The greatest injustice in the history of anything
by Matt Ederer(NHL)
Posted on June 23, 2006, 9:01 AM
Allow me to set the stage. Itís the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Edmonton Oilers vs The Carolina Hurricanes. The eighth seeded Edmonton Oilers, largely because of the play of goalie Dwayne Roloson, have beaten three teams statistically better than themselves just to get here. They are playing the powerhouse Hurricanes, in Raleigh.
Already, this game has been, to say the very least, eventful. The first ever successful penalty shot in the history of the final was scored, by a defenseman no less. The home team has come back from a 3-0 deficit, taking a 4-3 lead for a short time. Then they take an arguable penalty, and before you can say ďHemskyĒ, itís 4-4. Itís the third period. The fans are losing their collective minds; both in the arena, and in every single sports bar in the entire city of Edmonton.
All of a sudden, thereís a break toward the Edmonton net. Aaron Ward, rugged checking Carolina forward and all-around plumber, comes barrelling down the wing with the puck on his stick. Hot on his trail is Edmonton defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron. Bergeron does what he is taught to do, and checks the attacking forward. Unfortunately, he checks him right into his own goal. Aaron Ward, for his part, does what he is expected to do, and makes no attempt to get out of the way of the goaltender. Dwayne Roloson, who either canít physically get out of the way in time, or doesnít want to risk letting in a possible game breaking goal, stays in the net and absorbs the impact of the collision. His knee twits around the goal post, and heís very visibly injured. In the future, weíll find out that Rolosonís MCL is sprained and he will not be able to play for the remainder of the playoffs. History, or at least every Oilers fan in history, will now remember Bergeron as the man who indirectly knocked out his own goalie, and ultimately cost his team the Stanley Cup. However, all that is presently relevant is that Roloson is not available for the rest of this game, and a backup is needed.
On the bench, 30 year old lifetime backup Ty Conklin must be feeling a tad strange; perhaps some sort of hybrid of irrepressible excitement mixed with fear for his very hockey life. On one hand, every young boy who has ever laced up a pair of skates has at least mulled over the possibility of playing for the Stanley Cup. Some went to bed dreaming about it, and through the combination of skill and work ethic, got to actually do it. Ty Conklin is one of those people, and he should always cherish that. On the other hand, Conklinís track record at this point is, at best, really really bad. In fact, Dwayne Roloson was brought to Edmonton specifically so that Conklin would never have to play a minute in the NHL playoffs.
What happens next is a tragedy bordering on the Shakespearian. An untested, unready, and nervous-as-the-day-is-long Conklin goes behind his net to play the puck to team captain Jason Smith. Smith, not being in sync with Conklinís game, misses the pass. Whether it was a bad pass by Conklin, or a simple oversight on Smithís part, weíll never really know. What we do know is that the pass deflected off of Smithís stick right onto the stick of Carolina Hurricane captain Rod BrindíAmour, and with 32 seconds left in the third period, he haphazardly dumped the gameís winning goal into an open Edmonton net. The Carolina Hurricanes win.
The hopes of an entire nation. The dreams of loyal fans whose once dominant Oilers are now without a championship in 16 years. Ty Conklinís big moment, and quite possibly, his first and only chance at glory. Ruined by two random plays gone completely awry. Two plays that on any other night, in any other venue, with any other combination of people, would not have played out the way they did. Ward hitting Roloson is a freak thing. Roloson getting a third degree sprain of the MCL is an even freakier thing. The backup goalie giving away a puck in the last minute of a game that he was never meant to play in the first place is the freakiest damn thing Iíve ever seen. And what makes it worse is that the entire world was watching.
Wait, did I say the entire world? Sorry, I meant a half a million Canadians, the immediate relatives of the players, and those Americans who happened to subscribe to a cable package expensive enough to include the Outdoor Life Network.
This leads me to my ultimate question. WHY DOESN'T ANYBODY WATCH THE GAMES? People, you do not know what youíre missing. A storyteller as inept and uneducated as I painted a pretty good picture of the spectacle that was this game. Without exaggeration, I can say that Game One of the 2006 NHL finals was the most beautiful thing Iíve ever seen. Literally. I have zero emotional connection to any of the players that were involved in that matchup. I donít regularly cheer for either of those teams. I donít even cheer against them. Still, all of it was incredible. Seeing how high the Oilers were at the start of the game, being up 3-0. Seeing those same Oilers that much lower about two hours later, as Rod BrindíAmour threw the puck into the yawning cage. Seeing Craig MacTavish decide to bench Conklin, and go with third string goalie Jussi Markkanen for the remainder of the series, a coaching decision that had all the subtlety and sensitivity of a brick to the face. Seeing the post game shots of the city of Edmonton, and the faces of every Oiler fan looking like theyíd just gotten the ďeverybody youíve ever loved has just died in a horrible bus crashĒ phone call. Seeing the total adulation on the faces of Carolina players, like theyíd just won the lottery, but instead of money, they were getting one step closer to everything theyíve ever wanted. Seeing Dwayne Roloson limp off the ice, a defeated man. Seeing Edmonton limp off the ice 10 minutes later, a defeated team.
