By Ryan McGowan
It’s almost May, and the Bruins are still alive in the playoffs, so you know what that means—I’m a hockey fan again.
Because I grew up in a baseball/football/basketball family (my brothers and I pretty much moved seamlessly from sport to sport, season after season, year after year), hockey was never on our radar screen as a kid. We just weren’t a Bruins family. I never owned a hockey stick, or played pond hockey like so many stereotypical suburban New England kids. The TV in our house was never tuned to WSBK for a January Bruins-Canadiens grudge match, but was always on the old SportsChannel for a midseason Celtics-Knicks tangle. I didn’t know Cam Neely from Kirk Cameron. Wales Conference? Adams Division? Ray Bourque? Might as well have been Mork from Ork.
I’m such a hypocrite sometimes when it comes to sports. Since I grew up with the Red Sox and attended my first game on Opening Day 1984, I look with disdain on the nouveaux “pink hats” who have come to dot the Nation’s landscape since the 2004 World Series championship. I laugh at their ignorance; I pity their total lack of knowledge about a sport that I’ve spent my whole life watching and playing. I listen to the “Ask a Pink Hat” segments on the Sports Hub’s morning “Toucher and Rich” show and I giggle hysterically in derision at the clueless female dolts who say that they think Clay Buchholz pitches for the Yankees, Jonathan Papelbon plays right field, and a “run” is when you run really fast to a base. How pathetic, I scoff.
Yet when it comes to the Bruins, I’m not much better than your typical Britney from Woburn whose favorite player is Jacoby Ellsbury but has never gotten past his dreamy eyes to actually know what side of the plate he bats from. OK, I’m not that bad; I can at least name the positions on the ice, I get the basic rules and strategy of hockey, and I recognize most of the players’ names when I hear them (even though I usually can’t identify any of them on the ice, outside of the Goliath-like Zdeno Chara, whose jersey t-shirt with #33 on the back is, incidentally, the only piece of Bruins apparel I own). But still, my level of knowledge of hockey pales in comparison to my understanding of the other three sports, and especially around most red-blooded males in the 617 area code, and especially on the North Shore.
But what I discover every time I jump on the Bruins bandwagon is the joy of being a pink hat fan. It’s extremely liberating, in a twisted “ignorance is bliss” kind of way. When I watch a Red Sox game, I’m analyzing every pitch, I’m thinking about the location of the next pitch, I’m considering next inning’s lineup and who’s due up fourth, I’m creating in my mind elaborate symbolic metaphors and assigning universal earth-shattering deep meanings and valuations of life and human society based upon whether Josh Beckett can throw a strike on a 3-and-1 count with two men on. When I watch hockey, I’m lucky if I can get past thoughts of “I really hope I can actually see a goal get scored today!” I’m too busy trying to figure out who we’re playing and which team is going in which direction. I’m trying to remember how many players are on the ice at once—is it 5? 6? 7? Does that include the goalie or not?
It’s nice not to have any idea of what constitutes a penalty. When I watch the Patriots, I’ll get incensed if an obvious holding call against Vince Wilfork is missed, or a Brady touchdown pass is negated by an offensive pass interference call which looks suspect. Celtics games bring out spirited screams of “That was a CHARGE!” and “How can they NOT call that a travel?” Luckily, when it comes to hockey I have no idea what the hell constitutes tripping, slashing, high-sticking (but I have a sense of what that means), or cross-checking—though I am pretty sure that after 31 years I’ve finally figured out what icing is and what happens when it is called.
I’m enjoying not having playoff baggage to worry about. A Red Sox playoff series carries the burden of a winter of perpetual discontent that will inevitably follow a loss and especially a collapse. A Patriots playoff loss promises six months of angst-ridden complaining from a fan base that has learned to expect annually what once we only dreamed about: a dominant, mistake-free regular season followed by another storybook Super Bowl title. When the Celtics take the floor against the Cavaliers this week, I’ll have a nagging feeling in my head that a loss by the Green will be the harbinger of the end of the Big Three and the return to suckitude that we last saw in 2007 (pre-Garnett and Allen). But even though the true, hard-core Bruins fans have their own insecurities and hang-ups about the team (mostly involving the B’s being “Cup-Free Since ‘73”), I am not losing any sleep worrying that next Saturday might be the last day I get to watch hockey for six months.
So I’m excited about this Bruins-Flyers series. I’ll put on that aforementioned Chara t-shirt, have my “Penalty (ice hockey)” Wikipedia entry open on my laptop, and enjoy a fun, pink-hat-wearing playoff series again. I might not know the difference between hooking and spearing, and I have no clue about the subtleties between left wingers and right wingers, unless it has something to do with Tea Parties. But I’m enjoying being able to watch sports and not feel completely emotionally invested in the outcome—and I’ll need it, because it will free me up to prepare for a long summer of Red Sox mediocrity, the long-awaited crowning of King James and the Cleveland Cavs, and the impending collapse of the entire Patriots franchise. Go Bruins.