Among fans of professional sports there is a debate now and then about which sport requires the most athleticism. I have no doubt that the answer is "hockey." Friends know that I love baseball and college football best. (I have written about them both on this blog over the years.) But I have always enjoyed hockey. I do not get to see NHL games very often because of the cost of a ticket. This season was no exception since the Chicago played really well for the first time in years and cheap tickets were not easily available. In fact, the Hawks made it to the Campbell Conference finals against the Detroit Red Wings and lost a second overtime game Wednesday night to end that series. They won only one game against the far superior Detroit team. My prediction is simple—Detroit will win the Stanley Cup! Sorry Pittsburgh Penguins fans but Detroit is still too good to beat in my book. They will repeat as the champions.
But back to the question: "Which sport requires the purest and best athleticism to excel?" I answer hockey for several reasons. One, these guys have to run, skate, jump, shoot and stick handle a puck just to play. Then they have to muscle each other and bang bodies as fiercely as football players. And they go all out the entire time they are on the ice. (For sure, no player goes this hard for a full sixty minutes!)
You know the old joke: "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out!" It is partly true. These guys are very physical even though most of them are not huge like football players. They are in top shape physically.
Decathletes may be the world's greatest athletes but in team sports no one is in better condition, tougher and more truly athletic, than a professional hockey player.
The first hockey game I ever saw as a kid was in Chicago. My dad brought me here to visit the city (we lived in Tennessee). It was February, and very cold, from what I remember. He took me to the old Chicago Stadium to see the Red Wings play the Blackhawks. I was in awe of the players that night and I still am, almost fifty years later.
Two weeks ago the Blackhawks beat the Vancouver Canucks to get to the Western Conference finals with Detroit. I was unusually blessed to see game six, the deciding game of that series. In this case I actually rooted for the visitors. Why? My friend Paolo Aquinli (photo to my left) is an owner of the Canucks (with his two brothers). So Stacy and I were given two premium tickets for this great game. We sat a few rows from the ice, directly across from the goal. I have never been that close to a hockey game, much less one with the intensity of the NHL playoffs. What an evening. You truly get into a game when you are right there. I will never forget this one as long as I live. The crowd noise was unbelievable and the Chicago fans were starved for a win and the Blackhawks won by scoring three goals in four minutes late in the third period. The only problem with them winning was that Stacy and I rooted for our friend and his team, the Vancouver Canucks! (We sat with one of the players families in the same section.) We cheered when they scored and felt Paolo's emotion high above us in the owner's box, especially when the Canucks went up 5-4 with seven minutes to go in the game. We even texted one another at crucial moments in the game. My heart really got into the Canucks. This week a signed team jersey arrive from Canada and it will go in a prominent place in my home when I get it framed.
Next time someone wants to have a serious conversation about the best professional athletes, at least in a team sport, you tell them that they are the hockey players. If they don't believe you then put skates on them and let them try this game. Or maybe give them a ring side seat like I had for the Canucks/Hawks game and I think they will agree with me in a few minutes time.