Good ol’ hockey game

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Spring is always an exciting time for hockey fans.

After months of regular season play, whether it be rep or local league, our Highland Storm youth teams are engaged in playoffs. So, too, the Haliburton County Jr. A Huskies. It’s regularly said, whether in interviews with players and coaches, or conversations with fans in the stands, that the game feels a little different come playoffs.

The stakes are higher in a limited game series. You can see on the ice how the players give that little bit more – they’ll chase every loose puck, go that extra mile on the forecheck, and usually aren’t afraid to get in their opponents’ faces.

While the Huskies and Storm have wrapped up for the season, many local hockey fans’ attention will be turning back to the big leagues. The NHL regular season ends next week, with playoffs likely starting the weekend of April 20.

Having grown up in Europe – where most major sports leagues play out a regular season, with the first-place team at the end winning the championship, so no playoffs – it took me a while to understand the clamour for the post-season. To me, it seemed less about proving who the best team is, and a lot more about who can handle the gruelling schedule, the hard-hitting games, and all the luck and randomness, better. It’s more a battle of will, than skill.

But the thing I was overlooking is that battle of will component is such a key part of the sport. In speaking with Huskies head coach Ryan Ramsay following his team’s first-round playoff exit to the Cobourg Cougars last month, he, I, and I’m sure many others, felt the Huskies were a more well-rounded, talented team. The Cougars just wanted it more.

With NHL playoffs set to hit our screens next week, I’ll be making a point to tune into all Toronto Maple Leafs games. This is the first year I’d consider myself a real fan – where I’ve watched games, read reports and opinion pieces analyzing the team’s trials and tribulations, listened to podcasts. I’m already mentally preparing myself for the inevitable first round exit!

This year has been different, too, as I’ve been engaged in a competitive fantasy hockey league. After years of playing, but not really playing, I started to get a little more serious about it last season. So much so that I launched my own league, with a group of friends. I’d highly recommend it.

For those unaware of what fantasy hockey is – you get a group of people together and organize a draft, where you’ll take it in turns selecting real life players to represent your team. This is done online through sites like Yahoo, ESPN, and Fantrax. Throughout the season, your players then earn points based on their real-life performance. It’s a cool concept, and pretty addictive once you get into it.

My goal for my team was to select a Maple Leaf to give me more incentive to watch games. I picked third overall and took Auston Matthews. You know, the guy who just scored his 66th goal of the season the other night.

For some added fun, I also drafted Haliburton’s Matt Duchene. That worked out incredibly well – his performances secured wins in three pivotal weeks in the regular season. He also scored the final goal of my season, a tally against the Colorado Avalanche April 7, to secure me my very first fantasy championship. I thought that was pretty poetic.

I didn’t think any other sport would come close to rivalling soccer for me in terms of enjoyment, and the emotions it makes you feel. But hockey is getting there. Really, I have the Huskies and the Storm to thank for that. Covering local games has helped to unlock a love I didn’t know was there.

Stompin’ Tom knew what he was talking about all those years ago… hockey is a good ol’ game.