Working in the United States of America as an NHL studio host, I inevitably get asked, "How did you get into hockey?"
Certainly, when one grows up in Western Pennsylvania in the pre-cable TV era without any local youth hockey programs, the odds of becoming a hockey fan are slim. It's almost a miracle. So, while some bang their heads on why hockey doesn't have a larger following, for me, it always goes back to your life as a kid. Either there were indelible memories or there were not. Adults can cultivate passions later in life, but most of us are shaped by the environment in which we grew up. Large chunks of American acreage have no childhood memories of the NHL. I believe the best way to close the hockey gaps is to have as many U.S. teams as possible. That's why I'm anti-contraction.
I got into hockey because my dad was into hockey. He was a mask-less high school goalie and a big Boston Bruins fan. Those flames were fanned, no windblown, by the arrival of Robert Gordon Orr. As the 1970s approached and my memory banks began forming, the NHL became topical, even in a cinderblock house in Indiana, Pa. My dad would listen to virtually every game on the radio while working on his stamp collection or other fiddling and diddling. The Bruins were on WBZ Radio and the booming voice of Bob Wilson was the messenger. The signal was crisp and clear. No cell phone towers or other atmospheric disturbances. Dad would write down all of the Bruins goal scorers game-by-game in a notebook with precision and care. If he and mom went to Bruno's Italian Restaurant for the night, I would listen to the game and leave Dad a note with the goal scorers. I can still remember writing, "Andray Savard and Greg Sheperd scored, Dad."
Bob Wilson's voice and my dad's Bruins notebook were the seeds of my love of hockey and my future employment. I'm one of those kids who did whatever dad did. I went wherever he went. Had my dad sold crack, I would be a crack dealer today. For some kids, dad's are such a dominating presence that all choice in terms of life interests and the kind of person you will turn out be are surrendered. I was one of those kinds of kids and, thankfully, I had an ideal role model.
So, whether it was playing street hockey in the family room before going to church on Sunday, or listening to games on the radio on cold winter nights, unique, indelible memories are what forged my lifetime passion.
Last Saturday, I was driving across Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania late at night. The Bruins and Canadiens were playing Game 6 and -- another obstacle for NHL fans in America -- there was no way I was going to pick up this game on the radio. How could I keep up with the game? I called home and told my 11-year-old son Brett to watch the game and when something happened to text message me from the computer to my cell phone. Without sacrificing safety, I was able to quickly glance at my cell phone when my signature jingle interrupted the silent night. "Montreal on a power play, Dad." "OOOO, that was close." "Nice save Raycroft." "Koivu scored." Every time the text message indicator went off, I was filled with anticipation of what happened next and how this 11-year-old reporter would explain it.
Then it hit me. Brett will probably never forget this game and this exchange with his dad; that it's these kinds of moments that are engraved into a childhood and shape adulthood. For me, it was an AM radio and a note to dad on a Saturday night. Thirty-three years later, a computer and a cell phone connected a son and a dad to a sport.
This is how NHL fans are born. A direct connection that lasts a lifetime. Although it may only be by one, NHL ratings just went up.
One down, a few more million to go.
Like Madonna, Cher, Ichiro, Sting, Yao, Bono, Gordie, SpongeBob, Giselle and Hakan, one name is all one needs to know who and what we are talking about. Eddie Olczyk took his crisp blue shirts from the broadcast booth to the bench last summer to become head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Smart, intense, funny, and adaptive, Olczyk just finished a long first season. And while it was "Dances With Wolves" long and filled with mostly losing, Edzo can take two things with him as he and the Pens continuing building this summer: 1) The Penguins finished well, and 2) this Chicago born kid finished with more wins than the Blackhawks.
No. 1: I was sitting with you at Wrigley Field last summer when you correctly predicted a Moises Alou home run moments before it happened. On that note, I've decided to cash out my entire 401K fund and put it on the winning horse at the Kentucky Derby. Who is going to win, oh great Carnac?
Olczyk: It is as wide open as this year's Stanley Cup playoffs. It's a good betting race. I'll say The Cliff's Edge.
The Cliff's Edge was born on April 6, 2001. Its trainer is Nick Zito.
No. 2: What have you been doing since the season ended?
Olczyk: I've put many miles on my car watching our minor league team in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and I watched the Devils-Flyers series. They are division teams and it gives me a better perspective from upstairs. We also have a list of free agents that we are monitoring and want to be ready for some of the restricted free agents who may not get qualified. We have flexibility.
The Penguins finished last season with about $12 million payroll.
No. 3: What surprised you most about your first year behind the bench?
Olczyk: I'll be honest. As a player, I took great pride in knowing what OTHER players were supposed to be doing, having the entire picture of the ice in my mind and just knowing what to do in all situations. As a result, I took it for granted early this season that everyone knew what to do on the ice. My assistant, Lorne Molleken, told me I needed to draw a picture for them, and I was honestly surprised some players, even veterans, didn't know what their responsibilities were in certain situations. That was the biggest surprise, greatest shock and it caught me off guard.
Edzo scored 342 goals in 1,031 NHL games.
No. 4: What's the deal with Mario?
Olczyk: I think there is no doubt that, with the way he has been training, there is no question his goal is to play next year. I think with the World Cup on the horizon as well, he has plenty of incentive to rehabilitate. I believe he will play for us.
Mario Lemieux played 10 games last year and had one goal and eight assists. Mario has played just 889 NHL games.
No. 5: Were you and the Penguins front office devastated that not winning the draft lottery?
Olczyk: Initially, yes. But we knew going in there was no "for sure." But we're at No. 2 and we have a lot of maneuverability. We're real excited.
