My Life and Hockey

One Sport, Eleven Years of Memories
March 30, 2011
My Life and Hockey

One Sport, Eleven Years of Memories

My love affair with the sport of hockey has always been a fairly peculiar one, starting with the fact that I grew up in a part of the United States where snow was about as frequent as the Sunday mail. Up until I was 12, the CLOSEST NHL team played 400 miles away, and the terms backhander and empty-netter were practically foreign terms to just about everyone I knew.

For me, being a hockey fan made me different, and without question, it was odd and then some to feel OSTRACIZED for liking a sport. Yeah, think about THAT statement for a minute.

Over the years, however, I simply cannot downplay the importance of hockey in my life. To this day, it is my favorite sport, and some of my most cherished moments of childhood involve kicking back in front of the TV, either watching Stanley Cup Playoff games or playing one of the million-billion awesome hockey games that have come out over the years. In a lot of ways, my youth is so enmeshed and wrapped around the NHL that it s sort of hard to think about my life without thinking about the influence of the sport on me - the funerals, the break-ups, the new jobs, the graduations: somehow, whenever I think about them, I cannot help but think of what was going on in the National Hockey League contemporaneously. No matter what I went through in life, the NHL was always there for me. . .well, except for the 2004-2005 season, but we won t waste our time on that.

The two month rite of passage known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs may very well be my favorite annual tradition. Forget Thanksgiving, forget Christmas, forget the Super Bowl - watching 16 teams dwindle to just two in pursuit of Lord Stanley is something I look forward to with wide eyes every single year. In fact, whenever I think of spring, a good quarter of the calendar year, the first thing I think about is the NHL playoffs - that should give you a pretty good indication of just how much I enjoy the sport, no?

So many memories. So many epic games, so many epic moments, so many inerasable, ineffaceable goals, saves and checks. . .not to mention all of the brawls! If you were a fan of professional hockey in the mid 90s, you got MORE than you wanted as a fan. I mean that literally, as I would sometime stay up until one in the morning catching triple overtime games on ESPN2, knowing full well I had the ITBS tests the next morning. This is a trait that carried on into high school, and college, and my adult life. . .if it looks like I am going to pass out on my work desk, it s not because I am sick: it s because the Kings and Canucks game went to 2:30 the night before.

Hockey is an inescapable aspect of my culture. I really don t think you can talk about who I am as a person without talking about the NHL, and my love of the sport has crossed over into a number of other forms of media. Video games, movies, hell, even some of the bands I love - all because they are hockey related.

I am not really sure when my first exposure to hockey was, but I do remember coming into contact with the sport though a number of indirect means. For starters, the goalie mask was a pretty omnipresent image for my generation - it being the trademark of Jason Voorhees, Casey Jones, and that dude from Splatterhouse and all. That, and I had played a couple of hockey games on the NES - some good ones (Blades of Steel and Ice Hockey), and some bad ones (pretty much everything else). Ultimately, you had to know only one thing about hockey, and that was that Wayne Gretzky played it. . .and everything I knew about him was culled from one place. . .

PRO STARS. Yes, the Family Channel cartoon about The Great One, Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan fighting crime and investigating missing child cases. Granted, it was not my favorite show as a kid, but it had its moments. Plus, it had some sheer WTF value tacked on to it that made it mesmerizing in the same way a train wreck is. Truthfully, I would love to see a modern day update, perhaps with Kobe, Big Ben, and Zdeno Chara playing counter-terror specialists. . .well, that, and breaking Michael Vick out of jail, of course.

As far as Wayne s role on the show, I do not remember much. I know he used a lot of hockey-themed gadgets, but beyond that, the only thing I remember him doing on the show was eating a lot of food. The first time I saw Wayne Gretzky play hockey in real life, I half expected him to weight about 400 pounds.

As far as the proper catalyst for my love of hockey, I think it began in 1993, after I received a copy of NHLPA Hockey 93 on the Sega Genesis. At the time, I literally knew nothing about the NHL, but the game quickly became my favorite title on the console, and I was soon interested in catching the sport for real.

If I had not played that game (or more directly, if my mom had not picked out that game for me), I really doubt I would have gotten into the sport at all. At first, I was kind of pissed that she got it (I think I wanted Toejam and Earl instead), but I soon became flat out ADDICTED to the title. NHLPA Hockey 93 was a game that I LITERALLY played to death, as I ended up burning out a cartridge during an all night season run one July evening. To say that the game impacted my life would be a most severe understatement - seeing as how I STILL find myself humming that kick ass opening tune while in traffic, I think it goes without ANY sort of saying on my part.

NHLPA Hockey 93 was like Othello, or Chess. It was this game that was INFINITELY replayable, and no matter how good you got at it, you never really felt as if you had mastered it. Every game, EVERY SINGLE GAME, played out differently, and if you were not wholeheartedly dedicated to the title, you would find yourself beaten like a dirty rug in no time. I played NHLPA Hockey 93 as soon as I got home from school, before I went to bed, when I woke up in the morning. . .hell, I used to play the thing all Saturday morning long. If there were any great cartoons on TV back then, please let me know, because I missed pretty much all of them thanks to that game.

