The NHL has garnered the reputation of being the sports world's version of the Abe Simpson old-man-yells-at-cloud meme.
With an average TV audience of around 50 years old and most of its big-name guys opting for cliches and predictable rhetoric rather than controversial soundbites in pressers and interviews, the culture of the league takes its lickings quite a bit, while the NHL is prone to getting blasted for failing to connect on a personal level with its fans and butchering the marketing of its stars.
We've covered this stuff before, and written about how to fix the NHL.
But, the reality is, the league (maybe not those in positions of power) is actually the shit, despite what a bunch of grumpy-ass cynics would like to have you believe.
The NHL is blessed with an insane amount of young, star talent right now, has some compelling storylines, and features at least one social-media star mascot.
This seems like a good place to start, so we'll get the beautiful Gritty out of the way with right off the hop, and explain the many reasons why the NHL is great.
Seriously, though, what the fuck is this thing? Quite honestly it really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things but I, like the rest of the world, am just very curious and a little weary of this googly-eyed, strung-out freak. Will Gritty—the biggest star in hockey at the moment—become the first mascot to check into a world-renowned substance rehab center for abusing Wite-Out and Listerine? Maybe the first to try and hijack an airplane? Could it be the only team mascot ever to stab another in the chest with a rusty shoe horn after a turf dispute? It's clear that all of those are distinct possibilities once you take a deep dive into Gritty's contentious childhood and upbringing on the cold, hard streets of West Philly.
It might be a young man's game now, but Ovechkin is still the coolest thing around. Ovi almost scored 50 goals again last season (he's already hit the elusive milestone seven times) and is coming off his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL's highest goal scorer. No one in NHL history has led the league in goals more times than the big Russian has and, at 33 years old, he finally won his first Stanley Cup after 13 years of Dan Marino-style disappointment—which led to one of the greatest postseason benders we've ever witnessed. Sure No. 8 can score goals with the best of them, but the man can also keg-stand and black out in a water fountain at a level not yet seen until now.
Seriously, how fuckin' cool is it that Vegas has a hockey team? The NHL became the first of the four major North American sports entities to breach the Las Vegas market when the Golden Knights were born last season, and holy shit what a party that's turned out to be. Crazy ass theatrical performances with swords and fire and dragons and castles and shit highlighted the insane pregame festivities during the playoffs last spring, while the booze-fueled atmosphere outside the arena and on the strip is second to none when the Golden Knights happen to be playing. Bucket list shit right here.
The most impressive thing that the Vegas fan base proved in its inaugural season is that it's in touch with the sport's longest-standing and most important tradition—booing the living shit out of commissioner Gary Bettman at every available opportunity. It's a ceremonious delicacy as old as the sport itself (not really, but close it seems) and fan bases across the league have nailed it time and time again. Whether he's about to dole out the Cup, hitting the draft podium to announce a trade or talking some nonsense at the NHL awards, hockey fans collectively know how and when to make it absolutely rain boos on this man.
The Stanley Cup
Speaking of the Stanley Cup and tradition and all related debauchery, what a beauty of a fucking dish this is, eh? Aside from the actual size and uniqueness of the massive trophy, the tradition that surrounds it is incredible. From it being handed to the players who actually did shit to earn it instead of team owners, to engraving the individual names of each champion right into the silver, to each member of the winning squad being able to take the Cup home for a day—there is no trophy in sports that has been filled with as much liquor and nose beers as this sweet trophy and none have seen the inside of more strip clubs or the bottom of more swimming pools, either.
Another tradition we love: playoff beards. As the unwritten rules state, players that qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs do not touch a razor from the day the regular season ends until they're eliminated from postseason contention. That is unless you play under a complete dictator like Lou Lamoriello, who has a no facial hair policy for his players no matter the time of year because he's a boring old crab. At least with Sweet Lou leaving Toronto in favor of the younger, hipper Kyle Dubas, we can now find out exactly what a bearded Leafs squad will look like after an imminent Stanley Cup triumph.