Maneuverability. Sounds like the Penguins may be thinking of trading the pick.
No. 6: What young player on the Penguins surprised you the most?
Olczyk: Brooks Orpik. Confidence was a problem early in the season, but around Christmas he took his game to another level. I think he has a chance to be in the same area code as Scott Stevens because he is big, loves to hit, loves to compete, and he loves his teammates and loves to stick up for them. His progression was slow, so you sometimes get concerned. But he took his game to another level to where you can count on him in all situations.
Orpik played 79 games this season for the Penguins. Orpik was on the Boston College team that won the 2001 NCAA national championship over North Dakota. Krys Kolanos scored in overtime to win that game for BC.
No. 7: Have you completely embraced the coaching life?
Olczyk: Oh, yeah. Even when we lost 18 games in a row. There were times when I felt sorry for myself, I was down, and I was questioning myself as far as what to do. But I would never let my guys see me down. I kept things positive. Seeing the young players improve and getting excited about guys who you know will be here for a long time is what it's all about. But absolutely I'm into coaching with both feet. I wouldn't want to be in any other situation and I believe in what we are trying to get done. I'll never forget my first coaching win against Detroit at home. It was like scoring my first NHL goal.
Edzo is married with four children -- three boys and a girl.
No. 8: What young Penguin might take the Penguins by surprise?
Olczyk: That's tough. We've got guys coming in who have promise, but until you throw them in the fire, you just don't know. We've got Ryan Whitney (fifth overall pick in 2002 draft) coming in next year, a defenseman from Boston University. We'll probably get Ben Eaves (fourth rounder in 2001) from Boston College under contract, and we think maybe they can step in and make an impact right out of college and be a difference maker, a player who makes other players better.
Hey. I just got home from checking out a smokin' show by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club at the Quest Club in Minneapolis, and turned on NHL 2Night and heard "As Peter Hayes is to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club...". That was one cool, weird coincidence. So, in honor of the Pixies' first show in 12 years tomorrow night at Minneapolis' Fine Line Music Cafe, I implore you to utilize "As Black Francis is to the Pixies" for your next big player highlight. Keep up the great work and good luck on the rink next year!
Robert Turner (guitar, bass, vocals)
Peter Hayes (guitar, bass, vocals)
Nick Jago (drums)
May we have a CD list for the trip from the Hockey Tonk to the Motor City please?
About a five-CD trip, Joe?
Clint Black, "Killin' Time"
Hank Williams Jr, "Greatest Hits"
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, "Take Them On, On Your Own"
REM, "Life's Rich Pageant"
The White Stripes, "White Blood Cells"
Hey, John --
I'm a big fan, I love your column on ESPN.com! You definitely got me into Ben Folds, but you have got to check out the band Averi. They're an up-and-coming band out of Boston and they rock. Give 'em a listen.
In your recent article on ESPN.com about the Southeast Division and why contraction shouldn't come about, you mention 10 teams that could really use a guy like Shjon Podein. No. 4 on that list is the Minnesota Wild. But didn't Minnesota really mess up when they let go of Cliff Ronning after last season? He was that veteran presence and he has helped a younger Islanders team to reach the playoffs. Minnesota shot themselves in the foot with that one.
Minnesota gave Ronning a take it or leave it offer, and he didn't take it. I like Minnesota's philosophy. Make your best offer, or very close to your best offer first and it saves everyone time and hassle. It's how I buy my lettuce.
Why hockey, and the Stanley Cup specifically, is better than any other championship: The trophy is presented to a player, not the coach or owner, and on the ice in front of the fans, not in the locker room. Isn't that the way it should be? No long speeches from someone who didn't break a sweat to win either.
The Leuthold Group
All this talk about mullets, femullets, she-mullets … think you could get Darren Pang to grow a skullet? By the way, you're letting the hockey world down by not mentioning the band The Get Up Kids.
Good column about hockey maturing here after a while. No doubt HD will help, but it takes a while for people to get up to speed on the rules. Everyone says it's confusing, but can you imagine watching a football game for the first time? The most unorthodox rules in the universe!
My family was in town for Easter weekend. My husband was with my mom in the kitchen preparing our turkey dinner for Sunday and I was watching the Devils/Flyers game with my Dad. (This is how all relationships should work!) What follows are the exact words my mom uttered upon looking up from making squash soup and seeing Barry Melrose on the screen between periods:
"What the HELL is he wearing?!?!?! Oh my GOD!!!"
She then proceeded to shield her eyes for the rest of the intermission, burying herself in the task of pureeing the squash in the blender and thus trying to drown out the loudness of Melrose's black with white pinstripes zoot suit.
Shady Side, Md.
Barry has had that effect on women for years. No matter what he is wearing.
The NHL is sitting on a goldmine. Last night, during the B's/Habs double OT thriller, I sat on my couch, basically crippled in anxiety. I'm not sure I can describe the feeling that surged through me when I saw Glen Murray's breakaway shot fly into the goal as anything short of pure ecstasy. I'm pretty sure if you could package that feeling into a small pill, the FDA would ban it and baseball players would take it anyways. The NHL needs to spread the word, no other sport can match the potential pure bliss of an OT playoff game.
It's the greatest tournament on earth. It makes the intensity of March Madness rival that of Ken Dryden petting a bunny. While listening to Enya. While Lightning assistant coach Craig Ramsey plays the harp. While referee Paul Devorski plays with a stray puppy. While … OK, I"ll stop. Later.
John Buccigross is the host of NHL 2Night, which airs on ESPN2. His e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is email@example.com.