There are a lot of hockey fans out there who are not, strictly speaking, hockey fans. They are fans of a particular team and once that team stops playing hockey, they stop watching hockey. I know this, because at one point I was one of them. When I was younger, I was a fan of the Vancouver Canucks and only watched the Canucks, except when I went to Chilliwack Chiefs games with my dad or grandpa. I wasn’t really a hockey fan; I was a Canucks fan.
That isn’t the case any more: for years now, I have been following the entire NHL and keeping an eye on junior hockey as well. I watched more hockey than ever this season, but I watched every single Canucks game. Even though I am now a hockey fan and not just a fan of the Canucks, they’re still the team that I am most familiar with and identify with most strongly.
And now that team is out of the playoffs.
There’s a reason VISA’s “Hockey Love Hurts” commercial is resonating with people: hockey fans get incredibly caught up in the emotions of cheering for their team. I know of many Canucks fans who were absolutely devastated after Sunday’s loss to the Los Angeles Kings, while I was simply disappointed. Maybe I’ve simply become jaded, but compared to last season, the loss was anticlimactic and almost inevitable. The Canucks of last season were dominant; the Canucks of this season were simply good and the Kings were better in the short 5-game sample size of the first round.
Canucks fans are not alone, of course. Fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins are in the same boat, as their team also bore the weight of expectation. The San Jose Sharks also lost in 5 games, as did the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. It’s tempting to immediately leap into the off-season rumour mill: should Alain Vigneault be fired in Vancouver? What about Todd McLellan in San Jose? Have the Sharks missed their window? Will Patrick Marleau be traded? Will Nicklas Lidstrom retire? Will the Blackhawks stick with Corey Crawford next season? Is Roberto Luongo done in Vancouver?
There are also the vocal few among the fanbase who will cry out for management to “blow the team up” after rough 5 or 6 playoff games.
It’s a long off-season, however, and it’s ill-advised to jump off the deep end right away. Besides, emotions are still running high and rationality isn’t exactly a strong suit of the average hockey fan on a good day. Also, playoff hockey is still being played and you need to figure out how you are going to react to that fact.
Have you sworn off watching hockey out of bitterness and despair, at least until the 2012 pre-season, when you’ll clamour to watch a crappy online feed out of desperation to watch any hockey at all? If so, that’s not the best idea in the world: there could be a lockout, leaving you with no hockey outlet besides the AHL and junior hockey for an entire year. In addition, you’ll be missing some damn good hockey.
When your team gets eliminated, a lot of lustre goes out of the playoffs. The car flags come down, the playoff beard gets shaved, and the jersey goes into the closet for the summer. But playoff hockey is still playoff hockey and there are few experiences in sports more awesome than a brutal seven-game series with two teams scratching and clawing for every goal.
If you are going to watch the rest of the playoffs, you need to decide who you’re going to cheer for, as watching hockey without a vested interest in one of the teams playing is a dull proposition. You may already have a second-favourite or backup team still in the playoffs. Maybe you picked a bunch of players from one particular team for your playoff pool, so you’ll be cheering for them to win for purely selfish reasons. Perhaps a favourite player got traded from your favourite team to another team still in the playoffs, so you’ll cheer for them on his behalf. If any of those apply, you’re all set.
As for me, I’m a big fan of underdogs, so I have already been rooting for the Ottawa Senators to beat the New York Rangers and hoping to see the Florida Panthers buck the odds and beat the New Jersey Devils. I’m also a sucker for a great story and one of the best stories of this season has been the incredible play of Brian Elliott after being arguably the worst player in the NHL last season, giving me a reason to support the Blues. Heck, I’ll even cheer for the Coyotes out of sympathy for them being so terrible for so long and I’ll cheer for the Predators out of sympathy for them being so good for so long without winning anything.
If all else fails, I’ll cheer against the Kings (for knocking out the Canucks this year), the Bruins (for last year), and the Rangers (for 1994). As long as a hockey fan has hate, he or she can get emotional about playoff hockey. In a certain, mildly sadistic way, I almost hope that one of those three teams makes it to the Stanley Cup Final only to lose, but the rational side of me knows that won’t actually make me feel any better.
So all I can hope for now is some good hockey and some good stories. Don’t disappoint me, NHL playoffs.