The odd thing about the title was that while it featured actual NHL players, it did not feature any actual NHL teams. As such, I decided to play as the Los Angeles team, for two very simplistic reasons. One, the colors of the team were the same as the Los Angeles Raiders (my favorite NFL team), and of course, the fact that WAYNE GRETZKY played for them. Surprisingly, Wayne was not some overpowered super human player a la Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl. In fact, his ratings were relatively low, considering the guy was far and away the biggest draw in the League at the timeframe.

My first experience with the NHL occurred in the spring of 1993. That was the first year I noticed adequate coverage of the sport on ESPN, and I made it my damnedest effort to catch as many playoff games as I could. . .all the while, rooting for Wayne Gretzky and my beloved Los Angeles Kings, of course.

If there was ever a time to hop on the hockey bandwagon, that was it. I really do not think I could have picked a better time to start watching the sport, and that first postseason was unquestionably what turned me into a full time hockey fanatic for life.

For everyone that thinks hockey is a low-scoring, defensive struggle, you really ought to have seen the opening round of play between Los Angeles and Calgary. In the insanely high scoring six game series, the Kings outscored the Flames 33 to 28. L.A. ended up scoring nine points a piece in games five and six, sending the favored Calgary team back to the wintry wasteland of Alberta until next season.

The Smythe Division finals (boy, does that make me sound old or what?) featured one of the greatest comebacks ever in the history of playoff hockey. After getting drubbed 7-2 in game four by the Vancouver Canucks (back when they were rocking those black, yellow and red jerseys), Kings forward Gary Shuchuk got wrecked in the third period, only to emerge from the locker-room and score the game winning goal in double overtime. The Kings easily won game six 5-3, and saw themselves ONE series away from playing for the Stanley Cup.

The Campbell Conference finals series between Los Angeles and Toronto was the point of no return for me. After watching this unbelievably awesome war unfurl for seven games, I knew I was going to be a hockey follower for the rest of my days. To begin, the first game featured one of the most chaotic and violent scenes in sport history, as the Kings Marty McSorley absolutely FLAT LINED the Leafs star player Doug Gilmour on an open-ice hit. This lead to Toronto captain Wendel Clark charging at McSorley, which resulted in a fracas that involved Maple Leafs coach Pat Burns trying to jump out of the players box to fist fight L.A's coach, Barry Melrose. Anyway. . .this was the FIRST game of the series, and it got progressively MORE awesome from there, if you can believe it.

Game 6 was probably the closest I've come to having cardiac arrest in my life. In a do-or-die game, the Kings went into overtime with a deadlocked score of 4-4. In a call that will be contested until the end of all time (especially in Toronto), Wayne Gretzky practically ripped David Gilmour s chin off his face, and the refs did not call a high sticking penalty. Moments later, Gretzky scored the O.T. game winner, sending the ultra-violent and ultra-awesome series to a decisive game seven.

In that game seven, Wayne Gretzky played like the skate-wearing Superman the media had wanted us to believe he was. The Great One scored a hat trick in a game in which the Kings defeated the Maple Leafs 5-4, thus sending the Kings to their first ever Stanley Cup Finals appearance.

The wonderful (and soul crushing) thing about hockey is that it consists of so many ups and downs. One day could be the greatest day of your life as a fan, and the very next night, you want to slit your wrists and suck on exhaust fumes. This wondrous (and often painful) duality was presented to me during the Stanley Cup finals of 1993. After the Kings brutalized the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 in game one (a game in which the severely underrated Luc Robitaille amassed two power play goals), things took a DEVESTATING turn for the worse around the third period of game two.

Canadiens coach Jacques Demers called for a measurement of Marty McSorley's stick, and the Kings defensemen was given a two minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. After pulling Patrick Roy from goal, Eric Desjardin scored the game tying goal with just moments to go on a 6-4 advantage for the Habs. Just 51 seconds into overtime, Desjardin scored his third goal of the game to tie the series 1-1.

Game three was another heartbreaker. Gretzky, Luc and Tony Granato all scored third period goals to tie the game 3-3. After Habs captain Guy Carbonneau WAS NOT called for illegally scooping up the puck (which would have led to a penalty shot for the Kings), John LeClair scored a goal just 30 seconds in OT to give Montreal a 2-1 series lead. LeClair would go on to score the O.T. game winner in game 4, giving the Habs a 3-1 series lead. The Canadiens went on to win game five of the series, thus winning the Stanley Cup four games to one.

Needless to say, I was crushed. It was a long summer indeed, but hope (as well as a lifelong hatred of Patrick Roy) arose during those super-long bouts of Genesis gaming. By the time the 1993-1994 season began, I was pumped and then some.

There were a lot of changes in the 94 season. For starters, there were a couple of new teams, a team relocation, and the divisions had been slightly adjusted. Also, The sport became more defense oriented, as the Devils Marty Brodeur and Sabres Dominik Hasek became emblematic of a new style of defensive goalkeeping.

