It was the spring of 1987 and I was a 13 year old boy growing up in South Jersey. I was into all the typical things boys my age were into. I played outside, rode my bike, and watched sports on TV. I was particularly fond of football, but I watched my share of baseball. Never much into basketball. I really didn't know much about the sport of hockey. I was aware of it but never got to see it and wasn't brought up in a family of hockey fans. Somehow I stumbled onto the Flyers on TV that spring, and due to what I remember as a magical roller coaster ride of a playoff year, I was hooked. Nothing has been the same for me since.
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I don't remember if I caught on during the stretch run to the playoffs or right at the start of the playoffs, but either way I was completely engrossed in the sport with all my heart just about right away. Enough to be completely heartbroken when game 7 of the finals ended with the Flyers on the short end of the stick.
That playoff year was something I'll never forget as long as I live. My next door neighbor (who stumbled onto the sport with me, as we were best friends) and I would spend the entire day getting ready to watch the game that night. It's all we could concentrate on. We would walk or ride our bikes to the supermarket and buy cheap ten cent cans of soda and penny candy and get sick on sugar while watching the game together that night on a small black and white TV in my backyard.
From that point until this point (and surely beyond) hockey has been a huge part of my life and I will watch any hockey game that I find on TV. NHL, AHL, international play, it doesn't matter to me - I just love hockey.
Through all of these years of hockey fanaticism, one thing has held true. There is nothing like NHL playoff hockey. Nothing matches what you see during these spring months.
The playoffs are known as a grind - the old "battle of attrition" cliche. Hockey players are known for their heart - the old "warrior" cliche. But you know what? Those cliches are completely true. Not only that, but it always seems it's in the playoffs where the bizarre happens. You see things in the playoffs, from the players and apparently from the hockey gods, that you just don't see during the regular season.
The playoffs are where you see Darryl Sydor crawling, dragging his seemingly crippled useless leg behind him, to lay his body in front of his net, knowing that he's injured the appendage badly on the play and that the only use he can be to his team is to hope to "block" a shot by laying in the line of fire.
The playoffs are where Paul Kariya gets knocked unconscious by another crushing Scott Stevens check and comes back from the locker room to score a big goal to help force a game 7.
The playoffs are where you see the ridiculous things that you just don't see very often during the regular season, as if the hockey gods know that the world is officially watching now. Glass breaks, sticks get stuck in the boards, shots go in through the side of the net, and players accidentally put pucks off their goalie and into their own net.
The playoffs are where the lights go out in Boston while the Oilers and Bruins are playing.
The playoffs are where the Caps and Isles play overtime periods until the sun comes up.
The playoffs are where it all gets "ratcheted up a notch". It's where not only a player has his game face on, but coaches, GMs, owners, and - yes - fans. Especially fans.
The playoffs are where the buildings are so loud you can't hear the person next to you, it's where your blood boils at a referee's bad call even if you're watching an out of town series that has no bearing on your hometown team.
The playoffs are like nothing else a hockey fan can experience.
The playoffs start tonight.
The ten cent sodas and penny candy may have been replaced by beer and wings, and my Flyers may not play until Friday, but the playoff feeling remains the same as when I was that 13 year old kid just catching the fever.
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