Thursday, 13 August 2009

Hope Springs Eternal

It's that time of the year where every person who watches the game starts coming up with their pre-season rankings for how the NHL Playoffs will look come April 2010. They run through the reasons why each team improved or regressed, they make declarations as to who needs to come up big for each team, and they rationalize why Team A is ranked tenth in the Western Conference rather than ninth. And that's cool because everyone is entitled to an opinion. But what do the fans think? If you're a fan of the Phoenix Coyotes, and you see that The Hockey News has ranked you dead last in the Western Conference, is there any point in even following hockey this season?

In one word? Yes. Follow me here as I go off the path to explain why fans cling to this eternal hope, and why that hope is what makes sports so good.

Let me be the first to say that when it came to the Stanley Cup Final last year, no one predicted that the Pittsburgh Penguins would be there after they sat in tenth-place in the Eastern Conference with 25 games to play. There were people saying that the Penguins may not even make the playoffs. Yet every Pittsburgh Penguins fan believed that they would be competing for the Stanley Cup again despite the seemingly impossible task that was in front of them.

If you believed the pundits last season, Detroit was a lock to win their second consecutive Stanley Cup. It was talked about all season long as they battled the San Jose Sharks for the President's Trophy and the first seed in the Western Conference. But injuries caught up the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final, and the balance shifted. However, Red Wings fans are already predicting that their team will be hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2009-10 because of their continued success.

In both cases, fans clung to the eternal hope that their team would deliver and overcome the odds that had been presented before them. No one gave up, no one gave in. It was "us against the world" when it came to the fans because they cling to the hope that their team will reach the promised land and bring home the Silver Chalice.

So what of the Islanders and Coyotes? They were ranked last in their respective conferences by The Hockey News. Should fans of these two teams just throw their arms up and say "I'm done"?

My answer is no. Your reason why? The St. Louis Blues.

Look, the Blues went on an incredible run after the All-Star Game break last season. They literally shot up the Western Conference standings simply because they worked hard, they seized opportunities, and they made their own luck. St. Louis didn't back into the playoffs in the final weekend. No, they claimed the sixth seed simply because they were willing to work harder than the seventh or eighth seeds.

You always hear about how coaches talk about "Charlie Hustle" and how "effort trumps talent ten out of ten times". When combined, however, talent AND a solid work ethic produces excellent results. St. Louis bought into head coach Andy Murray's system and requirements to work hard, and they went from the bottom third of the Western Conference to the sixth seed and a playoff spot.

At no point did St. Louis Blues fans write their team off for the season. Sure, it looked bleak, but it also looked pretty bad for Pittsburgh, and I'd say their season turned out pretty well. Blues fans kept saying that their team was good enough, but just needed something to get them into the playoff picture. Well, not only did a little hard work put them in the picture, but they turned it into a three-dimensional piece of art. With this effort, their fans' hopes were turning into reality as the youth-infused, injury-plagued Blues made the playoffs.

While reality sets in that the Islanders and Coyotes probably can't compete with the likes of the Capitals, Bruins, Red Wings, or Sharks night in and night out based on talent alone, there is no reason that they cannot outwork these elite teams. When fans see their team giving everything they have, losses don't hurt as much because they know the players they are cheering on are giving it their all. With that knowledge, the seeds of hope are planted for the next game where maybe the Islanders can outwork a more talented team and steal a win.

With each game marked by hard work and effort, the seeds of hope are also planted long-term. It's what sells season tickets, it's what sells merchandise, it's what brings people to the arena, and it's what keeps us - the fans - going through the summer of changing addresses when free agency opens. Teams add and subtract, teams wheel and deal, and teams look to make themselves better so that they have a chance at the Stanley Cup.

And we, the fans, hope that our respective teams have done enough to get the Lord Stanley's Cup. It's that hope that gets re-kindled every off-season, and the fire is stoked as the season opens.

Hope springs eternal in fans. It's what draws us back to our teams each and every season.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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