Although Wayne Gretzky had the most points of any player that season, the Los Angeles Kings failed to make the post-season. I went into the 1994 playoffs without a proverbial horse in the race, and while at first I thought I was not in store for anything worthwhile, I soon found myself in the midst of one of the most historic sports stories of the decade.

The Detroit Red Wings had the best record in the Western conference, but they were eliminated in seven games by the underdog San Jose Sharks. The Vancouver Canucks defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games to punch their tickets to the Stanley Cup Finals, but on the other side of the bracket, things were shaping up to be just a tad more interesting.

If you want to talk about a series that will turn you into a hockey fan, there are very few back-and-forth wars as mesmerizing as the Eastern conference finals from 1994. If the Kings/Maple Leafs series from a year prior made me a lifelong follower, than the seven game series between the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils in ‘94 basically fused the sport into my backbone.

The Rangers were the number one seed in the Eastern conference, and the New Jersey Devils were limping into the series, largely due to a grueling opening round battle against the Sabres that included a game that went to quadruple overtime.

From the very first game of the series, I knew I was in for something truly unforgettable. Claude Lemieux (one of the sport s premier goons) scored on Mark Richter with just a minute left in the third period. The Devils ended up taking the first game, after Stephane Richer scored a beautiful breakaway goal in the double O.T.

The Rangers shut out the Devils 4-0 in game two, and game three served as another 2O.T. thriller, with Stephane Matteau making a spectacular goal to give New York a 2-1 series advantage.

The Devils, however, battled back, and won games 4 and 5 decisively. With a 3-2 series lead, Rangers captain Mark Messier made his infamous guarantee that the Rangers would win game six. And sure enough, N.Y. defeated the Devils on their home ice, in a game in which Messier himself scored a hat trick.

Game seven will go down in history as one of the most exciting moments in New York sports history. With just seven seconds to go in regulation, Valeri Zelepukin tied the game, sending the back-and-forth series into overtime yet again. Stephane Matteau insured free meals in New York City for the rest of his life when he wrapped up the series with a wrap-around goal on Marty Brodeur in Double OT, sending the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in decades.

The 1994 Stanley Cup Finals saw the NY Rangers taking on the Vancouver Canucks. In many ways, the series was more or less the Canucks taking on the Edmonton Oilers, as seven starters for the Rangers played on the 1990 Oilers squad.

The Canucks won game one of the series, in a heart-stopping overtime game (which, yet again, saw a tying goal within a minute of regulation time expiring). The Rangers, however, went on to win the next three games of the series, giving NY a 3-1 series advantage. Far from being down and out, the Canucks rallied to win games 5 and 6, sending the championship series to a decisive game seven.

In the final game of the series, the Rangers jumped out a 2-0 lead, with Mark Messier scoring the game winning third goal in a very, very tightly contested 3-2 victory for the Rangers. The Curse of 1940 had been exorcised, and the image of Mark Messier celebrating with Lord Stanley has become an iconic visual for all hockey fans across the globe. . .with the possible exception of some pissed off Canucks and Devils fans, of course.

In the long four months between seasons, I finally got around to playing NHL 94. Although I did not own a copy of the game until 1996 (and even then, it was on the Sega CD, of all things), I was absolutely HOOKED on the title, renting it at least three or four times over the course of the summer. To this day, I consider it to be the best hockey game ever made, and all things quantified, my favorite video game EVER. As much as I loved it, however, I ended up picking up a replacement copy of NHLPA Hockey 93 over a new copy of NHL 94 - primarily because the former only cost 20 bucks, compared to the 50 dollar asking price for the later iteration. Needless to say, if you consider yourself a hockey fan - or hell, even a fan of video games - if you do not love and adore this game, you simply are not a true fan of either forms of media.

My cable provider annexed ESPN 2 to our line up in 1994, and I was BEYOND ecstatic. For the first time ever, I could watch hockey pretty much every day of the week, and the first time I heard the legendary Fire on Ice theme, I almost wept. It was going to be a LONG wait for the 1995 season. . .a REALLY long wait, as fate would have it.

You really cannot talk about hockey in the 1990s without talking about the first two Mighty Ducks movies. Although I was never a huge fan of the series, I relatively enjoyed both films in the fledgling series, even if I did think the second movie took it WAY too far with the cartoon nonsense (really. . .a penalty for ROPING?)

Yeah, the movies were cheesy, and almost insultingly ludicrous: the flying V, the knuckle puck, sinister hockey wunderkinds from Greenland. . .the list goes on and on, really. Still, the movies served as an introduction to the sport for thousands (millions, maybe?) of kids, so it has its place in the annals of hockey lore. That, and come on, how could anybody hate Goldberg?

Thanks to a prolonged work stoppage, the 1995 NHL season did not begin until January. The regular season consisted of only about 50 games, and the playoffs went into late June. The big news (outside of the lockout, of course) was that the NHL was now carried by FOX, which led to the infamous colored puck snafu that still elicits groans and groveling from longtime fans. For those of you that missed it, the FOX powers that were decided that the puck was too hard to see on TV, so they electronically highlighted the puck via the magic of Kyron lighting. . .which means, ostensibly, that players on TV looked like they were chasing a glowing orange orb across the ice for an hour.

