The Accidental Fan: Fight! Fight! Fight!
I’ve heard lots of complaints about how hard hockey is to follow due to its fast pace. But that is exactly what makes it fun to watch. I am a fan of Boston teams, so my favorite hockey team is naturally the Boston Bruins. Recently, I went with a friend to a Bruins game. It was his first one, so throughout the evening he asked me numerous questions about the fast-paced game. I don’t think I gave him a single satisfactory answer by the standards of a true hockey fanatic, and yet we still had a fantastic time cheering the Bruins on to victory.
Half of the time I watch hockey, I have absolutely no idea what is going on. Once, my mom and I texted a family friend with 20 seconds left in the third period with the Bruins down three goals. We insisted that we should still hold out hope for a comeback. What we didn’t realize is that hockey has only three periods, not four quarters. He texted us back saying he appreciated our optimism, but there was little recourse with only 20 seconds left in the game. We were rather embarrassed.
With all of this in mind, what is the entry point for a casual fan? As in all sports, having a favorite player is a great place to start. Just as my entry point for baseball was Andrew Benintendi, as discussed in my previous column, my mom has taken a liking to Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask. She even went so far as to order a vanity license plate, which reads “Tuuuke,” a phrase often screamed by fans in appreciation of the goalie’s skills, but to me sounds an awful lot like booing. Regardless, she loves Tuukka and owns multiple jerseys with “Rask” written on the back just to prove her dedication to anyone who passes her by.
Aside from specific players, hockey is unique in how visually stimulating it is to watch. There is always something going on, which is sports gold for a casual fan. Despite the confusing aspects of play, there are some good indicators of what to pay attention to on the ice.
Before one game, as my mom and I walked into TD Garden, I excitedly exclaimed, “I love hockey! I hope they punch each other.” Fighting makes hockey unique. In many sports — take baseball as an extreme example — if players get into a fight, it is a front page story. Earlier this year, on Apr. 11, a fight broke out between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, resulting in blow-by-blow news coverage of the brawl. However, in hockey fighting is just part of the game, at least at the professional level. Some people hate this about hockey because the fighting distracts them from the more subtle and strategic aspects of play. Although I normally detest violence, the fighting in hockey was something I latched on to, partially because the action is a signifier that something has happened on the ice to get mad about.
Unlike my first baseball game, which I remember vividly, I do not have strong memories of my first hockey game. I just remember loving it and thinking that the fans were bonkers. I remember angry shouting at players and incessant swearing. Yet I appreciated the charged atmosphere combined with the intense play. The mood at hockey games allows for a lot of enjoyment outside the rink. For example, my mom is entertaining when she shouts things like, “Don’t you touch my boys!”
At this point, my mom has transcended my level of hockey knowledge. She even has a miniature Bruins shrine in our kitchen, complete with a bobble head and puck from the 2018 playoffs. Her expertise is very convenient at times, and she has watched enough games to know factoids like the fact that goalies do not typically fight. However, this past season, “Tuuuke” was involved in a major fight involving multiple players. Even the other team’s goalie tried to get in on the action. This type of crazy unpredictable action is yet another alternative to focusing only on the puck. It breaks up the game and draws viewers’ attentions to what is important on the ice. Yet fighting can be costly; the team was trying so hard to avoid fighting during the playoffs that Brad Marchand, the “Little ball of hate” himself, resorted to licking opponents faces in an effort to get back at them and avoid violence. I seriously recommend looking up a video.
These fun and crazy stories draw me in to hockey. You never know what is going to happen. You might see my mom, who is a tiny woman at 5’ 2,” jumping up and down in her oversized Bruins jersey and screaming “Fight!” That enthusiasm drew me in to the game and is what has made me want to return to TD Garden and cheer aggressively for the Bruins. I have seen them lose in sudden death overtime. I have seen intense fights, epic fails at passing and great victories. Part of the fun comes from that uncertainty. As a casual fan, I have no idea what is happening, but sometimes neither do the people who know all the rules. It is a free-for-all. So, I just think to myself, “What the heck is happening? — but hey, punching is fun!”