Hello, it’s your favorite little hockey nerd! I am a diehard hockey but every year when the preseason schedule is announced, I get surprised.
You’d think I was sitting at home, counting down the days as if it were Christmas. Like a hockey advent calendar, just crossing out one day off at a time. Alas, I was not. Honestly, I barely had enough time to recover from the Stanley Cup, work my butt off in my summer jobs and try in vain to tan my porcelain, Eastern European skin before it happened. It’s always like this. I’m caught off guard, pants down, and unprepared. And honestly, I feel like that’s most hockey fans.
That’s only exacerbated by having been away for a month on business in Hong Kong, one of the hottest cities I’ve ever been in. When I asked my coworker where to find a hockey rink, he pointed me to a “field hockey court” in a park across the street. There isn’t even grass in the park.
Needless to say, I was shook, surprised, and sprinting to be ready for the season knowing that I missed most of the preseason games. Hockey preseason just isn’t celebrated in the same way that other sports celebrate their first days. It’s not like Spring Training in the MLB or the first day of training camp for the NFL. I’ve never counted down the days or texted a friend a happy start-of-the-preseason message. Hell, I usually barely watch and only started to when I started writing for The Turf.
So why am I telling you this?
In watching the preseason this year and last year, I have started to experience guilt for not paying more attention. This is the time of year when young bloods are fighting for final spots or risk being sent back to farm teams. Some of those guys will play their absolute best hockey in this short little blip of time each year. New coaches acquired in the offseason are testing their sea legs. Dave Tippett: I’m staring into your soul along with the entire city of Edmonton. Players are reconditioning, repositioning and creating new systems that will shape the season.
Yes, it’s only preseason, but my goodness can it get exciting. I sat down to watch a few games after returning stateside and recovering from jet lag. There’s something innocent about this style of hockey. The teams are sizing each other up, gently testing what’s happened in the months since last contact.
Maybe it’s the timing of finishing in June and starting in September, but I had a very “back-to-school” sensation watching these games.
There are some new kids in the hallways and the whole league is trying to place them where they belong. Rather than seeing who grew six inches or who puberty while strolling the lockers since June, we’re watching new lines or defensive pairings. We’re scoping the new kids not to sift them into a clique but to assess their skills and threat level. New coaches are new advanced chemistry teachers to impress. By the time we hit October, just when the rhythm of our class schedules and homework, our hockey teams will hit the ice with the records at stake. High schoolers will be trying to find dates to winter formal as players race towards the trade deadline for safety. It all fits together in an odd way.
And maybe that’s just very comforting for the month of September. It’s the moment before the drama before you’re relegated to the marching band’s table in the cafeteria or someone has publicly humiliated you Mean Girls-style. It’s innocence, hope, and trying to prove to everyone you are worth something in the pros. And-luckily for us-it isn’t high school. The Stanley Cup is much more important than homecoming king or queens and much more skill-based.
And now a month into the regular season:
These new kids have matter more than ever. Right out of the gate, multiple teams had massive additions to the injury list. In the first games, the Pittsburgh Penguins had their biggest players-Crosby, Malkin, Rust, Hornqvist-all riding the pine. St Louis just lost Tarasenko for what could be the entire season. The Bruins have a total of eight players on the IR or day-to-day right now! The minor leaguers that played in the playoffs are being called up and rotated in at a rapid rate. Their play determined that who got that call. And now, when I get a notification on my phone of a player change, I know more of them than I used to.
To those who say the preseason doesn’t matter:
You aren’t entirely wrong. No game affects the standings. The scores are almost purely symbolic. But it’s hockey at it’s purest forms. It is guys working hard to earn a spot. Injuries are giving some of them that reward. And most importantly, it’s a warm-up to the real thing. Welcome to Fall. Welcome to hockey. May Lord Stanley’s odds be ever in your favor.