Within 17 seconds, the Blackhawks – Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland specifically – scored two goals, took the lead in game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals and all-but secured a championship for the Chicago hockey club. Without a doubt, the entire Stanley Cup run was exciting to witness. Come back series victories, overtime standoffs, a defeat of the hated Red Wings, unbelievable goalie performances and an ‘original six’ Stanley Cup Finals – the first such match up since ‘79 – all made for compelling playoff viewing. But the two pucks that found their way past Tuukka Rask in the span of those 17 seconds will be the catalyst that generates a new crop of lifetime Blackhawk fans. So-called band-wagoners will come and go, as they do in all sports and in all cities. The value or detriment of those types of fans can certainly be debated, at another time. But moments like this – much like Kane’s game winner in the 2010 Finals – turn casual playoff watchers into lifetime hockey fans; sweater wearing, regular season watching, hockey blog reading, playoff beard growing fans.
Some of us newly minted fans could previously count the number of games we’ve seen on two hands. But much like casual Bulls fans that saw Jordan’s switch-hand layup in the 1991 Bulls v. Lakers Finals, we will tune in again-and-again hoping to catch another moment like the ones we witnessed this summer. For years, my experience with hockey was limited to the NHL ‘96 SNES video game that taught me the names of Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov and Jeremy Roenick. Watching the games on television seemed like a waste of time with final scores resembling a baseball box score. A 2-0 hockey score says “low scoring game with little action.” But watching a game tells the real story – a very different one indeed. With frequent shots-on-goal, hard corner checks and the infrequent but popular penalty shot, hockey has plenty of action to keep fans intrigued. And, unlike a slow-paced baseball game, an NHL game is a fast watch, on average lasting just slightly over two hours. With only one timeout per team, the constant pause of a basketball game’s conclusion is nonexistent. Much like knee-bending curve balls and alley oop passes, hockey has its share of art as well. The best centers and forwards make puck handling seem as though the puck is tethered to the stick. Sleek passes for one-timers and hat trick performances make for memorable moments, even if they’ll never lead SportsCenter highlights. And in-stadium attendance offers fans a good view of the game regardless of the ticket price. Nose bleed seats in hockey offer a much better experience than in basketball and, especially, football. The ability to see in-game line changes, penalty kill attacks and defensive rotations seems just as interesting as a shot-on-goal attempt. The National Hockey League presents a fast-moving regular season sport that only intensifies come playoff time. The Blackhawks organization, with its two Stanley Cups in four seasons, has obviously found the best way to draw new fans to a game that is interesting yet complicated to learn.
Dump-and-chase, five-hole, deke, wrister and one timer. Most of these terms are foreign to new hockey fans. There is much to learn about this odd sport but here’s hoping that old-time hockey fans welcome newbies into the fold and take the time to explain the intricacies that make the game what it is. Regular season ties are a tough outcome for sports fans to swallow. But a rule change before the 05-06 season added the shootout to break ties in regular season games. Fewer ties and intense finishes added another reason for fans to tune in to non-playoff games. Penalties like slashing, tripping and elbowing make sense but spearing, boarding, washouts and icing require more exploration. This new league of hockey fans will figure it out, in time. If the 2013 viewership numbers were impressive, wait for next year’s jump. The top 33 highest-rated Blackhawks regular season games in Chicago regional sports network history happened this past season, a lockout shortened year. With the points streak record, playoff thrillers, star players and Stanley Cup championships, new fans find the Hawks every day. 17 seconds is all that it took to win over a city, creating fans that will last decades searching for another 17 seconds of hockey magic.