The 1995 season concluded with the New Jersey Devils sweeping the Detroit Red Wings four games to zero. The 1995 season was really the end of an era, as it represented a shift in defensive philosophy: for the next ten years, the sport would be dominated not by offensive juggernauts, but by highly organized and technically efficient defensive ones.

Any talk about hockey in the 1990s HAS to include a section on NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. I think it goes without saying that Bettman is one of the most hated figures in all of sports, and for good reason. Bettman s plans for the NEW NHL included mass franchise relocation, which meant moving moderately successful franchises out of long term markets like Hartford, Winnipeg and Quebec and moving them to non-traditional hockey markets like Raleigh, North Carolina, and Phoenix, Arizona. Even DURING the 95 finals, Bettman was highly vocal about his plans for moving the Devils (the league champions, for crying aloud!) to Nashville, Tennessee, a plan which never came to fruition. . .although sunbelt expansion continued to play a pivotal role in Bettman s vision of the National Hockey League.

1996 was a pivotal year for both the NHL and my fandom of the sport. The year begin with the absolute unthinkable happening, as Wayne Gretzky left the Kings to go play for the St. Louis Blues. As my favorite team continued to decline into major sucktitude, my love for The Great One soon transitioned into outright ire and umber. After getting word of the trade, I sort of realized how Oilers fans must have felt when he was traded to Los Angeles in 1988. Despite the irony of the moment, I retaliating the way any rational fifth grader would: by taking my cherished Wayne Gretzky action figure out of its box, tying about twelve firecrackers to it, and turning number 99 into a silver and black bottle rocket.

Going into the 96 playoffs, all I wanted to see was Gretzky fail, and sure enough, he got his come-uppance in arguably the greatest series of hockey EVER played.

The Detroit Red Wings went into the playoffs with the second highest point total in NHL history, and their clash with the Blues in the second round of the Western Conference Finals is the stuff of legend. The series was a back and forth, heart-stopping affair from game one to game six, and the seventh game of the series may very be the single greatest game of hockey I have ever witnessed.

So many legendary players in one amazing tug of war. St. Louis had Gretzky, Brett Hull, Chris Pronger, Tony Twist and Al MacInnis (all bedecked in those horribly gaudy blue and red uniforms) and the Wings had Steve Yzerman, Kris Draper, Darren McCarty, Igor Larinov and Sergei Federov. You could tell from the first game of the series that we were due for an all time classic.

Game one was a close affair, with pucks rattling off the crossbars galore. Chris Osgood made a number of key saves, as the Wings held on to a tight 3-2 lead to secure the first game of the series.

The Wings absolutely dominated game 2, winning 8-3. Detroit scored three goals in the first ten minutes of the game, and at one point, the Wings Vladmir Konstantinov sent Shayne Corson flying through the rink side Plexiglas.

The Blues won an overtime thriller 5-4 in game three, and tied the series with a 1-0 win in game four. The Blues took the series lead with a 3-2 victory in game five, thus putting the Red Wings in a do-or-die position for game six.

The Wings rebounded in game six, winning a thrilling 4-2 game to send the series to a decisive game seven. . .a game which would contain one of the single most memorable moments in the sports history.

In a scoreless game (a defensive masterpiece, really), Steve Yzerman rattled off the sickest slap shot in the history of the sport in double OT to send the Wings to the Western Conference Finals, and by proxy, to send Wayne Gretzky and the Blues packing. At that point in time, I became an instantaneous supporter of the Detroit Red Wings, and the team remained my favorite in the league up until recently.
The 1996 Western Conference finals will go down in history as one of the most violent series ever played in the annals of the sport. The series was a highly physical one from the get-go, with highlights including Paul Coffey scoring on his own team in game one and Konstantinov wiping out Claude Lemieux in game five.

Going into game six, the Colorado Avalanche (formerly the Quebec Nordiques) led the series 3-2. Early in the game, Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux blindsided Kris Draper face first into the boards, basically shattering his face in the process, putting one of Detroit's best players on the sideline for well over a year. The Avs went on to win the game 4-1, punching their ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals, and jumpstarting the beyond-awesome Red Wings / Avalanche feud that came to define the league for the better part of the decade.

The Avs easily dispatched the Cinderella Florida Panthers 4-0 in the Stanley Cup Finals. The only really memorable thing about the Panthers run was the infamous rat trick celebration, in which Florida fans would throw thousands of plastic rats on the ice after the team scored - a gimmick that was inspired by Scott Mellanby slaying a rodent with a slap shot in the locker room prior to a regular season game. Watching Patrick Roy celebrate another cup win instantly reminded me of the heartbreaking 1993 finals. . .a scene which aroused even MORE hatred in my heart for the goalie, and the Colorado Avalanche by extension.

