Monday, April 9, 2007

The Islanders Remind Me Why I Watch Sports

Do you believe in miracles? Yes!
- Al Michaels's famous call as time expired in the U.S. hockey team's shocking 4-3 upset of the U.S.S.R. squad in the medal round at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. You can watch the game's last 16 seconds here.

It seems that next to money and sex, the one thing people complain the most about not having enough of is time. You figure, if you are lucky to get seven hours of sleep a night, spend two hours a day commuting, and work eight hours a day, that means that of the 120 hours in the average work week, 85 of them are accounted for right off the bat. That leaves 35 hours each work week to eat, do chores, and hopefully have a few hours left over for leisure time. I often think of those mathmatics when I watch sports on television, and wonder even more about it when I attend a game live. Is this really how I am using my precious few leisure hours?

As a kid, I lived for sports. Until I discovered girls, I only knew of two things in life: baseball, and stuff that kept me from baseball. To this day, while I will only really sit and watch baseball, hockey and soccer, I still read the sports section cover-to-cover every day, still check a couple of times a day, and still follow closely what is going on in the sports world. I would rather watch my pet bunny Oscar sleep than watch golf on television (the same amount of action occurs), but I can tell you that 31-year-old no-name Zach Johnson held off Tiger Woods to win the Masters yesterday, and that Johnson's winning score of one over par was tied for the highest winning score in Masters history.

But, as I got older, I started to feel like following sports was a waste of the remnants of my precious leisure time. Shouldn't I be reading a book? Or, at least reading a review of a book? I also started to feel like watching sports defied logic. What do I care if a bunch of guys I have never met, guys who, as a rule, are not noted to be the finest individuals our country has to offer (athletes get busted over sex and drugs so often, rock stars are jealous), succeed in a childhood game against another group of self-obsessed hedonists? And, as Jerry Seinfeld so astutely pointed out, with all the player movement in modern sports, we are not really rooting for the people so much as the uniforms, which means in the end we are pulling for laundry.

I don't think I will ever fully reconcile in my head the value of the time I spend watching sports. But, from time to time, something will happen that will remind me of the appeal of being a fan. After all, heroin might be bad for you, but it's not like anyone has ever said that it didn't make you feel good, at least at first. The New York Islanders spent the last nine days reminding me of the high of sports, even if the reminder doesn't allow me to feel okay about being an addict.

In the middle of March, the Islanders were one of the feel-good stories of the NHL season. Despite being picked to finish near the bottom of the conference, they found themselves in sixth place, comfortably in a playoff position. They were led by Ted Nolan, a guy whose story was so interesting, he was profiled on Bryant Gumble's HBO series (you don't see a lot of hockey on the big sports shows). He is a First Nations Canadian who grew up in poverty, but worked his way up the ladder, finally landing a spot as the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres. In 1997, he won the Jack Adams Award as the best coach of the year, but he was shockingly not retained by the Sabres (they offered him a token one-year offer). Despite his resume, he could not get another head coaching job in the league and spent nine years in exile until the Islanders hired him before this season.

The Islanders had started the year with a front-office shake-up that left them the butt of jokes and three one-sided losses, but, under Nolan's leadership, they played hard and smart to climb into contention. On Feb. 27, the much-maligned backup-goalie-turned-general-manager Garth Snow traded for one of the league's superstars, Ryan Smyth. It looked like the Islanders could not be denied a place in the post-season.

And then, on March 13, the team's best player, goaltender Rick DiPietro, who had carried the club all season, sustained a concussion in a game in Montreal. Without an adequate backup, the team collapsed, losing three in a row. After DiPietro had to abort his comeback after a few games when he re-experienced symptoms, the team went on to lose another four contests in a row. By March 31, after the fourth consecutive loss, they were tied for 10th place, four points out of the last playoff spot (the top eight teams in each conference make the post-season).

The team was all but eliminated from the playoff race. Going into their next game, April 3 against their hated local rivals, the New York Rangers, the Islanders needed an improbable string of events to occur for them to move on. First, they had to win their last four games of the season. And, they needed help, including the Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs beating the Montreal Canadians. Most importantly, they had to do it without DiPietro.

Enter Wade Dubielewicz (you can't make names like that up), a diminutive, 28-year-old career minor leaguer who had only a handful of games played in the NHL. If only he had a parent in need of an organ transplant, it would have been the plot of a Disney film. When veteran backup Mike Dunham proved ineffective, Nolan finally gave the goalie known as "Dubie" (again, you can't make this stuff up) a chance for that March 31 game, the last loss of the slide. Nolan stayed with Dubie, and he beat the Rangers in a shootout, and then led the Isles past the Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers. Meanwhile, all the other games came out exactly as they had to. As a result, on Saturday night, the Islanders watched as the Leafs came back from a 5-3 deficit to beat the Canadians 6-5, setting up a win-and-their-in game the next day against the New Jersey Devils.

And that's when the hockey gods stepped in to give this improbable tale the last little push it needed: The Devils, with nothing to play for (they had clinched second place in the conference), rested Martin Brodeur, arguably the greatest goaltender of all time. Brodeur was 6-1 this season against the Islanders. Against backup Scott Clemmensen, The Islanders went up 2-0 on two goals by bit player Richard Park, and with less than five minutes to play, it seemed like nothing could stop the Islanders from earning the last playoff spot. But, like that feeling of inevitability in mid-March, disaster was right around the corner. John Madden scored two goals for the Devils, the second with less than one second to play in the game, sending the game into overtime. How would the Islanders bounce back from this turn of events?

When neither team scored in overtime, it came down to a shootout, a recent game-show-like addition to the game. Each team gets three chances on penalty shots, a shooter alone on the goalie. The team that scores more often wins the game. Brodeur's absence was glaring as the Islanders scored on two of their three attempts, while Dubie was able to limit the Devils to one goal on the Devils' first two shots. It came down to the Devils' Sergei Brylin, and when Dubie made a daring stick check to foil Brylin's effort, the Islanders held on and survived. They will open the playoffs on Thursday against the top team in the conference, none other than Nolan's former employer, the Sabres. Again, a storybook showdown.

The Islanders' improbable run had a better plot than most of the movies produced by the Hollywood studios. The protagonist's name is
Wade "Dubie" Dubielewicz! How can you beat that? The excitement of overcoming the next-to-impossible, and the drama of the final game, induced that familiar rush, like back in 1980 when a group of U.S. college kids toppled the professional Soviets in the Olympics. Nothing (in my mind) will ever match the confluence of events that made the 1980 U.S. hockey team's win such a chill-inducing event. But, the Islanders' late run came close.

The debate in my head will rage on, and I will continue to feel conflicted about the role that sports plays in my life (and even in Anerican culture). But, one thing is for sure: The debate will take a backseat for at least the next ten days or so, more if the Islanders write yet another exciting script and get past the Sabres. I'm an addict. But admitting it is the first step, right?