This morning my alarm went off at 7.30am (20 luxurious minutes later than usual) and I forced myself out of bed to confront my pale, panda-eyed reflection in the bathroom mirror. You see I had only gone to sleep at 4.30am and 3 hours is just not enough sleep. Okay so I'd also had a brief nap after The Apprentice: You're Fired but that is still not nearly enough sleep. So what was that all about then? Rampant insomnia? Approaching a breakthrough in my secret efforts to cure all the world's diseases? Playing The Sims and losing track of time? Well, being completely honest, that last one has happened before, but this time it was the fault of Lord Stanley.
I didn't really know much about ice hockey until the Belfast Giants suddenly appeared on the scene and my friends and I decided to check out what all the fuss was about. That first time I didn't really understand a lot of it. How many periods are there? Why do they keep stopping all the time? Did they just put that big burly hockey player on some kind of enclosed naughty step? And what the heck is "icing" when it's at home? However there was just something about it that really appealed to me. It was fast, it was furious and the game could change in quite literally the blink of an eye. Men were shoving each other up against plexiglass with impressive-sounding thuds and punching each other in the head… and it was being almost encouraged! How intriguing…
As time went by I went to a couple more games here and there and slowly got a little more familiar with the rules but then I moved to England to live with the Yorkshireman and our most local team (the Sheffield Steelers) were a bit too far away on public transport to bother with. Since we moved back to Belfast five years ago we've been to see the Giants a couple more times but not quite as often as we would like.
So when we were planning our big trip to New York last year, the Yorkshireman struck upon the idea of going to see an NHL game over there. He, and indeed also my sister, apparently spent manys a wee small hour of the morning watching NHL games on Channel 5 back in their student days and had been mourning the channel's loss of coverage the past few years. Luckily we now have ESPN America who screen some of the games but I didn't really know any of the teams and the games were always on at ridonculous o'clock so I never really bothered with them.
However I'm always eager to expand my horizons and with the assurances from the Yorkshireman and my sister that the NHL was "freaking awesome", I was up for it and gave the Yorkshireman my blessing to select the seats of his choice at Madison Square Garden for a game whilst we were there. The game turned out to be New York Rangers vs Boston Bruins. At first I wondered who I should support. On the one hand we were going to be actually in New York and it seemed only polite to root for the home team. However the Boston Bruins had recently condescended to visit our lowly little country to play a bit of a pre-season friendly against the Belfast Giants. Choices, choices…
In the end I decided to lend my loyalty the New York Rangers and boy did they charm me. During our visit they were celebrating their 85th anniversary and we even got free commemorative posters. I do love to get something for nothing! In fact I loved absolutely everything about that experience: the Brooklyn Brewery lager in the commemorative plastic cups we brought home and still use daily, my first ever soft pretzel, the electric atmosphere in MSG, Whoopi Goldberg in the crowd and, of course, the game, man.
It was enthralling and high-speed and violent and skilful all at once. It's unusual for any sports game to hold my attention solidly but I only really started flagging a bit after 3 huge beers and when the exhaustion of a whole day of hardcore touristing had started to hit home. And still I was gripped. The Yorkshireman blogged a good account of it all but in summary the New York Rangers lost the game but they won my heart and henceforth became "my team".
And so, ever since we returned from the Land of the Free and I carefully unpacked my newly purchased K-Mart Rangers merchandise (what? The official stuff is expensive dude!) I've been more into ice hockey than ever before. Our TV is tuned in to ESPN America on a regular basis and I've tried staying up to ridonculous o'clock to watch on the odd occasion they've screened a Rangers game. I even downloaded the ESPN app when I got my new Android phone a few months back, just to keep up to date with all the scores.
The more I watch, the more I "get it", and so when the end of the standard league games approached and people started talking about the Stanley Cup playoffs, I felt myself get a little excited. I was absolutely over the moon when the Rangers scraped through and consequently a bit gutted when, admittedly quite expectedly, they didn't make it very far. However by this stage I was just hooked on the competition - my loyalties changed for each series based on completely arbitrary factors but I just enjoy rooting for someone.
Eventually, for the Eastern Conference, it came down to Tampa Bay Lightning and our old friends the Boston Bruins. Again I felt a little torn as to who I should support. On the one hand we'd seen Boston play and also that whole coming-to-Belfast thing worked in their favour again, but then they had also beaten my precious Rangers. On the other hand we had a vague appreciation for Tampa Bay because in order for the Rangers to get into the playoffs, Tampa Bay had to beat Carolina Hurricanes in their last game and, accompanied by a plethora of Rangers fans chanting "lets go Lightning, lets go!", they did just that, so they'd done us a bit of a favour. In the end though I felt a bit of a kinship with the Bruins (maybe it's all the Irish people in Boston, who knows) and so we decided they would be our team of choice.
The winners of the Western Conference were the Vancouver Canucks and on 1 June they were facing-off in game 1. For those unfamiliar with the rules of the Stanley Cup, they play to a "best of 7" kind of rule, so the first team to win 4 games wins the Cup. This of course adds an element of uncertainty to the whole affair. If you have one team completely whitewashing the other, the series can be over in 4 games. However if your teams are fairly evenly matched it can go right to game 7. Thankfully the latter was the case with this Stanley Cup Final and last night it was the über-exciting game 7.
