Millions of people dedicate Sunday afternoons not to post-religious family gatherings, nor to pumpkin and apple picking; instead, they reserve these final precious weekend hours for what has grown into a pure phenomena in American culture: football. Likewise, each October fathers and sons huddle on couches across the nation to watch the two best baseball teams settle the American past-time’s most prestigious event, the World Series. Outside the continental United Sates, fanatical footballers pack pubs and family dens, rise at all hours of the night, and drape themselves in colors of allegiance to follow each strike and pass of the World Cup. Yet, despite the fans fervent emotions and remarkable dedication, and in spite of the athletes’ tremendous talents, these sports simply do not showcase the most versatile and physically gifted competitors our collective athletic arenas can hold.
Although Pele could undress defenders with exquisite balance and precise ball control just before rainbowing himself and finishing a full volley in the top corner, his abilities do not match that of a man who skates at breakneck speed in small spaces while stick-handling a puck that wishes for nothing more than escape. Yes, Josh Hamilton can launch an endless string of homeruns into the New York night, but his skill set wanes in comparison to the toothless veteran streaking past the blue-line whose slap shot eclipses 95 mph. And even the immortal Joe Montana, who guided countless comebacks from South Bend to San Francisco with an effortless eloquence and a rifle for an arm fails to equal the grace of a Canadian-born rookie cutting the freshly zambonied ice before slamming the opposing center into the boards and earning the icing call.
Simply put, professional hockey players represent the best overall athletes the world offers. While devoted football, baseball, soccer, and basketball fans would generate compelling arguments that support their sport’s dominance, one just cannot debate the true condition, dexterity, and skill a hockey player requires versus his professional counterparts. Physically, these athletes must possess Adonis-like strength and the speed of a cheetah; no beer bellies or slugs allowed on the ice at Madison Square Garden. Skill-wise, they must have the pure balance and grace of a prima ballerina and the hand-eye coordination of the most accomplished top gun pilot. On top of that, they must be mentally tough, mean, and willing to sacrifice their body to the lightning quick puck or the hard charging beast of a man who wants to paste them permanently into the glass.
While taking nothing away from the obvious talents of other professional athletes, not as much is demanded of them. First basemen can routinely fail to see their own belt buckles and would have trouble defeating their own shadow in a race. Linemen, while quick for their size, have the endurance of the eighty-six year-old woman stricken with emphysema playing the slots at Mohegan Sun. And world-class forwards, those who draw drunk and sober fans alike to the pitch, maintain the true upper body strength of a prepubescent boy who was forced to take his shirt off at his middle school crush’s pool party. They all succeed within the confines of their own sports, yet none hold the raw ability and trained skill across the dynamic athlete spectrum as the hockey player.
Hockey will never receive the respect it feels it deserves here in the United States, nor should it. Our country’s athletic cornerstones appear in towns in Florida and Arizona when pitchers and catchers report during February, and in tailgating parking lots each Sunday of stadiums so massive that they could hold all of Rhode Island’s residents. NBA basketball and its annual lottery that insures that some thug will make millions draws countless fans, and the final round of even the smallest professional golf tournament captures the interest of more people than hockey ever will. However, although it will probably never reach the status in the American sports landscape that tennis or WWE wrestling cherishes, the point is simple: hockey players are the fastest, strongest, and most skilled athletes in the world.