I couldnít sleep after watching it. I did not get one solitary wink of sleep that night. Not one. I didnít make it to school the next day, but it was OK, because for the first time in a long time, there was something more important in my life than awkwardly hitting on my history teacher. I felt a moral and spiritual cleansing. I was going to bask in the joy of knowing that this life we live does have a purpose, that true feeling does exist. That joy and hate and pleasure and pain and everything we see in movies, all of it is real. Mostly, I was happy just knowing that there were others sharing this feeling with me.
Then I turn on Pardon the Interruption at 5:30 that afternoon, and what do I see? The same tired jokes I always see when hockey is mentioned. The same jokes that I used two paragraphs up. They said nobody watched (which they didnít), they said the Outdoor Life Network sucks (which it does), all of that. To be fair, they did actually start the show off with the recap of the game, and they did actually say that it was an excellent hockey game. But the main focus of the segment was to make fun of the NHL. Because as we all know, hockey isnít a real sport, itís a punch line.
Never mind the fact that, to an extent, it was true. Seriously, it was just heartbreaking to see. Not so much for me on a personal level Ė I know the game ruled, and at the end of the day, maybe thatís all that matters. But it struck me on another level, in the sense that I think, at 18 years of age, Iím losing faith in humankind. If Iím the only person who can watch that game and get that reaction, then thatís a damn shame. Hell, I expected to turn on the TV on June 5th, 2006, and flip between hockey and pro wrestling. By the end of the night, I couldnít have told you who Hulk Hogan was, outside of the fact that his daughter sings at the Tampa Bay games. I was in full-forced hockey mode. That whole night, June the 5th. I thought about when I used to play hockey on the frozen creek behind the community centre in my town of 300 people. I thought about when my cousin would be goaltender Roberto Luongo, my best buddy and I would be Russian junior players, and weíd shoot on him glove side so that he could rob us every single time and win the gold for Canada. I thought about the human response to such spectacular failure and success. How unique this world we live in really is, how crazy it is that I got to witness the worst moment in this poor suckerís life (Conklin), and now can get behind a computer screen and discuss it with people all over the world. I thought about everything that was positive, sunshine and gumdrops and all things awesome. I didnít think once about the 0.4 rating the game got on OLN.
I hate it so much. I hate that the game I love is, in the United States of America, a niche sport. I hate that Chris Rock was dead on the money when he said that ďhockey is like heroin. Only heroin users do heroin. Only hockey fans watch hockeyĒ. I hate that, as jubilant as Carolina Hurricane fans seem now, in five years when the teamís been overhauled and theyíre back in the basement, none of the people will care anymore.
Hockey is essentially the best kept secret in all of the world. Itís more violent than football, itís faster than basketball. Thereís considerably less scratching of male genitalia than in baseball. Itís high scoring and defensive at the same time. Itís got the most beautiful trophy, an incredibly storied history. The entire make up of a game, a series, a season, and the league itself can change at the snap of your fingers. All things considered, itís really the perfect sport. And nobody will ever give it a chance.
What sets it apart to me is its honesty. No steroids in it. No terribly overpaid athletes who sit out games because they sneezed wrong (at least, not anymore). Also, they allow fighting. How awesome is that? When two opponents get so frustrated with each other that there is no alternative to settling their feud, and they must come to blows, itís a five minute penalty. Oh, and in basketball, if a fan abuses you, and you hit his ass back, you get suspended for a year. In my lifetime, I have seen a Philadelphia Flyer fan go into the penalty box, only to get the crap beaten out of him by Tie Domi (youtube it). The rules are constantly changing in an effort to improve the game. The players do actually show the desire to start and finish their careers with one team (Yzerman, Sakic, Mario), but even then, some players shuffle around enough to keep every team competitive; not to mention that the rookies actually matter and can star without sitting behind a clipboard for four years. Maybe Iím just a hoser, but my dual citizenship makes me equal parts American and Canadian, and as such, I feel qualified to provide a commentary on both cultures. And Canada wins the battle, at least in the world of sports. We sure donít have the star power, but damned if we need it.
So you know what? Whatever. You can have the World Cup, you can have the rest. To me, the real beautiful game doesnít have to be the most watched event in the entire world. It doesnít have to be what my favourite rap artists are playing. It doesnít have to have decrepit Rock and Roll legends playing at its intermission. It doesnít have to feature synthetically made supermen with arms bigger than most people's torsoes. Take your baseball, your basketball. Take any kind of football you can name: American, European, Canadian, Arena, Xtreme. Take Ďem all. Donít ever give them back. The gross underappreciation of hockey may just be the greatest injustice in the history of anything -- but I know that, for at least one of us, it doesn't matter in the least.
Many decades ago, the wise Canadian philosopher and prophet ďStompiní Tom Connors Ē said it better than I ever could have when he claimed that ďthe good old hockey game is the best game you can name, and the best game you can name, is the good old hockey gameĒ.