NHL? Who cares?

By Mike Szwaja

I’ve got this reoccurring fear that in the far too distant future, I’ll look down at a newspaper on a warm, sunny summer morning and see a blurb that reads something like this:

The Ottawa Senators won the Stanley Cup last night. The last time a team won the Cup prior to the Senators:

n A team from hockey-crazed Florida actually won

n Reality TV fans were bracing themselves for the “surreal” budding romance between now married couple Flavor Flav and Brigitte Nielson

n Finding gas for less that two dollars per gallon was common

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n Rachel, Joey, Monica, Ross, Phoebe and Chandler had been off the air for exactly one month

n Our nation was in mourning one day after the death of President Ronald Reagan

n Most sports fans could recognize and pronounce the name Nikolai Khabibulin

In this little dream of mine, most of you have a good laugh, shake your heads, turn the page and think, “Ottawa? I thought our real Senators were in Washington.”

Meanwhile, I’m there, sipping on my orange juice, finding none of it amusing and missing the glory days – the days when the Blackhawks were the toughest ticket in Chicago next to MJ’s Bulls.

I’ll never stop missing hockey. My appreciation for good fore-checking or successfully setting up the umbrella will never waiver, but I’ve conceded that I’m one of the few.

I stepped into the Daily Illini newsroom the other day wearing my Blackhawks T-shirt, jacket and baseball hat; it was my way of holding out hope that Wednesday’s “secret meeting” between the players and the owners at O’Hare would save this season. All my colleges laughed at me as if to say, “Szwaja, why you still hung up on that hockey of yours?”

It was then that it hit me. When hockey finally resumes – and, yes, it will resume – it’s biggest problem will be that the average sports fan won’t care. Hockey in this country doesn’t have the innate national pastime, father-son-bonding-experience potential of baseball. Nor does it have the TV deals and recognizable stars of the NBA like LeBron, Carmelo, Kobe and Shaq.

Hockey players have weird names like Kovalchuk, Kovalev and Ovechkin that even SportsCenter anchors can’t pronounce correctly. Not even 17-year-old Canadian hockey prodigy Sidney Crosby – called by Gretzky himself as the second-coming – will be able to resurrect the game to major-sport status. Crosby has been targeting the ’05-’06 season as his first in the NHL, but odds are he won’t even get the chance to skate on NHL ice until the ’06-’07 season at the earliest.

Baseball and basketball, the two major American sports to suffer through work stoppages in the past decade, were able to recover with the help of their aforementioned characteristics. Thanks to foreign names, a declining interest of the mass media and a lack of big stars, hockey might never be the same again in this country.

What so many fans will have forgotten is the experience of being at a hockey game. The sound of two, 260-pound bodies crashing into the boards. The sound of the puck clanging off the crossbar. Seeing a goalie stab an 85 mph slapshot and hold his glove in the air, staring it down for a couple seconds like it’s a prized trophy. Hearing the roar of a sold-out crowd follow the horn after a goal. Watching an iron-skinned defenseman go down to block a shot. Witnessing a winger nifty-stick his way over the blueline and through the opposing team only to score on a move a la Peter Forsberg in the 1994 Olympics.

There’s little that rivals being in a sold-out arena watching an intense hockey game, and I urge you all to not forget that for as long as this lockout lasts.

Sadly, few of you care enough to remember or appreciate the rush of NHL hockey live and in person.

Instead, years down the road, sports fans will treat hockey like it is figure skating. “Okay, maybe we’ll get excited about it once a year or so.” Or perhaps they’ll become completely disinterested and turn to VH1, where they can see Brigitte Nielson and Flavor Flav sucking face in season four of “Strange Love.”

Let’s hope it never comes to that.

Mike Szwaja is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected].