The Breakdown: The new NHL on exhibit | SummitDaily.com

The Breakdown: The new NHL on exhibit

BRYCE EVANS
summit daily news
Summit County, Colorado

Sports editor Bryce Evans

Alright, I’m giving you some time to ponder it over – more than 24 hours, actually. Hopefully, it doesn’t take you that long to make a decision. Maybe all you need are these next 600 words to make up your mind.

After all, the time is just perfect for you to start paying attention to hockey. And that’s not only because the regular season starts tomorrow.

For decades, the NHL has been the second-class citizen of pro sports in America, unable to compete with the big three of football, baseball and basketball.

In the early 2000s, it looked as though hockey was making a charge. The NHL was on ESPN or ESPN2 almost daily and playoff games were on basic TV. Then came its downfall due to the ineptitude of leadership that allowed the season-ending lockout a few years ago.

Since then, hockey has been clawing its way out of the gutter and back into America’s sports consciousness. Finally, the sport now seems ready to show everyone why it’s the most exciting game there is.

What’s the difference? Well, I’m glad I asked.

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It basically comes down to the fact that hockey is again being played the way it’s supposed to be: hard, fast and with finesse.

With the days of the left-wing lock and neutral zone trap fading away with other former hockey nuances like the mullet and throwing squid on the ice after goals, the NHL has now put a premium on skill rather than size. The aforementioned defensive strategies – which became staples of the league in the mid- to late-1990s – bogged down skilled players to the point that they almost became obsolete in the game; if they weren’t big and strong, they just weren’t getting to the net and scoring goals.

Now that’s almost entirely gone, with the exception of a few teams. The game is more free and open today, allowing for the emergence of new stars, like say … Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Sid the Kid and Alex the Great are the two most dynamic players in the game right now. Period. They’re also the best 1-2 punch the league has had since Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. They both have won scoring titles, MVPs and play on championship-caliber teams – before turning 25 – and they could end up doing for hockey what Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did for the NBA in the 1980s. That is, they could make it relevant.

But, the stars in the league don’t just reside in Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. In past years, the NHL has tried to promote its 18-20-year-olds as the future of the game. Now, after a couple seasons of growing up, it looks like the future is now. Players like Zach Parise in New Jersey, Phil Kessel in Toronto, Paul Sastny in Denver and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane lead the front line of offensive-minded, skilled stars that exemplify everything that’s good about the “new” NHL.

The emergence of these types of players, some of which would have been considered to be too small for the league a few years back, show on its own how much hockey has changed.

The game overall is so much better than in years passed, but I know that people still may be skeptical.

Generally, if you can get someone to watch a game in person, they understand why people like me get so geeked out about it.

The problem comes when people have to watch it on TV. Even though the NHL has been relegated to being shown on Versus, telecasts are so much better now, mostly because of high definition. Most people complain about not being able to see the puck, but in HD, you can read the “Tuk” on the player’s skate blades.

With the style of play, the stars and HD TV, the NHL isn’t what it used to be. And I mean that in a good way.

So, take your time thinking about it, but I think it’s time that you start following the puck.