is the Greatest Sport

In this Feb. 5, 2018, photo, Boston University forward Jordan Greenway sits on the boards as he waits for his line change against Harvard during the first period of the first round of the Beanpot hockey tournament in Boston, Monday, Feb. 5, 2018. The Boston University forward was preparing for his junior year last summer when he heard that USA Hockey might be calling on collegians and minor-league pros to fill out its Olympic roster. It was only after NHL players were officially ruled out and Greenway made the team that a reporter told him he would be the first African-American man on the U.S. Olympic team. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

National Hockey League training camps open this week.  Thus begins another season of the greatest sport on earth. I know that soccer is supposedly the most watched and played sport in the world and that baseball is America’s past time, and that many are glued to their seats, beer in hand, on Sunday watching football.  But, hockey is better than them all combined.

First, consider what they play for- a rather ugly trophy merely to get their name on it.  It is certainly not for the money. In the most recent Stanley Cup playoffs, the winning Washington Capitals got to split $3.75 million among 25 players.  Of course, some of that money also went to trainers and equipment managers and out of the pockets of the players. Compare that with the winning team of the World Series.  The year the Chicago Cubs won, they split $27.6 million while the runner-up got $18.4 million. Imagine that: the loser in the World Series got six times the amount won by the NHL champion.

Ice hockey is considerably more exciting than baseball, basketball or football.  And it is light years ahead in excitement than soccer. I’m sure there are some readers who enjoy watching their kids run up and down a field all day not to score a goal.  A few years back, some American goalie in soccer set a record for saves at something like 14 for the game. Fourteen shots against in hockey where a small piece of rubber moves considerably faster than a kicked soccer ball is considered a night off for a hockey goalie.  Considering the net in soccer is large enough to drive a Soviet-era Russian tank through it, you would think the games would be higher scoring.  Soccer players are known for faking injury every time they fall holding their knee or shin.  Fake a penalty in hockey and YOU get a penalty!  A 1-0 game in soccer is boring; in hockey, it is exciting.

That is because there is always action in hockey, although there are certainly breaks in the action for television time outs and when confused referees have to review something.  But, when you put ten people skating around on a confined ice surface, you are bound to have action. Sometimes that action involves controlled mayhem.

Perhaps the most ridiculous looking thing in football is a fight between players who swing at each other’s heads with bare hands hitting a face mask or hard helmet.  Baseball bench-clearing brawls are simply a mass of humans tussling until order is restored. In hockey, the referees let the two combatants go at it, tire themselves out, then send them to the penalty box for five minutes.  After tempers cool down, the combatants are usually the best of friends, shake hands and go their own way.

Another thing that makes hockey a great sport is what I call their healing factor.  Injuries are a part of any sport and hockey players are not immune. But consider a pitcher in baseball who has developed a blister on his finger.  That is likely to keep him out of action for up to two weeks. In hockey, a player gets hit in the face with a puck opening up a cut that requires stitches.  He reports to the locker room, gets stitched up and returns to the game.  Toothless smiles are a badge of honor in the NHL.

A few years ago, Steve Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning suffered an ugly injury and compound fracture of his leg when he went awkwardly into the net.  That occurred in November of the year, I believe. Most pundits said his career was over, that he would never recover or be the same if he did. He not only recovered, but returned to the line up that following April in the playoffs.  Maybe the NHL has better hyperbaric chambers, but that injury to a football player would have ended their career for at least two years.

The difference between hockey and the other major sports is that the players play the game for the love of the game rather than the recognition or the money.  The highest paid pitcher in baseball is Clayton Kershaw who gets $33 million to throw a baseball every five days assuming no injury. Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, assuming he hits all his performance bonus levels, makes a maximum of $16 million- or less than half of Kershaw’s salary- to play 82 physically-demanding games a year.

You may see a fight in hockey, or the unfortunate site of a laid out player after a good hit, or even some blood from a stray puck, stick or skate.  The one thing you will not see in hockey is players taking a knee or sitting during the National Anthem of either the US or Canada. It is not that NHL players are more “patriotic” than their counterparts in the NFL or NBA, or even baseball.  Nor is it because the NHL is overwhelmingly white. It is that they are more appreciative of their lot in life.

After the Capitals won the Stanley Cup, they were invited to the White House by President Trump.  Only one member- Devante Smith-Pelley who happens to be black- said they would not attend. Defenseman Brooks Orpik, an American, said it best:

We all have our opinions on it; it’s a very sensitive issue.  It’s just kind of the way things are going these days. If you don’t have the same belief as somebody else then automatically they think you’re wrong and they take it personally, which politics isn’t supposed to be that way. You’re allowed to have disagreement, but my opinion is that you’re supposed to respect the other person’s decision.

Count more maturity among the cast of players in hockey than in any other sport.