The scene takes place in a Canadian living room late one April evening. Buddy is testing the theory of gravity in his favourite chair. The room is awash in the fluttering blue rays of dancing light that emanate from the television set. The St. Louis Blues are playing the San Jose Sharks. Mrs. Buddy sits next to her husband for the last five minutes of the game and asks him who he wants to win. Buddy says he wants San Jose to win. “San Jose? When did you become a San Jose fan,” asks Mrs. Buddy. “When I chose Vincent Damphousse in my hockey pool,” answers her husband.
And so the scene is played out in front of televisions all across the country. Do I really care who wins between Buffalo and Philadelphia? Well, actually I do care because I chose three Sabres in my playoff pool. It’s the pool that reels me in, night after night, to see if they managed to pop Mike Grier’s shoulder back in place, or if Raymond Bourque is back in the line-up, or if the Avalanche are going to use Adam Foote on the power play. Hockey pool fever strikes hard in April, tapers in May, and limps into early June.
In these days of increasing salaries and a decreasing talent surplus in the NHL, many hockey fans have become indifferent towards the game. Such is the case with a group of guys I know who have been meeting up every April for over ten years to perform the annual playoff pool ritual. Hardly anyone in the group bothers much with the regular season anymore. A few games here and there, but not like the old days. Most of this gang are Montreal fans, so they really haven’t seen professional hockey in a couple of years.
The poolsters take their seats armed with stats, pens, paper, and a foolproof strategy. Numbers are drawn from a hat, or sock, or whatever is on hand, and the fun begins. Each participant drafts players who they think will get them the most points based on goals and assists. You will inevitably pick at least one player that will be the cause of much laughter among the others. They will tell you that he’s a bum, that he hasn’t done anything in the playoffs for three years, and that he’s behind bars for public indecency. You calmly stick to your guns and say that you’re confident he’ll be let out of jail in time for the second round. And so it goes up and down the list until the teams are complete.
Two hours later you begin to hear people muttering things like, “I can’t believe I picked nine defensemen.” Then come the inevitable medical questions such as, “How long does it take to come back from a groin injury?” More often than not, poolsters have chosen players that they’ve never heard of before, often with unpronounceable names like Zhymklwxc. “Have you heard anything about this Zhymklwxc guy? The stats say he has 17 points in 24 games. Do you know if he’s still in the line-up, or did he play those 24 games at the beginning of the season? What about his groin? Is his groin okay? I can’t believe I picked Zhymklwxc.”
The annual playoff pool can become an obsession for some. There are many games to be watched and many numbers to be added. Suddenly there is concern over injury reports and lineup changes. The most often heard question becomes “who got the assists?” Phone calls are made and emails are sent as thousands of people discuss the check Scott Stevens laid on Ron Francis. The internet buzzes with hockey pool activity. One site, thehockeypool.com, had trouble delivering its usual service as it was besieged with over 400 hits per second. Could that be right? Four hundred hits per second? How is anything getting done out there in the real world with such a large portion of the population pretending to be general managers with unlimited budgets.
The first round has come and gone with eight teams being relegated to the golf courses. By now some of you out there have already been eliminated from contention in your pools. You know who you are. You’re the ones who went with Detroit and Ottawa. You’re looking down at your list and realizing that all you have left is Zhymklwxc, who must now average four points a game to keep you afloat in the pool.
Who out there picked Alexei Yashin in their pool? I can’t blame you if you did. After sitting out a year due to a bitter and fruitless contract dispute with the Senators, and after becoming public enemy number one (Eric Lindros ranks a close second) with hockey fans everywhere, you would think that Yashin would want to prove his critics wrong, especially with restricted free agency looming ahead of him. He fooled us again with the same playoff disappearing act that he pulled two years ago. Yashin wasn’t the only reason Ottawa folded faster than a lawn chair, but he’s the easiest target at which to aim the flaming arrow of blame.
Maple Leafs fans owe a huge debt of thanks to the Senators for coming up lame and to Curtis Joseph for standing out once again as a hot playoff goalie. This is the time of year when players can really draw attention to themselves, especially those masked men who stand there talking to their goalposts. They might be a strange breed, but you only need worry when the posts start talking back.
You can’t be too surprised that Buffalo nudged Philadelphia out of the playoff picture, but if you put Chris Gratton from the Sabres on your pool team you’re probably ready to send a telegram to his parents, thanking them for fruits of their loins. You also might find yourself cheering wildly for Satan. It should be pointed out here that announcers pronounce his name as Sha-tan, but they also pronounce the planet Uranus as Ura-nus.
For those of you who are still in the running with their own personal dream teams, good luck to you. For those of you who stacked up on Detroit, Ottawa, and Philly, you’ve got a year to come up with a new foolproof plan. And to those of you who aren’t in a pool, if anybody comes up to you in the office, or stops you on the street and asks you who got the assist on the overtime goal last night, just stare them coldly in the eyes and tell them it was Zhymklwxc.