I miss the preseason

Where else can you see Owen Nolan in a Canucks jersey? Yeah...even he doesn't look happy about it. (Dale MacMillan, Getty Images)

This week, NHL fans felt the first tangible effects of the lockout, as the league cancelled preseason games through September 30th. For some, this was almost a relief, as the preseason felt more like a mockery of real NHL hockey to them, as rosters full of prospects and tryouts clash in fight-filled and meaningless games that bear little resemblance to the real deal.

But I love preseason games and it upsets me that the lockout has cancelled them so cavalierly. Even though it’s too long, meaningless, or whatever other complaint you may have about it, I enjoy watching the preseason and I miss it already. Here are a few reasons why I love it so much.

The main reason I love the preseason is the excitement of potential. Where some fans may see a roster packed with no-names, never-will-bes, and has-beens, I see hope. Whether it’s a 5th-round pick making his nervous debut in the team’s jersey or a grizzled veteran looking for one last shot in the NHL, I’m rooting for them.

In many cases, the players who are on professional tryout offers have some of the most compelling stories. They’re the underdogs who may have toiled in the AHL for years without ever getting their chance with the big club. Perhaps they’re all-stars in the AHL and just need one opportunity to break through at the NHL-level: this could be that opportunity. For them, the preseason isn’t meaningless. Every game, every shift, every second is their one chance to prove they belong in the NHL. That’s worth watching.

Speaking of watching, in some ways, the preseason is the only time that all the fans truly watch Hockey. By this I mean that fans are not blinded by results. Who wins or loses doesn’t matter and the score doesn’t matter: all that matters is how well a player performs. Every player, but particularly prized prospects, are under the microscope as fans look for signs that this guy is going to make it.

The little things – proper positioning, gap control, play along the boards, or even a simple pass – delight fans during the preseason, while in the regular season or the playoffs the same things are completely ignored in favour of cheering a win or bemoaning a loss. Those little things that signify a good performance by a player may be noticed by observant fans outside the preseason, but it’s during the preseason that everyone is looking for them. Instead of just watching a game, they’re watching Hockey.

A big part of the preseason is watching prospects attempting to prove to their team’s management that they’re good enough to make the big club. Most of them aren’t good enough and they won’t make it. In their case, the preseason is the only time they’ll get to wear an NHL jersey. Admit it, it’s fun to see your team’s prospects in your team’s colours. It’s fun for them as well.

It’s also a chance to actually see those prospects in action. With many of them playing in junior leagues all over Canada or in men’s leagues in Europe, it can be tough to keep up with their progress. At most, we’re able to keep an eye on their statistics and catch the occasional highlight. Unless they make their national team for the World Junior tournament or have a game featured on TSN, seeing them play is a tall order.

During the preseason, however, you get to see them lined up alongside and against their peers and are able to see for yourself how far they’ve come over the last year. For late-round picks, sometimes it’s gratifying just to see them hold their own, while seeing a blue-chip prospect dominate can send a thrilling chill of expectation down your spine.

Finally, there’s those who go to see preseason games in person. In hockey mad markets with high ticket prices, preseason games can be the only chance some families have to see a game in person without breaking the bank. Unfortunately, in those same hockey mad markets, the hockey madness is so complete that fans will actually pay full-price for preseason games, so the team charges full-price. Alas.

The really tough loss, however, is for those communities outside NHL markets that host off-site preseason games.

The tiny town of Stirling-Rawdon, Ontario was scheduled to host a preseason game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets through Kraft Hockeyville, but has seen it rescheduled to next year. Regina was scheduled to host the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders, while Saskatoon would see the Boston Bruins and Winnipeg Jets. Las Vegas, Baltimore, Albany, and San Antonio were all set to host preseason match-ups and all have been cancelled. Games in Kansas City and Brooklyn are also in jeopardy, but have not been officially cancelled as of yet.

I love that the preseason gives towns and cities like these a chance to experience NHL hockey (or a close facsimile). For hockey fans in those cities who had already bought tickets, this lockout is a kick in the teeth. I especially feel for Stirling-Rawdon, who had the thrill of winning Hockeyville and had made massive preparations for the event. They’ll still be hosting a parade, the Stanley Cup, and an alumni game between former players for the Leafs and Buffalo Sabres, but the marquee event won’t be happening.

So really, I miss the preseason. A lot. Sheesh, if I miss it this much, I’m going to be a complete wreck by the time the regular season doesn’t roll around.