This past January, the NHL owners backed off of their harsh demands of the players union, finally ending the NHL lockout just before the midnight deadline. The owners relented because they knew that they could not afford to lock out the playoffs.

Why? Because the NHL playoffs are awesome.

Of course, no hockey fan is going to pretend that the sport has the same popularity and coverage as the biggest three American sports, and no American hockey fan is going to pretend that sport’s popularity is anywhere near the level of its popularity in Canada. (For reference, Google Image search “Edmonton water usage 2010 Olympics.”) However, I will tell you that anyone who isn’t tuning into the NHL playoffs, especially this year, is missing out on an incredibly fascinating set of games at a point in the calendar when we desperately need it.

Personally, I’m tired of Todd McShay, Mel Kiper Jr. and Mel Kiper Jr.’s hair telling us whom each team is going to pick in the NFL draft, only to have them change their minds a week later. Actually, I’ve been tired of it since February. Nothing football-related is as intense as football itself, and a lot of the false hype that comes from things like the draft amounts to nothing, since it’s almost impossible for any sports writer to get more than 10 picks correct out of the first round of 32 anyway.

Baseball has just kicked off, and America’s pastime should always be near the front of sports fans’ minds. But in a season of 162 games, and with plenty of trades yet to be made, how intense can any of these games in April really feel?
Finally, there’s basketball, which is rightfully at the peak of its hype. The NBA playoffs are exciting … but not as exhilarating as many would hope they’d be. There may be some close games in the early rounds of the playoffs, but unfortunately, most of those won’t end up mattering in the end. According to ESPN sabermetrician John Hollinger’s playoff odds, only two teams have more than a 12 percent chance of winning the title. When I’m watching these early-round games, I can’t help but get the feeling that we’ll have forgotten all about them once Miami and OKC face off in the finals again.

The three biggest American sports consider this time of year essential, but none of their storylines provide the same around-the-clock intensity that sports fans like myself would like. That’s where hockey enters the equation.
It must be noted that hockey’s playoffs are much more competitive than basketball’s, and a team of any seed can win the championship, a fact that undeniably adds to the tension of every play. Last year, the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings defeated the sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Finals. Every game in every round of the NHL playoffs counts.
Also, if you prefer to see your favorite sports played with raw energy and emotion at all times, as any good fan should, then you need to give the NHL a shot. The NBA’s commissioner, David Stern, fines players for breathing on each other too heavily; in hockey, extreme physicality is the norm, and the players show a level of determination that’s almost unheard of in other sports.

With this year’s lockout delaying the schedule, the latter parts of the first round of the playoffs — which might be the best collection of games packed into a few days other than March Madness — will be in full swing when final exams end.
There is only one instance in which hockey players show more desire than during the NHL playoffs, and that is during the hockey tournament at the Olympic Games every four years, when the players demonstrate passion comparable to that showed during the World Cup.
What’s more, the Olympics allow players to promote the highest level of their sport for the whole world to see — for free. Sure, injuries happen, and injuries hurt cash flows. But the reward is far greater than the risk. The NHL needs to release its players next February to let them showcase the best hockey can offer.

If you tune into a few NHL playoff games over the next two months, and if the NHL’s owners give you the opportunity to watch the sport at an even higher level in the next Winter Olympics, then I guarantee that I’ll have you hooked on hockey soon enough.

You can thank me later.

Tom Hoff is a sophomore in the McDonough School of Business. This is the final appearance of DOWN TO THE WIRE this semester.

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