Obviously going all the way to game 7 is much more exciting and it means more ice hockey to watch. These are good things. However it also means staying up to ridonculous o'clock more times to watch the extra games. This is a bad thing, especially when you have work the next day. Especially especially when there is more than one mid-week game in the same week. Especially especially especially when you're supposed to be going to the gym the next evening too after very little sleep and a whole day at work. Next year I must remember to keep at least 4 days of leave aside for the 4th (and potentially 5th, 6th and 7th) game of the Stanley Cup finals so that I can at least have a bit of a lie-in the next morning!
It had been quite an exciting series to date. The Canucks were home for the first two games and they won them both. It wasn't looking good for the Bruins. However the Bruins were at home for the second two games and they completely trounced the Canucks. They were back in the running - it was all terribly exciting! Game 5 was another home victory for the Canucks, meaning they were 3-2 up and had the chance to clinch it at Game 6. Thankfully they didn't and the Bruins skilfully whomped them, making it a 3-3 tie and it was off to Vancouver for the final game. How thrilling!
So last night, the Yorkshireman, my sister and I gathered for one last, late-night, mid-week hockey night to cheer on the Bruins. We had no idea which way it was likely to go. The Bruins had started slow but when they won against the Canucks they beat 'em good. However the Canucks had won all of their home games so far. It was too close to call. Instead I concentrated on predicting just how delightful Hockey Night in Canada presenter Don Cherry's suit would be. With every game I am certain he has reached the pinnacle of, erm, "uniqueness" with his suits and yet with every game he surpasses my expectations. Kudos, Mr Cherry, kudos. This is last night's feat of tailoring:
Photo blatently stolen from a brilliant little blog called 'Don We Now Our Gay Apparel', dedicated to the Cherry's wardrobe.
Breathtaking, I think you'll agree. It's totally worth watching Don tell it like it is in his Coach's Corner section. Essentially he rants merrily away about the game, sometimes nonsensically, whilst his co-presenter Ron MacLean, who we have nicknamed "Staring Ron" for reasons that become apparent as soon as you watch them together, looks on and occasionally tries to get a word in edgeways. It's a wonderful televisual treat to help pass those boring moments between periods.
So anyway, last night's game was awesome. I won't go into a play-by-play account because, well, I don't have the knowledge, memory or patience for all that, but essentially the Bruins totally stormed it, winning the game 4-0 and taking the Stanley Cup. Woooo! The Bruins woooed a lot too, I was pleased to see. One also briefly swore when he lifted the cup but yet did not seem to face the same damnation as Wayne Rooney - perhaps with ice hockey, it's just expected, just like it's expected to shove ones opponent into plexiglass as hard as you can and occasionally break someone's nose.
Speaking of breakages, there were some "oooooo… ouch!" moments in this Stanley Cup, mostly at the hand of Bruins player Boychuck! I bring them to you courtesy of YouTube:
The first was in game 7 of the Tampa Bay Lightning vs Boston Bruins series, where Lightning player Stamkos got his face well and truly pucked up:
The second was actually looking pretty hairy for a while. It was actually in the early stages of the penultimate game of the Finals on Monday night (well, ok Tuesday morning here) when Bruins player Boychuck had a bit of a run-in with Canucks player Raymond:
There was a lot of concern about his lack of movement and we, even as Bruins supporters, were eager for news that he was ok. Eventually word came back that he had suffered a vertebrae compression fracture (ouch dude!) and would be out of the game for 3-4 months recovering. So you know when you're watching that clip back, and the dude gets hauled to his feet and made to skate off the ice? Broken spine! Dude!!! However you've gotta give these hockey guys credit where it's due - two short days later and Raymond was sitting in the crowd watching game 7 in a rather stunning upper body cast. I would have been lying in a hospital bed begging for morphine but that's just me!
Injuries aside, the other noteworthy point was none other than the Boston Bruins' goaltender, Tim Thomas. The Yorkshireman had remembered Thomas as being a star player even from seeing him play against the Rangers in November and TimTom (as he was dubbed by us) has continued to impress since. I'm fairly confident in saying that without him the Bruins wouldn't have had a shot at winning the Cup. The man can stop pucks in the most unlikely ways, be it between his ankles or by just going for broke and throwing his whole body on top of it. If he has any choice in the matter, that puck will not see the other side of that goal line! He's incredibly bendy too, which led to my sister commenting that he had "stripper legs" and a few minutes' reflection on how well he might do at pole dancing. We agreed that he would definitely be able to hold his own with the Candys and Honeys of the world and that, whilst he should wear his full goaltending uniform, he could leave his helmet off. We may be alone in our deliberation about TimTom's potential success in the field of erotic dancing (and a bit strange if unapologetic), but evidently we were not alone in thinking how awesomely he played, as he also picked up the Most Valuable Player award last night. Well done TimTom - very well deserved.
I actually think I have a little "thing" for NHL goaltenders. Henrik Lundqvist for the New York Rangers is also on my "you are just freaking awesome dude!" list. I look forward to seeing them both play again next season. But I shall have to wait. We're now entering that brief sports dry spell in the summer where there are no exciting games to watch. And no, tennis, cricket and golf do not count - I would rather staple my own hand than waste hours of my life intentionally boring myself in such a manner. I'm sure I'll be back debating whether or not to stay up until 4am on a work night again before I know it but in the meantime I have a slightly empty feeling inside now that all the excitement is over. Maybe I should take up a hobby. I've got to learn the words to the USA and Canadian national anthems before the next NHL season starts anyway ("mmmmm mmmm mmmm mmmmmm O Canada we stand on guard for theeeeee" is seemingly not an acceptable way to sing along) so there's a start.