I’ve always loved hockey. From the first time I laced up a pair of skates and slid onto the pristine, freshly shaven ice at the local skating rink, I wanted it to be my second home.

Unfortunately, my budding career as a potential center on a checking line never came to fruition, and now I’m stuck watching hockey at its best from the comfort of my couch, like the rest of Amer?er, Canada.

So why is it that hockey hasn’t gained the popularity that it deserves in the United States? It’s a sport that’s utterly North American and although some say it was invented by the Dutch, “It’s hockey night in the Netherlands!” never really caught on, and our desire to be different from the rest of the world is what fuels our love of football instead of soccer or rugby and baseball instead of cricket (although, if you ask me, we made the right choice on that one). I have a few theories, but there really is no answer to that question. So let me tell you instead why you should give hockey a chance in the next couple of months.

Of all the professional sports, I think hockey has the most strenuous season. From the beginning of October, teams play about three times per week until the beginning of April. Six straight months. Then the playoffs begin.

After three best-of-seven rounds of conference playoffs, the two remaining teams compete for the championship. Admittedly, this system goes on way too long. I remember reading about the Carolina Hurricanes’ victory over the Edmonton Oilers in 2006 while sitting on the porch of a beach house at the end of June. But at the end of all of this waits the best trophy in all of sports.

The Stanley Cup is above and beyond any prize awarded in the sporting world. What other trophy allows its bearers to drink champagne from it? And weighing in at just shy of 35 pounds, it dwarfs the silver football given to the Super Bowl champion each year.

What keeps me coming back to hockey, though, isn’t the hopes and dreams of having my team still playing in mid-June. It’s everything else about the game. The recent reemergence of future legendary players has everyone talking about the likes of the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Eric Staal, as the overall playing style of the league has changed from the hit-and-skate style of the late ’90s to one that requires players to be able to use their stick to move the puck around, not just to hit other players with. The rule changes that occurred after the lockout of the 2004-05 season, involving a few modifications to the rink layout have dramatically increased the pace of the game and raised the potential for fast breaks to develop.

And yet, the best thing the NHL did for itself was install a salary cap. As a Pittsburgher, I could go on for hours about the necessity of a salary cap in sports and the extremely negative effect the lack of one in baseball has had on the once-proud baseball franchise that resides there.

That team is currently trying to break a 15-season streak during which not a single winning season has occurred. So don’t get me started on the salary cap. It balances out the league so that everyone starts from square one and shows the true integrity of players like Crosby and Ovechkin, who signed contracts for much less than their true worth so that their respective teams could continue to build around them.

Hockey has taken huge steps in the right direction, and I think in a few years it will reap the benefits. Take, for example, the Winter Classic, which boldly went up against BCS Bowl games on New Year’s Day and still maintained high ratings.

No offense, Buffalo fans, but could that game have ended any better? Crosby, the heralded “savior” of the league, scores the game-winner in a shootout? Storybook. And in a snowstorm, nonetheless.

From the aforementioned rule changes to games being played in Europe, it’s clear that the NHL has plans for the future and can hopefully gain some popularity in a market that’s clearly dominated by football.

Go Pens.

Crean is a member ofthe class of 2010.

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