Author: Jack McHenry (Sports Columnist)
There is an area where antagonistic nationalism, gluttonous beer drinking, rabid fanaticism, the agony of defeat, the ecstasy of victory and the sheer joy of watching sports at the highest level exist in one place. If this sounds appealing, look no further than the closest NHL game.
Last Wednesday, the Los Angeles Kings faced off against the Vancouver Canucks in game four of their first round of the NHL playoff series. This matchup had the Kings looking to win at home in the Staples Center and become the first eight seed to sweep a one seed in NHL history.
When the third period expired, the Canucks, reinvigorated by the return of leading goal-scorer Daniel Sedin, came out on top 3-1 with the chance to return to Vancouver and keep the series alive on home ice.
However, that game, from an hour before the puck dropped until the final buzzer, demonstrates why playoff hockey is the best live – in the arena – sporting experience in North America, bar none.
It helps that there really isn’t a bad seat in the Staples Center when it comes to hockey. The ice sits a few feet higher than the floor for basketball games, and it is a significantly larger playing surface.
From the upper deck, one can follow the puck, see all the action and have a viewing experience that would be far less enjoyable given the same seat for a basketball game. Plus, the nosebleeds are often home to the most diehard fans.
Many of the chants that ring throughout the arena start in the cheap seats, and some outspoken Vancouver fans suddenly found themselves aggressively confronted by a dozen Kings fans that weren’t about to take it on the chin in their own arena. The action on the ice was not the only entertainment in Staples.
The seats, however, are only a minor reason for why hockey is the best sporting experience around.
Many hockey games, like soccer, are low-scoring, and the margin of victory is often narrow.
With such a small margin of victory, a single goal can easily be the difference between victory and defeat.
Add to that the high stakes of the playoffs and an environment is created where the attention, anxiety and emotions of two teams plus 18,118 fans hinge on literally every play. A quality scoring chance in hockey generates more fan excitement than most baskets in a basketball game.
The respect and knowledge fans have for the game is raised to a higher level for this very reason.
A penalty kill, a quality check, a save by the goalie or a near miss on a goal all evoke fan appreciation. The average hockey fan thus appreciates more nuances of the game than the average basketball fan.
When a goal does go in, it feels like one of the most joyful moments in a lifetime, as the crowd collectively echoes throughout the arena.
In that moment, seeing the fans’ faces, hearing their yells, and feeling the happiness flow out of them is a surreal experience.
When Anze Kopitar deftly evaded a Canucks defenseman on the right wing and snuck the puck past Canucks goalie Cory Schneider, the arena erupted in joy.
White towels waving against a backdrop of black jerseys heightened the happiness as a train horn blew and an uptempo rendition of Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” sounded through the arena as thousands sang along.
Ecstasy, singing and joy are not routine descriptions of sporting events, but they are the most apt words to describe the emotions in Staples following Kopitar’s goal, and even those terms come up a little short.
Though the Kings lost, the game was still a tremendous experience from start to finish, because a comeback never felt far away.
When there were scoring chances, the crowd would hold its collective breath and rise to its feet, only to see the Kings fail to capitalize, and exhale in agony, mutter expletives, and return glumly to their seats.
This loss, however, only proved to be a speed bump in the Kings’ journey through the playoffs, as the team buckled down, and gutted out a 2-1 overtime victory in Vancouver Sunday night to advance to the Western conference semi finals.
The Kings will face the St. Louis Blues, and much to the excitement of LA hockey fans, the Staples Center will host at least two more sessions of unbridled, raw, emotional mayhem, as the month of April gives way to May and the most exciting playoffs in North American sports continues towards one team proudly hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.
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