Although I have ever been a huge fan of arcade-style hockey games, two games of the sort did catch my attention in early 1997. The first was a game called 2 On 2 Open Ice Challenge, which was something of a NBA Jam and NFL Blitz style coin-op title. I do not think the game had official team licenses, but it definitely had a number of contemporary NHL players in it. As far as game play went, it was pretty straightforward, and insanely offense-oriented, as just about every single game you played ended with scores like 30 to 28. That, and it featured some really out there visuals, like footage of a guy eating hot dogs that was inter-spliced with player information. I am almost one hundred percent sure the game was eventually ported to the Playstation, but I never saw that one on store shelves, let alone got a chance to play the home version of the game.

The second title, and a much more popular offering, was Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey on the Nintendo 64. Although I never owned an N64, this was a game that pretty much all of my friends that did own one had in their libraries, and a game that I was always up for. Despite the clunky graphics, it actually is somewhat amazing just how well the game play in this one stands up to this day - - pending you can forgive the cheesiness of the flaming goaltender animation, of course.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the 1997 NHL season occurred just a few weeks before the Stanley Cup playoffs began. On March 26, the Detroit Red Wings exacted their revenge on the Colorado Avalanche in perhaps the single bloodiest night of hockey in the history of the sport. The game featured NINE fights, and was highlighted by an all out donnybrook in the dying moments of the first period, giving us perhaps the closest demonstration of what a Mutant League Hockey game would look like in real life.

At about the eighteen minute mark, Igor Larionov and Peter Forsberg tangled up, which led to Darren McCarty blindsiding Claude Lemieux. Avs goaltender Patrick Roy attempted to rescue Lemieux (who was beaten into a bloody pulp by McCarty), only to get flying tackled by Brendan Shannahan. Shannhan ended up scrapping with Adam Foote, as Patrick Roy was challenged by Red Wings goalie Mike Vernon, resulting in a beyond awesome display of goalkeeper on goalkeeper violence. Several more fights transpired throughout the evening, and the zamboni machine left streaks of blood all over the ice. Ironically, it was the instigator of the brawl, Darren McCarty, who ended up winning the game for the Wings, as he scored an overtime goal to give Detroit the game 6-5.

The Red Wings and Avalanche would meet once again, this time in the Western conference finals of the playoffs. Detroit avenged their playoff elimination from a year prior and defeated their arch-nemesis 4 games to two. The Wings ended up sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers 4 games to zero in the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals, giving the squad its first championship in 42 years.

The celebration in Hockey Town, tragically, was short-lived, as just six days later, Wings defensemen Vladimir Konstantinov was left paralyzed and brain damaged when his limo driver slammed into a tree. Throughout the 1997-1998 season, the Wings would wear a patch on their uniforms with Vladimir's initials on it, as well as the word believe printed in Russian. Without question, the 1998 season was going to be an extremely bittersweet one, albeit one with one of the most unforgettable scenes in sports history.

In 1997, EA released NHL 98, which if you ask me, is perhaps the single greatest hockey title of the 32 - 64 bit era period. Not only was the three dimensional game play the best of its kind, it was one of the first hockey games to truly peg the atmosphere of a living, breathing NHL game, and was a game that I played WELL into the early 2000s. That, and that opening cinematic is just BAD ASS and then some.

The 1998 Stanley Cup playoffs were earmarked by a number of upsets and early exits from the playoffs. In the Eastern Conference, fourth seeded (and ultimate Eastern Conference champ) Washington Capitals were the highest seeded team to escape the first round, and in the Western brackets, the Edmonton Oilers shocked the hockey world by eliminating the Colorado Avalanche 4-3 in the opening round of the playoffs.

The Detroit Red Wings went on to win their second consecutive Stanley Cup Finals in 1998, defeating the Capitals four games to none. Steve Yzerman was named the MVP of the playoffs and given the Conn-Smythe trophy, and in one of the most touching moments in hockey history, Yzerman gave Lord Stanley to Vladimir Konstantinov, who was then wheeled around the ice to celebrate his team s victory.

The 1998-1999 playoff cycle was another one filled with upsets and shockers. Once again, the top three seeds in the East were eliminated in the first round, and the Eastern conference champions ended up being the seventh seeded Buffalo Sabres - who were making their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in almost a quarter century of play in the NHL.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Stars steadily plowed through the field in the Western conference, punching the franchise s first ticket to the finals since being relocated from Minnesota in 1993.

The underdog Sabres won a closely contested game one in overtime, only to have the Stars fire back with two consecutive wins. The Sabres tied the series with a game four victory, but the Stars ended up winning the next two games of the series to take the Stanley Cup to the Lone Star State. However, the end of the series was not without controversy, as many analysts think that Brett Hull s triple overtime game winner in game six should have been disqualified since he had his foot in the crease during a wrap around shot. Regardless, the goal stood, and the 1999 Stars became the first sunbelt team in NHL history to win the league championship.

For a hockey fan in the late 90s and early 2000s, the ESPN 2 program NHL 2Night was absolutely MANDATORY viewing. Some nights, I would stay up until two in the morning to catch the recap program, and I have heard from scores of others that did the exact same. There is not a TRUE hockey fan from the era that does not have fond recollections of hosts John Buccigross (for my money, the greatest hockey journalist that has ever lived) and Barry Melrose s (sporter of the greatest mullet haircut of all time, by the way) playful, witty, and insightful commentary. Some days, I d come home from school and catch the aberrant episode of Cool Shots, which was sort of an MTV style half hour program highlighting the weeks games and events. That, and we cannot discount the contributions of commentators Bill Thorne and Bill Clement, either. . .if you ask me, the two are the single greatest duo EVER for hockey play by play. Then again, I am American, so if any of you Don Cherry loving Canadians take offense to my utterance, feel free to voice a dissenting opinion.

