Ice hockey: a sport misunderstood?

On the eve of March Madness, one could easily forget that the US has four major acronymed professional sports organizations, not three. The playoffs of the oft-forgotten National Hockey League (NHL) are fast approaching, yet they are far from a cultural phenomenon. Accordingly, I offer a plea for people to give hockey a chance.

Hockey’s lack of popularity is an unfortunate consequence of many different factors. The first is that while most of us have played casual games of football, baseball, and basketball, relatively few of us have ever played hockey. The ice time and protective equipment make it a difficult sport to afford to play. It is also not a sport that gives television networks many opportunities for commercial breaks, due to the non-stop action of the game.

Those are the reasons that explain why hockey is not wildly popular in the United States, but here are some reasons it should be. Hockey is low-scoring but fast-paced. With skates strapped to their feet, hockey players fly across the ice for 60 minutes. Substitutions are frequent, no two plays are the same and while most games only average about five goals, there are about 50 shots on goal.

Hockey is a game of skill. It incorporates speed and footwork like soccer, stick control like lacrosse and tracking a small fast projectile like baseball and physicality like football. These elements all occur simultaneously. Hockey players are not one trick ponies; they are dynamic, versatile and passionate.

Hockey players are so passionate about their sport that they sometimes settle their differences on the ice through fights. In a game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Calgary Flames on Jan. 18, 2014, every single player on the ice engaged another in a fistfight, putting 10 players in the penalty box. Now that is certainly quality entertainment!

Additionally, hockey has endearing quirks. For example, penalties matter. When a player is put in the penalty box, their team remains at a man disadvantage, meaning they can only employ four players, while the other team has five. The punished team is on the “penalty kill” and those few minutes are some of the most nail-bitingly nerve-wracking in all of sports. NHL games may not end in a tie. Instead, the league employs an overtime period and, failing a decisive outcome in that, a shootout. The shootout, a one-on-one between goalie and shooter, is a beautiful display of pure skill and a treat to watch.

Hockey has grand events. The Stanley Cup is a seven-game series between the winners of the Eastern and Western conferences. The nature of this competition ensures no last-second heartbreak in a single game like the one Seahawks fans experienced in the most recent Super Bowl. Instead, you can ride the emotional roller-coaster of a seven-game series with your team and the journey to glory or defeat becomes a personal one.

But hockey does not limit itself to just one grand event per season. Since 2008, the NHL has hosted a “Winter Classic,” an outdoor game played on or around New Years Day. The event draws a large and dedicated crowd and is a day of tailgating, action and fun. But aside from those annual events, hockey is one of the biggest events of the Winter Olympics. Every four years, the United States and Canada (along with the likes of Russia, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic) come to one place to duke it out in the rinks. In Olympic hockey, emotions run high and the national pride exhibited is inspiring.

But putting all of this aside, the most irrefutable argument for hockey is the clear supremacy of the hockey jersey. Also known as sweaters, hockey jerseys are inarguably the most flattering and wearable professional sports jersey. Not to mention, the existence of alternate and throwback jerseys provides fans with a plethora of aesthetically pleasing options.

So, as the NHL gears up to the playoffs this spring, I encourage you, dear reader, to gear up for hockey, on the screen or on the ice. Following the sport is a commitment you won’t regret.