When you think of legendary year-round beards in hockey, one man immediately comes to mind: Jumbo Joe Thornton. This man's chin blanket must've gotten down to his belly button at some point and probably added an extra 10 pounds to his playing weight, but that sacrifice of performance in the pursuit of the perfect beard is what makes this game truly great and what makes Joe a true superstar. Unfortunately, however, all great things must come to an end. RIP, sweet prince.
Burns and Karlsson
Even with an aging legend like Thornton a year or two away from retirement and his face-duvet all shaved and gone, the San Jose Sharks have another freaky-looking dude to keep us entertained after Joe sails off into the sunset in the form of Brent Burns—half-man, half-Chewbacca. Pair him with the newly-acquired best-defenseman-in-the-world Erik Karlsson and his magical flow, and the Sharks easily boast the highest hair-to-skill ratio in the NHL.
I guess what we are really saying is the Sharks are cool. And they are fun and they are good.
Crosby and McDavid
Both are on track to be among the three or four greatest to ever wheel around an NHL ice surface, and having both of these weapons in the league together while in their primes is a damn tasty treat for all of us. Crosby, who has seemingly been in the league for exactly 150 years but actually (astonishingly) just turned 31, has literally won every team and individual award imaginable and will finish his NHL career with, at least, top 10 all-time era-adjusted production. McDavid, meanwhile, already has the most complete overall skill set we've ever seen in the game of hockey and grabbed every major individual award before the age of 21. He's averaged 1.22 points per game through three seasons (Crosby is at 1.29 for his career, the best active mark in the league) after back-to-back 100-point campaigns.
Matthews and Tavares
When John Tavares, AKA Pyjama Boy, decided to ink a long-term deal with his hometown Maple Leafs this summer, it absolutely infuriated New York Islanders fans, which was goddamn hilarious for the rest of the hockey world to watch. JT, along with fellow sniper and 2016 No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews now form a savage one-two punch down the middle of the ice for the Leafs—one that has the potential to be on par with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as the best center-ice duo since the 80s, and maybe ever. Aside from the potentially elite production looming on the ice, this gives out-of-market fans yet another reason to completely and utterly despise the Toronto Maple Leafs, and we're 100 percent here for it. Because hate, not love, brings the world together.
Those Damn Millennials
Aside from the aforementioned stars like McDavid and Matthews, there has never been a time when the NHL boasted more young, supremely skilled talents who can barely grab a legal shot of Henny than right now. Fellow 23-and-under studs like Brock Boeser, Patrik Laine, Jack Eichel, David Pastrnak, Mathew Barzal, and Nathan MacKinnon are leading the NHL's young-gun revolution, but these late-stage and post millennials will probably ruin some shit at some point, though (that's what the Abe Simpsons of the world want you to believe, at least).
The most entertaining official in sports, by far, belongs to the NHL in the form of referee Wes McCauley, whose goal, penalty, and fighting calls have earned him the rep of being a straight up cool and hilarious MF. Not all refs are bad! His love for trolling the crowd is infectious and we're all simply better human beings for having McCauley in our lives—even if he is making us wait.
NHL Team Twitter Accounts
The NBA and NFL, and hell even MLB, know how to leverage social media platforms from an individual standpoint on a completely different level than those who put skates on for a living, but when it comes to team Twitter accounts bringing the heat, the NHL has that shit on lock, son. The collective geniuses that run these individual team accounts are not afraid to jump in the mud and go for each other's online jugulars and have no shame in slandering a fellow franchise for a few thousands likes and a couple hundred retweets. How relatable.
No other league makes armchair fans truly believe they can be executives in said league like the NHL does. From strange dudes like dracula-hair Jim Benning in Vancouver and certified muppet Pierre Dorion in Ottawa, to young analytical masterminds (AKA fucking nerds) like Arizona's John Chayka and Dubas in Toronto, to completely old-school Hockey Men like Lamoriello, Ken Holland, and Dale Tallon, the field of general managers in hockey is a weird yet glorious mix. Making fans truly, truly believe they can outperform 30 percent of GMs league-wide was a brilliant, unintentional marketing play by the league's owners. Well done.
Hockey's back, baby! If this doesn't get you a little hot in the pants for the NHL season, nothing will.