Time Out with Joe Sobchuk

Photo by John Nakano

There’s a major NCAA championship event wrapping up this week. After a long, arduous season full of captivating highs and devastating lows, including a post-season tournament full of surprises and upsets, the final four teams remaining will ultimately duke it out and determine a true champion.

And I’m not talking about basketball.

The Frozen Four is hockey’s version of the more widely known Final Four, and it will take place beginning Thursday, April 11, in Pittsburgh. UMass Lowell will face off against Yale in one game, while Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State will battle in the other to determine who plays for the title on April 13.

Now I understand that hockey is a tough sell for this school and for the south in general, especially considering that there isn’t an NCAA team around here for hundreds of miles. (However, there are several club teams, including one at Tech.) Moreover, this city has already seen two professional teams come and go, setting up shop here for about ten years before moving to Canada. (The Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary after only eight seasons, and the Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets after a dismal ten years that saw only one playoff berth and zero playoff wins.) It’s unlikely that this city will have another NHL team for a long time, making it even tougher to build support for a sport that can offer so much to its fans.

As a northern transplant who only lives here during school, I think it’s a shame that hockey is always looked down upon as a lesser sport compared to the “big three”. First of all, virtually no other sport is as fast paced as hockey. There’s really no comparison to baseball, and football has plenty of breaks for time outs, reviews, huddles and scores. Even basketball can feel pretty disjointed; especially when the closing two minutes of a game can take a half hour to finish.

But hockey is nearly nonstop action, with players flying up and down the ice, firing shots up to 100 miles per hour and delivering devastating hits to their opponents.

Hockey also combines finesse and toughness like no other sport can. On the most basic level, players must be able to skate at high speeds both forwards and backwards, as well as stop on a dime. They must also handle the puck: executing a tape-to-tape pass or a slinging wrist shot is tougher than it looks. Combining these two areas is necessary in order to actually move up the ice and weave through defenders. As for toughness, no other sport allows fighting like hockey does. It is a method for the players to police the game as well as get a rise out of their teammates. Players must also endure full body hits (checks) and be willing to block one of those 100 MPH shots mentioned earlier. It’s no wonder the stereotypical hockey player is missing a few teeth—it’s not a sport for the weak.

And this is just speaking from experience, but hockey has the most passionate and rabid fans perhaps rivaled only by college football. The greatest sporting event I have ever attended was a game between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens back in February 2011. For those who don’t know, the Bruins-Canadiens rivalry is one of the most heated in all of sports. Anyway, it was a game that featured fourteen goals and a whopping 45 penalties, including 25 for fighting or roughing. (For perspective, there are 5.3 goals scored and seven penalties per game on average, and fights happen once every few games.) There was an all-out brawl that even the goalies got involved in, and the arena was deafening. No other game could have fueled such emotion and excitement as I felt that night.

So the next time you’re flipping channels and see a hockey game on TV, stop and watch it for a few minutes. Learn a few of the players’ names, or keep up to date with a team’s news, scores, and standings. Try to attend a game if possible – there’s a minor league team in Gwinnett plus a club team at Tech. But most importantly, just don’t dismiss hockey as a second-tier sport before experiencing it for yourself, because you don’t know what you’re missing.