In 1999, my hometown of Atlanta FINALLY got an NHL team (its second, actually), the Thrashers. As any southeastern sports fan will tell you, Atlanta is perhaps the single worst market for professional sports in the US, and the team was about as well received in the region as pigeon droppings. The fact that the team was anchored by long time journeyman Ray Ferraro certainly did not help the fledgling team s reputation that first year - as it would come to pass, the story of the Atlanta Thrashers would come to rival most Shakespearean tragedies.

I spent a great deal of 2000 playing two kick ass hockey games on two different consoles, the first being NHL 2K on the Sega Dreamcast. While EA s hockey series will forever hold a special place in my heart, I think it goes without saying that the 2K series flat out crushed the Electronic Arts franchise in the early 2000s, and NHL 2K was a game that kept me up on many a school night. That, and it did not hurt that Brendan Shannhan, one of my favorite players, was featured on the cover of the title, either.

The second game was actually a Playstation title, and for my money, is perhaps the single most underrated hockey game EVER. If you never got around to playing Rock the Rink (a pre NHL Blitz arcade style game from EA), root around at your local Mom and Pop video store and try to unearth a copy - trust me, it is well worth your time and effort.

One of the really cool things about Rock the Rink was the soundtrack. Every song on the game (outside of the opening cinematic, which was a Hole song) was by the Hanson Brothers. No, not those Hanson Brothers, a kick ass alt-rock band that sings NOTHING but songs about hockey, including such toe tappers as I Fell In Love With the Hot Dog Girl and My Danielle (She Don t Care About Hockey). Actually, there is a pretty large subgenre of bands that are either directly or indirectly influenced by the sport of hockey, including a lot of tremendous alt-punk bands like NOMEANSNO and Slap Shot. . .which is definitely worth a listen if you have never heard them.

Of course, what article about hockey would be complete without a mention of the greatest hockey movie ever made, 1977 s Slap Shot? I saw the movie for the first time in 2000, and I LOVED IT. In fact, the raunchy Paul Newman comedy about an ultra violent AAA hockey squad is not only my favorite film about the sport, but one of my top five favorite movies of all time. Even if you cannot stand hockey (for whatever stupid reason that may be), Slap Shot is a movie that will make you laugh your ass off from start to finish, and remains perhaps the most infinitely quotable movie I've ever seen.

The 2000 Stanley Cup playoffs was highlighted by major upsets (including the eighth seeded San Jose Sharks eliminating the West's first seeded St. Louis Blues in the first round), insanely epic games (including a Philadelphia Pittsburgh game that went to QUINTUPLE Overtime) and two highly competitive conference championship series, both of which went to decisive game sevens. The New Jersey Devils ultimately bested the reigning champions the Dallas Stars four games to two to bring Lord Stanley back to East Rutherford in what I consider to be a fairly underrated championship finale. Jason Arnott s Cup-clinching double OT goal in game six remains one of the most beautiful goals in playoff history, and no one can deny Scotty Stevens much deserved Conn-Smythe award for his brutalizing performances throughout the post-season.

If you are a fan of defensive hockey, then the 2001 playoffs was your absolute dream come true. In the eastern conference, every top-seeded team EXCEPT the Devils were eliminated in the first round, and in one of the biggest shockers in modern hockey history, the seventh seeded Los Angeles Kings eliminated the Detroit Red Wings in the Western quarter finals.

The Conference Semis in 2001 featured three of the absolute best playoff series I have ever seen, all of which required a decisive game seven to determine an advancing team.

In a defensive duel between Marty Brodeur and Curtis Joseph, the Devils rebounded from a 3-2 deficit to eliminate the Maple Leafs 4-2. The hotly contested series was perhaps most remembered for Tie Domi s cheap shot on Scott Niedermeyer, which took the NJ standout out of action for half a month. Domi was suspended for the rest of the playoffs, and a large section of the 2001-2002 regular season for his actions.

The other semi in the east was equally nail biting, as the last three games of the series all required OT play. The resurgent Pittsburgh Penguins, led by Jaromir Jagr and a returning Mario Lemieux, battled the Sabres to a 4-3 series victory, which concluded with defensemen Darius Kasparaitis thrilling OT goal on Dominik Hasek to propel the Pens to the Eastern Conference finals. I remember wanting Buffalo to win that game SO badly, simply for the fact that it would pit the Sabres Miroslav Satan against the New Jersey Devils, thus cheating us all out of the headline of the century: Satan s goal helps Buffalo defeat Devils.

The Colorado Avs/ Los Angeles Kings semi match-up may very well be the most underrated series of hockey I have ever seen. Unheralded Kings goalkeeper Felix Potvin gave vet goalie Patrick Roy a run for his money, as the unsung Potvin put up a 92 percent save average in the seven game series. The series was a defensive struggle for the most part, with the under-the-radar Kings (led by old-timer Luc Robitaille) pushing the highly favored Avalanche to the absolute brink. No-name LA players like Jaroslav Modry and Glen Murray upstaged highly touted players Peter Forsberg and Ray Bourque, but the Avs unloaded on the Cinderella team 5-1 in the final game of the series to send the Avalanche to the Western Conference Finals.

The Colorado Avalanche would go on to defeat the reigning champs The New Jersey Devils in a seven game series, thus winning their second Stanley Cup Championships in six years. As Patrick Roy was handed the Conn-Smythe, all I could think about was how badly I wanted the Red Wings to come back and blister the Avs in 02. . .and as fate would have it, revenge would get served and then some.

The 2001-2002 Detroit Red Wings were arguably the greatest hockey team ever assembled. The star-studded squad was not just an all-star team, they were practically an ALL TIME team, as the line-up consisted of TEN Future Hall of Famers, including Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shannahan, Chris Chelios, Nicklas Lidstrom, Igor Larinov, Dominick Hasek, Kris Draper, Sergei Federov, Luc Robitaille AND Brett Hull. Clearly, this was a team BUILT to win the Stanley Cup, and anything less would be considered unacceptable.

As the Wings cruised towards the Presidents Trophy (the NHL award for most points collected in the regular season), I was playing NHL 2K2 on the Dreamcast like the machine was on the verge of extinction. In reality, the console actually WAS on the verge of extinction, and NHL 2K2 was the last major release for the incredibly underappreciated system, but I did not know that at the time. Perhaps the reality that I picked up a BRAND NEW copy of the game at K-Mart for just 19.99 should have been a giveaway, but I was just happy to get my hands on a kick ass hockey game for the price of a just-released CD. As with NHL 2K, 2K2 was a graphically stunning sports simulation with intricate game play to match; if you ever want a challenge, try scoring on the Dominator with Thrashers with the difficulty ramped up to the highest setting. Even for a seasoned virtual vet like myself. . .that is NO easy task.

The 2002 Stanley Cup playoffs kicked off in April, and in keeping with the tradition of the last several years, upsets were abound in the Eastern conference. The Montreal Canadiens, who just welcomed back star player Saco Koivu after a bout with brain cancer in an emotional ceremony before the post-season, shell shocked the top seeded Boston Bruins, and the seventh seed Ottawa Senators made short work of the number two ranked Philadelphia Flyers. The Eastern conference was eventually won by, of all teams, the Carolina Hurricanes, who bested the Toronto Maple Leafs to earn the franchise its first Stanley Cup finals appearance ever.

Not surprisingly, the Red Wings and Avalanche would meet ONE last time in the Western Conference Finals in 2002. The Wings demolished the Vancouver Canucks and St. Louis Blues en route to their appearance in the conference finale, whereas the Avs BARELY scrapped through two seven game nail biters against the LA Kings and the San Jose Sharks. As ALWAYS the case with the two teams, the series was a back and forth affair that required a game seven to determine a Western conference representative in the Stanley Cup Finals. Up until then, series highlights include Patrick Roy showboating with his infamous Statue of Liberty celebration in game six (despite the fact that the puck WENT through the net when he did so), and Dominik Hasek making a bee-line towards Roy, only to end up tripping over a loose hockey stick and almost taking himself out of the game in the process.

If the Wings - Avs feud began with the Draper hit in 1996, then the feud came to an end with the Red Wings positively decimating Roy and the Avalanche 7-0 in the final game of the series. Number 33 was getting scored on so badly that he was actually pulled from the game early in the second period - in 30 minutes, the purported greatest goalie of all time let SIX goals pass through the Avs net. Considering my longstanding hatred of Roy, such was one of the greatest nights in the history of hockey, and a fitting farewell to my most loathed player EVER.

Of course, the all star Wings went on to spank the Cinderella Hurricanes, beating the ex Hartford Whalers 5 games to one. The 2002 season was very much a swan song, as a number of Wings players soon called it quits. In fact, the composition of the NHL was changing rapidly, and in many ways, the 2002 season represented the last year of not only the Wings - Avs feud, but the end of the so-called Western Conference style of play dominance. The days of bruising, defensive hockey were numbered, and the era of the lightning quick, offense-oriented finesse player was upon us.

The 2003 postseason was defined by the improbable playoff run of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The L.A. team had been the laughingstock of the league (no thanks to that absurd nickname, of course), and on the shoulders of Paul Kariya and goalkeeper J.S. Giguere, the team managed to not only make it to the Stanley Cup finals, but push the highly favored New Jersey Devils to the absolute brink in the process.

