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Hockey Player

The Real Poop

"Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

Al Michaels didn't script that line ahead of time but he said it, spur of the moment, and it was perfect. Just like the hockey game he was announcing, an improbable, shocking 4-3 victory by the upstart USA Olympic team over the mighty Soviets, it was perfect. Michaels later said he couldn't even remember making the call right afterward. He was too excited. The coach of the ragtag Americans, Herb Brooks, when the final buzzer rang out, went straight to the locker room and cried. On February 22, 1980, in Lake Placid, New York, he wasn't the only one who did. 

Hockey critics wonder why anyone would want to watch large, sweaty, toothless men battle each other mercilessly with long wooden sticks while chasing a small rubber disk around an oblong slate of ice. But see, they forget about games like that, like the Miracle on Ice. On that night hockey was something special, something more than a demolition derby without cars. It was something important to just about every American, hockey fan or not. The Miracle on Ice was named the greatest sports moment of the 20th Century by Sports Illustrated.

Hockey critics complain that it's a violent, ruthless, brutal sport. The players respond, "We know that already. We're all on a first name basis with a half dozen dental surgeons. What's your point?"

To Herb Brooks' players, and thousands like them, it doesn't really matter that the sport seems kind of insane. Suiting up in the locker room of a professional team is the fulfillment of a dream to them, the culmination of years of work, sweat, and sacrifice. It's an ambition, playing hockey, and if you've got the drive, desire, skill, and medical insurance to make it happen, there may be room on a team roster somewhere. But it'd probably be a good idea early on to just accept that your ambition to play hockey entails wearing roughly 20 lbs. of awkwardly fitting pads and being chased by the opposing team’s enforcer around the same rink Disney On Ice performed on last Thursday. Because to be honest, that's a lot more likely a scenario than playing on another Miracle team.

Hockey didn'’t have a glorious beginning. The sport we know as ice hockey was invented over a hundred years ago by a group of imaginative Canadians who, after copious amounts of Canadian Whisky, started a makeshift game competing to see who could slide a rock into a leftover ice fishing hole in a frozen lake using only a tree branch. After a simple argument over scoring escalated into a full out brawl on the ice, the men realized this could potentially be a dangerous game and as such decided they were missing one essential element: drunken spectators.

So some bleachers and a few minor tweaks to the rules later, the rest, as they say, is history. As far as gameplay goes, if you've ever played, you get it: Move faster than the other team, hit hard, put the puck in the net, score more goals than them. It's pretty simple. It's kind of like soccer on ice without all the bad acting. For 60 minutes a night, the players move, skate, hit, shoot, and bleed. They finish a shift on the ice, skate to the bench, rest a few minutes, maybe five, then do it all over again, whether or not they broke a finger during the last shift. Or a toe. Or lost a tooth. Or suffered a head laceration. Or some other terrible thing that would shut mere mortals down for days but that hockey players seem to thrive on.

The National Hockey League (NHL) is the best known and most prosperous hockey organization in the world. There are several others, like the American Hockey League (AHL) and Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), but the NHL is king. The other leagues offer less money, less prestige, and less job security, so pretty much every prospective pro player's goal is to make it onto an NHL team. As such, even though it only exists in the U.S. and Canada, the NHL is a true international melting pot. Players from all over the world try out. Just check out any team's current roster. Some of those guys have like 18 letters in their last names with a bunch Y's, Z's, and K's. As examples, consider these absolutely true NHL player names, past and present:

Kari Takko, Yutaka Fukufuji, Radek Bonk, Dustin Byfuglien (fooled you, he's American), Roman Hamrlik (pronounced "Hammer Lick," no joke!), Peter Sidorkiewicz, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Guillaume Latendresse (pronounced "Your Guess is as Good as Ours"), and Frank Zamboni.

Okay, you got us…we’re kidding about that last one. Frank Zamboni was an American inventor who came up with the ice-resurfacing machine they use in between periods. For years now, aside from the actual brand Zamboni, any resurfacing machine is usually just called a "Zamboni." We couldn't do an article on hockey without squeezing him into it. Plus, it's fun to say. Try it! Zamboni, Zamboni, Zamboni.

Anyway, the common stereotype of the professional athlete involves images of private planes, mansions, 11 different cars, servants, personal assistants, five-star hotels, maybe six months of work per year, and paychecks with a lot of zeroes in them.

Not exactly.

Oh, the best of the best are paid exorbitant salaries, sure, but for every one of them there are a hundred others toiling away for not very much looking for just one shot. In the minor leagues especially, it's all the work (or more because you will probably need a day job) with none of the compensation or glory. But to the player who truly loves the sport, some things are the same no matter your income level. Injuries, for example. Your leg is just as broken whether it was crushed by a millionaire or a pauper.