The axiom has been an article of faith in this remote outpost for the last 36 years, but it nonetheless bears repeating at this rather special moment. At its best -- when the level of intensity reaches a certain zenith and the finest in the world at the craft are playing for that dinged and nicked old bauble they reverence as "the Stanley Cup" -- there is no better game than the game of ice hockey.
Note, please, that I am saying there is "none better." Others under comparably special circumstances are as good. But not better. You only have a problem with the fact that's often times not properly understood.
In hockey, when mere reason is vacated and a desperate exhaustion lifts the combatants above and beyond their logical limits that is when the game becomes surreal and a near perfection of the competitive spirit is realized. You saw it in the 1964 Finals when Bobby Baun -- playing the last two games on a broken leg -- led the Maple Leafs over the Red Wings for the Cup. You saw it just the other night when Steven Stamkos, a gallant lad from Tampa -- took a 90 mile an hour slap-shot between the eyes -- and returned to play five minutes later.
They used to say back when wars were fought by lots of guys burrowed into the dirt and facing each other over vast fields of carnage that there were "no atheists in fox holes." Well there are none of them either hurtling over the boards to join the fray on the ice when it's sudden death and there are no more games scheduled and they are wondering if this is what Armageddon must be like. One recognizes the analogy is extreme and appreciates that war and sport have little else in common. But tell that to the spear-carriers of the Lightning and Bruins who wove that epic magic that so captivated us in Game Seven of this year's Stanley Cup semi-finals.
Hockey players are different from other people who play games for a living. I do not necessarily maintain they are more talented, intelligent, dedicated, loyal, or more caring, giving, sporting or courageous than the chaps in the other callings.
Nothing takes more guts than to stand up to the raging rush of demonic linebackers or to dig in against a skittish kid who is throwing 101 miles per hour. There have been no better exhibitions of sheer will and a spirit bordering on the invincible than what we've seen from tennis players battling for Wimbledon's precious honors in recent years. And people who know argue there's no greater pressure than having to stand over a 15 foot putt that can win you the Masters if you make it. I buy all of that.
But what sets the hockey player apart is his love of what he does. I have heard professional players from every game under the sun argue fervently that they would play their game for "nothing" if they had to but the only ones I really believed were the hockey players. They are devoted to their game and steeped in its lore and legendry whereas it has often seemed a mark of sophistication for a baseball player to claim he doesn't bother to watch a game in which he is not participating.
Hockey is more a religion than the other games. It is more tribal. There is something almost Masonic about it. Does it qualify as a cult? One wonders. It is codified and if the laws are unwritten they are no less binding. Suffering can be ritualized and it is definitely honored. Players who have played in pain, conquered it, or especially been conquered by it tend to be romanticized. It's a warrior's mentality that governs the game. It may even be a tad medieval. Hockey has an oral history and it's highly anecdotal. Tales of grit and gore are the most favored and they are passed down from generation to generation like the epic poems of the primal societies once were over campfires. All the games have tradition, but hockey's tradition is a living one.
Are hockey players better guys? Many sportswriters and broadcasters -- especially those who don't regularly cover hockey -- have been inclined to think so over the years and I've sometimes found that amusing. It's a more a working-class game than the others with perhaps a more middle-class mindset and there's no question the labor force is more diverse, coming from upwards to a dozen places besides America where we specialize in spoiling jocks, and the hockey blend can be rich.
What most media-folks find most appealing about them is that uppity airs are uncommon. Egos tend to be under better control. The game's ethos compels it. The locker room is heavily regulated. A premium is placed on being "down to earth." It's hard for a hockey player to get too big for his britches and remain one of the boys and if you are not one of "the boys" life on a hockey team can be pretty miserable. It's an old fashioned condition that contemporary sophisticates might find out of style but working-media folks really dig all that, being too often required to cope with the very different moods, pretensions, and assumptions that abound elsewhere in the complex kingdom of fun and games.
Does all that mean hockey players are better people in terms of being more intrinsically moral, worthy, or righteous? It will be a cold day in "you know where" when I get into that territory.
But they are -- as a breed -- simply more likeable. I'd bet the ranch that's the answer you would get if you held a plebiscite of all the people who must work with that highly privileged American sub-species, "The Athlete" -- be they amateur, professional or vaguely in between -- and include among your voters those who work at the fields and parks, wash the socks and jocks, who ferry them about in cabs and busses, planes and trains, who tell them what to do and how to do it, who sign their checks or sell their product, and especially, those who write, speak and report about what they do, say and think, while both exalting them and debunking them for better or worse, by which I mean ... "us."
It's easier to identity with hockey players. They are the kids who once lived down the street and as old men are more likely to end up living up the street. They are more often just ordinary people.
None of this has anything to do with the nice sporting pageant about to sweep back and forth across from the extremes of the entire continent over the next couple of weeks. Your Bruins do have a fighting chance. There's no superpower reigning in the NHL in this age of an emphatically enforced and diluted parity but Vancouver comes close. The Canucks are the favorites and ought to be. On the other hand, attitude, desire, chutzpah, spirit, tenacity, character -- call it what you will -- can have more influence on the outcome of a hockey tourney than the ultimate showdowns of all the other games; that being yet another of hockey's notable virtues.
The Bruins are sure to bring ferocity to the cause. The games will be passionate and if Goalie Tim Thomas -- a true working class "Everyman" of a sports hero if ever there was one -- can stand on his head making impossible saves a time or two they could even bring this fairy tale to a glorious conclusion. But if they fall short you have to hope the good hockey burghers of Greater Boston will understand, in spite of the desperate yearning for another swig from Lord Stanley's old Cup after a near 40-year drought.
In important ways, they have already triumphed. When they lifted the roof off the new playpen on Causeway Street in those last seven minutes against the valiant Lightning they demonstrated for us the game's capacity for "magic." It was a gift.