In the 03 finals, the New Jersey Devils blanketed the Mighty Ducks six points to nothing in the first two games of the series. However, the Mighty Ducks managed to win game three of the series, capitalizing on Marty Brodeur's goal on himself, and tied the series with a one-nothing victory in game 4. The Devils took a 3-2 series lead going into game 6, which contained perhaps the single most memorable moment of the hockey season. In the second period, Paul Kariya was blindsided by Devils defensemen Scotty Stevens, resulting in Paul being taken off ice, only to return and score a goal just ten minutes later. The Mighty Ducks tied the series, and forced a decisive game 7 to determine the year's Stanley Cup bearers.

The Devils defeated the Mighty Ducks 3-0 in game seven, thus earning their third Stanley Cup championship since 1995. The last moment of the game has always stuck in the back of my head: watching Jean Sebastian Giguere, the lone Duck left on the ice, wipe the tears from his eyes while the Devils celebrated down the rink is not only one of the most emotional scenes in hockey history, but for my money, one of the most moving scenes in all of sports.

The summer going into the 2004 season was a fairly lachrymose one, due to a number of factors. For one, there was a work stoppage looming on the horizon, which would eventually cancel the entire 2005 season. Also, Atlanta Thrashers star player Dany Heatley (who was named the MVP of the All Star game earlier that year) was seriously injured in an automobile accident, which killed teammate Dan Snyder. In many ways, that moment severely damaged the franchise, so much so that even then I knew that the team would never take off the ground and recover. Even so, I can say that I proudly caught EVERY single Thrashers game that season - truth be told, it was actually a pretty competitive little squad, and thanks to a local deal with Taco Bell, every time the team scored in excess of five points, I won a free gordita meal. I can assure you, meals of the sort were incredibly rare, unfortunately.

ESPN NHL Hockey (technically, NHL 2K4) was the last hockey game I really fell in love with. I would spend hours crushing international squads just so I could earn enough in-game tokens to purchase some of the games awesome retro jerseys, which meant that every time the Calgary played Dallas on my Xbox, you best believe they'd be rocking the Atlanta Flames and Oakland Seals duds. Yeah, you could make the argument that the game was a little too easy, but I found ways to challenge myself - namely, trying to beat the 2002 Red Wings with the piddly Team France in exhibition mode. A one-legged man has a better chance at Dance Dance Revolution, I imagine.

Beloved hockey analyst Don Cherry called the 2004 postseason the best season of he had seen in 20 years. While I kind of disagree with that, there is NO denying that the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals was one of the most entertaining and controversial ever played.

The series was an exciting one that was competitive to the very last minute. The Calgary Flames were led by top goal scorer Jerome Iginla and had excellent goalkeeping from Marty Kiprusoff. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Lighting were an offensive juggernaut consisting of Vincent LeCavlier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, not to mention outstanding goalie Nikolai Khabibulin.

The Flames went into game six (a home game, by the way), leading the series 3-2. The game, ultimately won by Tampa Bay, contained the most controversial goal since game six of the 1999 Stanley Cup finals, as the Flames Martin Gelias was initially awarded a goal for a shot that was deflected off his skate. Upon judicial review, the refs waved the goal, and the Lightning went on to win the game 3-2 in double overtime.

In many ways, watching game seven was something of the end of an era for not only the sport of hockey, but myself, as well. I had just graduated from high school, and I recall kicking back with my headphones on, listening to AFI and Weezer as the hotly contested game went back and forth. Although I wanted the Flames to win, I still felt some respect and goodwill towards the Lightning - that is one of the most amazing things about the Stanley Cup playoffs, actually. No matter WHO wins the Cup that year, you ultimately end up respecting the team that does, since you have been with them through 20 plus games over the last two months. There really is no such thing as an undeserving champions in hockey, and that s something that I think is wholly unique to the National Hockey League as a sports organization.

So many memories passed by me in the last two minutes of that game. While Suzanne, the B-side that was included in the movie Mallrats, wafted through my ears, I thought about all of the classic games, and all of the unforgettable moments, and all of the wondrous, amazing scenes that I would never forget for as long as I lived. I open my eyes. Another year. Another Stanley Cup Champion. Life goes on, and the NHL playoffs are perhaps the greatest reminder of that sentiment.

The National Hockey League is something I have a devout passion for, and no matter what crazy roads and sidetracks I take in my life, I know that every spring, the Stanley Cup Playoffs will captivate me from April until early June. To me, my love of hockey is the absolute best kind of nostalgia, not only because it reminds me of where I have been, but because it reminds me of where I am, and where I will soon be going. And more than that, it reminds me of who I am, whether I am rooting for the Kings, the Wings, the Flames, or the Ducks - or really, whoever I decide to like for that particular post-season.

Hockey is not the same sport it was after the 2005 lockout, but it is still just as captivating and heartfelt. The names may have changed, but that feeling of awe, wonder and amazement has not. And here we are, on the cusp of another playoff season, awaiting new moments, and the rekindling of our oldest, most cherished memories.

Every April, hope springs anew not only in the National Hockey League, but my life as well. And for that, I am eternally grateful and thankful that the sport has been there for me, past, present and future.

James Swift is a twenty something freelance writer currently living in the Metro Atlanta area. He is the author of How I Survived Three Years at a Two Year Community College: A Junior Memoir of Epic Proportions and Mascara Contra Mascara: A Tale of Two Masks.
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