Desperate times call for desperate measures. So, even though it goes against every instinct I possess, even though the mere thought of it gives me a headache, I’ll give it a try. I’ll attempt to become a hockey fan.
Maybe you’re thinking about it, too. Maybe, like me, you realize you don’t have much choice. I can’t watch the Phillies in the World Series, I can’t watch the 76ers at all and even though I can and do watch the Eagles, we all know what a frustrating experience that can be. Besides, good or bad, they only play once a week.
So, if you want to follow a pro sports team around here, there’s only one choice left – hockey in general and the Flyers in particular.
My reluctance to jump on the Flyers’ bandwagon is nothing against the sport itself. There’s no sport more fun to watch live than ice hockey, with its end-to-end, rough-and-tumble action And even though I’m no expert, I know the rules well enough to follow the sport. I know the significance of the blue line and what icing is and that they wear sweaters, not jerseys.
I just can’t get into it enough to know the players, mainly because I’ve never heard of them before. In football and especially basketball, you know the players because you watched them play and you read about them when they were in college. Or, in the case of somebody like LeBron James, even before then.
But unless you follow junior hockey and keep track of what’s happening in rinks in Europe, there’s no way to know about any of these guys, especially with the huge influx of Eastern Europeans. To my American ears, they have funny-sounding names and funny-sounding accents and come from funny-sounding countries. When the Flyers acquired goalie Ilya Brzgalov in the off-season, Flyers fans in the know were ecstatic, but I had never heard of him. In fact, the only Ilya I had ever heard of was Ilya Kuryakin from the Man from U.N.C.L.E. And if you don’t know who Ilya Kuryakin is, well, just Google him.
Anyhow, if I had to pick a year to get into hockey, this was a good one, because it looks like the Flyers are going to be pretty good, Thursday night’s 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals notwithstanding. They might even be good enough to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in more than 35 years.
Those Cup-winning teams are what created generations of Flyers fans. Those teams that were stocked with well-known names like Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent and Bill Barber and Reggie Leach and, of course, Dave Schultz, and players had neat nicknames like ”Moose.’’ Back then, before helmets became mandatory, you could actually recognize players on the ice without looking at the number on their jersey (excuse me – sweater). Long hair was hip then and it was a grand sight to see one of those players glide down the ice with their hair flowing behind them, just before they drove some opposing player into the dasher boards (see, I even know they’re called dasher boards).
Now they all wear helmets and it amazes me how television and radio announcers can follow the game so well. Hockey beat writers are into it, too, and I remember listening to some of them talking about how the Zxyxvybreski line fore-checked in the third period when I didn’t even know who was on the ice, much less what they were doing. When it comes to covering hockey, all I can say is thank goodness for instant replay.
Now I hardly recognize any of the players, but I do recognize a good team. Of course, even a non-hockey guy knows the name of Jaromir Jagr, one of the best players in the history of the game. And I can recognize a couple other players without looking at their numbers first, like Danny Briere, Claude Giroux and, now, Brzgalov.
That brings up another interesting point about the Flyers and their history. Other than the two Stanley Cup championships, the greatest moment in Flyers history came on Jan. 11, 1976, when they took on the Soviet Union’s Red Army team, generally recognized as the best team in the world.
It was an ugly affair as the Broad Street Bullies lived up to their name during a 4-1 victory. But Americans looked at it as more than just a hockey game – this was a battle during the Cold War and we won it. And because of that, this was as emotional as a game could be that doesn’t count in the standings. As Bill Barber said before the big game, “We don’t like them and they don’t like us.’’
Well, as we all know, since then the Berlin Wall was knocked down and the Iron Curtain faded away and now the Flyers have four players on their roster who would have been part of the U.S.S.R if it still existed, including, of course, Brzgalov.
So it’s a good thing that the NHL has become an international league, with players from all over the globe. It’s also become a faster, more athletic league, and those old, plodding Broad Street Bullies teams of the 1970s couldn’t compete today.
But this new Flyers team can, and I’m determined to watch them do it – at least until the Sixers finally get back into action sometime around the New Year. And, of course, pitchers and catchers report to spring training soon after that. By that time, I should be able to pronounce all of the Flyers’ names.