Tuesday, January 24, 2006

........and you wonder why?

Why Follow Gopher Hockey?
- Jon Marthaler

Why follow Gopher hockey? I think that question can be decomposed into three questions: Why hockey? Why college hockey? Why Gopher hockey?

You ask me why I love hockey. The Sporting News columnist Dave Kindred once said about hockey, "It's like basketball, only with a thousand turnovers." And five baskets per game, presumably. But hockey is much more than Kindred's description, which makes hockey sound like a ten-year-old girls' basketball game; it is odd-man rushes and penalty shots and power plays, rink-wide passes and wraparound tries, and tens of thousands of fans standing in unison as if pulled upward by the invisible hand of adrenaline. The NHL bills itself as "The Fastest Game in Town," but it's more than that-- it's a game that's both the fastest, and the slowest, in the world. It's a game where it takes the blink of an eye for three passes to make it the length of the ice, followed by an eternity as the goaltender slides from one post to the other and the wing tries to one-time the pass into the top shelf of a half-empty net.

English author Nick Hornby wrote a book called "Fever Pitch," an autobiographical tome based on half a lifetime's worth of experience in his travails following the Arsenal soccer club. Watching his club score a late goal in the last game of the season to win the league title, he wrote, "So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad or barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium."

Hornby may have been writing about soccer, a game that does not tickle the fancies of most American sports fans; but all hockey fans know just exactly what he's talking about. When your team's winger beats the goaltender top-shelf... When a two-on-one rush produces a goal like no other goal you’ve ever seen... When your favorite player slides one five-hole in overtime to win the biggest game of the season.... that's delirium, that's maybe the best feeling legally producible in real life. Day-to-day life produces none of this. Hockey does.

You ask me why I love college hockey. It’s a question that’s been asked for many years by professional leagues, owners, players, and the decision-makers associated with the professional game: why, when given the chances to see the best athletes on earth compete at the highest possible level, do so many otherwise rational people choose to watch their local college team instead? (And why do so many of those otherwise rational people act so rabidly about that college game?) I believe the answer lies in the dynamic between institution and team and fans. We know, as sports fans, that what we are getting when we attend a professional game amounts, most basically, to a voyeuristic experience. We go, we watch, we cheer, we scream-- but at the end of the day, we have no real connection to our team. Even if we were at the game, banging on the glass or on the seat in front of us, exhorting our favorite team’s players on to greater heights, what we are doing still amounts to cheering at people in a bubble. When we leave the arena, we may feel a sense of pride in our team, but our only real belonging to that team is from the $75 we gave their organization for the privilege of sitting outside that bubble. College offers a different experience entirely. When we leave that arena, we feel not only a sense of pride in our team--we feel a sense of pride in ourselves. It may come from our affiliation with the collegiate institution, whether as a student or alumnus or longtime follower; it may come from our participation at the games, chanting the same things that have been chanted in the same situations for maybe a thousand years. What University of Minnesota fan never chanted, "Let’s go Go-phers!" accented in the same places and on the same notes? What University of Michigan fan never chanted, "Let’s Go Blue!"? Professional sports take place in the bubble, and try as you might, you never can quite grasp the feeling, and you never can quite touch the action. In collegiate sports, you’ve not only broken through the bubble; you’ve reached out and grasped the action, felt it build up inside your soul, and the action has reached right back, grasped you and pulled you in.

You ask me why I love Gopher hockey. I ask you if there was any other choice. Maybe if I had grown up in Detroit or Boston or Orono, Maine; then maybe I would not be a Gopher fan today. But I grew up in Minnesota, and despite what North Dakota or Duluth or Mankato fans would have you believe, there really was no other option than to become a Gopher fan. North Dakota may be a successful hockey program. Duluth may have its rabid fans. Mankato may be very important to people who hail from that city. But Gopher hockey is so much more than that, has meant so much more than that to me. It’s watching the first two periods of the game on MSC, then straining to pick up the third period on your alarm-clock radio after your parents have sent you to bed. It’s attending games in the new Mariucci Arena while wishing that you could have attended a game in the old Mariucci Arena, wishing that you had memories of the old arena when it was still Williams Arena Ice Rink. It’s John Mariucci, and John Mayasich, and the photos of teams going back too many years for anyone to have seen them all. It’s Herb Brooks, prowling the bench, leading three teams to titles. It’s Doug Woog, leading the team first as a player and then as a coach, leading them to a period of sustained greatness the likes of which today’s program can maybe only dream about. It’s Randy Skarda, hitting the post in overtime, and just how the heck did that weak backhander beat Stauber? It’s Neal Broten and the Hobey, Robb Stauber and the Hobey, Brian Bonin, and yes, Jordan Leopold with the Hobey. It’s the murals, where Leopold skates next to Crowley and Stauber makes a save on Woog. It’s the fact that nobody’s going to be wearing number 8 in maroon and gold on the ice anytime soon. It’s Broten chipping one over Iwabucci, Potulny sliding one under Yeats, it’s all the trophies in the concourse, so many that nobody knows exactly what they’re all there for anymore. It’s five gold banners, hanging over the east goal, spanning sixty-three years of Gopher champions.

But maybe most importantly, it’s the five-year-olds I see at the rink on Saturday mornings, when no one’s in the building except me and them, and all they know me as is as the kid who’s driving the Zamboni. They play their games, have their practices, and I see them warming up, skating the length of the ice (taking far too long) and faking this way and sliding one in and, hey, just maybe, if they were a little bigger, they would have looked just like Tyler Hirsch beating Wade Dubielewicz. And then maybe they make their first visit to the rink later that night, getting their first close-up look at the arena. Wow, Dad, how many guys are on that wall? Why are they up there? Dad, who’s going to be up there next? Hey, Grandpa, how many of these guys did you see play? How many banners are there up in the rafters, anyway? There sure are a lot. Why do all those kids say the same things after the other guys get a penalty, why do they all point at the goalie and yell? What are they saying? What do you mean you can’t tell me? Hey, Dad, we scored! What did everyone just say after the band stopped playing?

And then maybe Dad leans over to his son, as my father did to me, and maybe he wants to tell him about all the goals he’s seen, all the great players he’s watched, all of the championships he’s watched when he saw his team play this game, and what a game it is. Maybe he wants to teach him the words to the Rouser and the Minnesota March, and tell him just exactly how his dad reacted when Grant Potulny picked up Jordan Leopold’s shot after it deflected off Johnny Pohl, how Grant picked it up and slipped it under Matt Yeats and the whole state of Minnesota went berserk. But he doesn’t have time for all that. He knows that his son will pick that up in time, that soon, for his son, the game and the team will be the son’s and not just the father’s. Instead, he just sums all of it up in one sentence, with one word.

Instead, he just leans over and teaches him how to spell M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A.

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