Those of you who regularly read my posts know that I live in Pittsburgh. I arrived here after making a few different stops in my life journey, though my mom did grow up in Western Pennsylvania, so I do have roots here. And while I am a football fan to the extreme, I have grown to enjoy watching ice hockey. Put two and two together, and you should not be surprised to know that I have been following the Pittsburgh Penguins in their run towards another Stanley Cup championship.
Right now, the Penguins are favored to win, despite their disappointing loss on Saturday against the Boston Bruins. It was the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals, so they’re down but certainly not out.
However, as I was watching the game, my mind couldn’t help but explore the similarities and differences between the two sports. Football is far and above more popular, and you could probably even rank hockey below baseball and basketball in terms of viewership. Nevertheless, here are some things I learned about the NFL as I watched the NHL playoffs:
1. Individual games hold more value.
I probably should have noted in the beginning that I am a very, very casual fan of ice hockey. In fact, I generally only tune into games when the playoffs roll around. Each NHL team plays 82 games in the regular season, for a grand total of 1,230 games across the league. In short, I simply don’t have the time to commit to my team.
Contrast that with the 16-game schedule of NFL teams, and it’s easy to see why each game holds more value. Now, this it not a new revelation, but it’s a model that has helped football become the biggest sport in the nation. When so few games are played, each one carries more weight in determining playoff chances for a team. And that means more fans will feel the urgency to tune in and see what happens.
Like the NHL, the NBA teams also play 82 games each in the regular season. Meanwhile, MLB teams see nearly twice the action, with 162 games per season. It’s great for the statisticians, because the large sample size makes the numbers more meaningful, but it can be too much to follow for the average fan.
This is one of the reasons I don’t particularly like the NFL moving towards a longer season or adding more football days to the week. For as much as I love it, I don’t like football to take up every second of my life. It’s nice to be able to set aside a specific day of the week just for sports and to have the games I watch really count. Call me crazy, but I feel more connected with the action and the results.
2. The best team doesn’t always walk away the champion.
As with the NBA and MLB, the NHL runs its playoff bracket in set of series. Each team has to win the best of seven games to move onto the next round. So once they’ve hit that magic number four, they’re one step closer to the Cup.
Obviously, the NFL is much different. Football players need time to recover in the wake of such a physical game, so it becomes an inherent necessity to make the playoffs a “one and done” deal. To play a seven-game series would take months, and that would just be for one round. There’s no denying the logic behind a single-elimination system.
The caveat, however, is that the best team doesn’t always end up taking home the Lombardi Trophy. Yes, with the way football works it’s often hard to name a “best team,” but there have certainly been some Cinderella stories to come out of the Super Bowl. It’s one reason we say “on any given Sunday.” Football is a game of inches, and sometimes the pendulum just swings the wrong way, even for a dominant team.
You don’t see this too much in the other major sports, because the odds tend to play themselves out in favor of the better team. It’s a big reason they play series instead of single games. Just take a look at the NHL Conference Semifinals, and it’s clear the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins were the better teams, each winning their respective series 4-1. In the NFL format, their single losses could have eliminated them entirely, but they were able to demonstrate an overall dominance rather than a moment of weakness.
That said, you take a look at how the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings played their series, and it shows that things can still come down to Game Seven, when all the chips are on the table. It’s generally a sign of evenly-matches teams, but even the underdogs have a chance.
Perhaps this makes football more exciting, to have that do-or-die mentality come the playoffs. And yet, can we help but wonder what, say, the 2011 season might have been for the Packers if they had more chances to win out over the New York Giants?
3. Officiating and safety concerns are not unique to football.
Anyone who watched the Penguins and Bruins on Saturday got one hell of a show. The NHL is the only major American sports league outside of football to allow physical contact. Checking guys into the boards and even throwing the gloves off are regular occurrences in hockey games. It’s part of the game’s intrigue, so much so that NHL rules basically allow fights to occur.
Referees are allowed a lot of leeway in how they officiate these fights, and just like in football, certain crews are known for being more or less strict with the physical contact.
And fans are generally okay with this. However, what they do demand is consistency and control. Saturday’s game epitomized poor officiating, especially in the wake of Matt Cooke’s (PIT) and Brad Marchand’s (BOS) individual boarding penalties. The game effectively got out of control, and as fans of losing teams are wont to do, they point to the officials as scapegoats.
I think we Packers fans all understand that feeling after last season.
This game also highlights the safety concerns making waves in the sports world. The two boarding penalties in the game are hot button issues due to new rules changes in 2011. According to a general comment by the NHL, “A boarding penalty will be assessed for a hit on a defenseless player that causes the victim to hit or impact the boards violently or dangerously. The new wording requires the player delivering the check to avoid or minimize contact if his opponent is defenseless.”
Now where have I heard the term “defenseless player” before . . .
Injuries – in particular concussions – have become a major point of focus, as we’ve clearly seen in the NFL. Even as a public school teacher, I get yearly training on concussions and how they effect students. Penguins fans are more than aware of how concussions can affect players, since star player Sidney Crosby was out of action for over a year due to severe concussions (from January 2011 to March 2012).
Indeed, on-ice brain trauma has led to brain studies just as we have seen in the NFL. The news about it just isn’t as widespread due to the smaller NHL market.
4. It helps to understand what you’re watching.
On a final and lighter note, I reflected on my depth of knowledge in regards to hockey and football. As a self-professed casual fan, watching an NHL game is a fun and entertaining experience. Nevertheless, I’m not nearly as proficient with the finer details as I am with professional football. I have a general understanding of the rules and procedures of ice hockey, but when it comes to strategy and gameplay, my analysis is glaringly simple.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s okay for our entertainment to be mindless time-fillers. Watching a game with friends as you chat and drink beer is fun in and of itself.
But as a guy who likes to really get into the meat of sports games, I find myself more engrossed in football than hockey. I know more about it and can appreciate the finer points. Like the differences between a defense running a single-high and a two-high safety package. Or that the offensive line can often clue you in as to whether the play is a designed run or pass.
I also appreciate the time in between plays for commentator analysis. Some people bemoan the amount of time players are actually playing in a 60-minute football game, but I enjoy the moments to soak in the chess match going on. With hockey and basketball, on the other hand, it’s often a case of watching the puck/ball rather than everything else going on.
While I won’t be diverting my energy away from football any time soon, it’s fun to engross myself in other sports. It gives me a better appreciation for my time with football, as well as provides a purely different type of entertainment.
And on one final note . . . Let’s go Pens!!! Hopefully they can rebound after an abysmal Game 2.——————Follow @ChadToporski