I have always been a staunch supporter of hockey, although I am not much of a player to speak of. In fact, I can hardly get my wonky legs to carry me on skates these days. However watching sports here in the north of North America one thing has always bugged me about my neighbors to the south and their precious NFL football claiming that the Superbowl is the hardest of all the trophies in pro-sports to kiss and hold high in victory.
Yes, I will grant that Football is a man’s sport fraught with contact and danger. However I would wager my front teeth that hockey is really the sport that is that hardest on the body and hardest sport in which to win the top prize. The NHL’s Stanley Cup.
Should it please the court I will present my evidence.
Exhibit One: The Length of Season.
The NFL schedule consists of 20 games in total, counting preseason and regular season. Each game is spaced roughly one week apart to allow for travel and planning and injury before embarking on a maximum of 5 rounds of playoff games each round consisting of 1 meeting.
The NHL schedule consists of 82 regular season games, many of which take place on consecutive nights. Red eye flights are the norm for this league where teams cross the continent frequently to meet league obligations.
Exhibit Two: The Playoff Rounds
NFL players can expect five rounds of playoff fun. Each round consisting of a single game. Winner take all for that round in the bracket. Each game is at least one week spaced from the other.
NHL players look forward to a hellish 2 months of playoff madness. Skaters only face 4 rounds of playoffs in the NHL but each round consists of a best of 7 contest. Meaning that the winning team in each bracket must win at least 4 of the 7 games to advance. Games may be played on back to back nights.
Exhibit Three: Overtime in playoffs.
In the NFL overtime is a convoluted affair. It follows a modified sudden death system wherein each team is guaranteed a possession of the ball. After each set of possessions the team who scores the most points by achieving a touchdown, field goal or safety. Unless the first team to receive the ball scores on the initial kickoff. Overtime sessions are generally short lived affairs with the outcome decided in the first set of possessions.
Overtime in the NHL is also a sudden death affair with play continuing regularly. However games that are tied in the NHL after regular time are rarely decided in short order. Teams can battle through multiple twenty minute periods in the overtime struggle. Neither team wanting to give up victory easily. Thus two teams could effectively play themselves into shambles before gaining the chance to advance. The longest game on record went an astounding 6 overtime periods. That’s three whole games when you count the initial 3 20 minute frames.
Exhibit four: Tools of the trade and playing surface.
In the NFL games are generally played on a artificial surface known as AstroTurf. A synthetic grass field that allows for a cushioning layer to be placed below the field to reduce injury and wick away any water that falls in the form of rain. Players use a synthetic air filled rubber ball to score points, which is generally not a source of injury.
The players in the NFL wear state of the art padding and helmets fitted with face guards to reduce the chance of body to body injury. Effectively the only weapons they possess are their sizable bodies and the ground.
Skaters in the NHL play on a surface of rock hard ice, surrounded by boards. Players may body check each other into the boards or to the ice provided one of them carries the puck without penalty. Players score points by using a solid hardened rubber puck. This puck can effectively become a weapon in its own right reaching speeds of 100 mph or more in game play.
The players are also armed with hockey sticks, some reaching almost two meters in length. The stick is the only allowable means by which the hockey puck can normally be used to score a goal or pass the puck off to another player. In aggressive matches this stick is often used as a club to hack and slash at opposing players. Penalties for illegal stick work are named slashing and cross checking.
All players on the NHL ice surface are also equipped with razor sharp blades on the bottoms of their skate boot that allow them to glide or “skate” across the ice surface. While generally not used as a weapon skate blades commonly come into contact with exposed flesh often to horrific consequence. The video below is graphic and shows what can happen as Buffalo Sabres goaltender Clint Malarchuk found out in 1989
Players in the NHL also use state of the art padding to protect their bodies and also inflict injury. Hardened plastic shoulder pads and elbow pads are often used to great effect to dislodge an opposing player from the puck.
Exhibit five: the fans
In most NFL stadiums fans can easily number 50 to 100 thousand strong. Creating a daunting wall of sound for the visiting team to overcome. Generally though direct fan interaction with the field is severely limited due to the fact that stands are placed back from the field.
In NHL arenas the fans have a much more intimate and interactive experience with the players. Fans seated in the lower bowl are separated only by wooden boards to a height of 40-48 inches with inch thick glass separating the play to a height of 8 feet at the ends of the rink and 5 feet on the sides. Fans often end up with players literally coming through the glass and ending up in the seating area.
Given the close proximity over eager fans are also known to directly influence play by throwing objects onto the ice surface. One of the strangest traditions has fans of the Detroit Red Wings throwing octopus onto the ice during the playoffs.
Thus I submit the evidence to you sports fans. Given the length of the season, the number of games, the intensity of play and the tools and fans of the game any reasonable person can clearly see why the Stanley Cup remains the hardest trophy in all of sports to win.