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Part of why I do this column is that I am trying to expand the horizons of the average American sports fan's consciousness. I take the obscure sports -- sports which either once held a greater prominence in American sports culture, or are more centered around other continental markets, or are simply unknown to most ardent sports fanatics. So far I have focused on many areas -- cycling, tennis, golf, curling, skiing, boxing -- but one sport that always seemed vibrant to me as I grew up into fanaticism was hockey. Sadly, it appears that its interest has waned in the United States...

 

Gimmicks like the Winter Classic can only go so far in rebuilding a larger fan base for the NHL in its new post-lockout era. When 2005 came and went without the awarding of the Stanley Cup, it crushed my soul as a hockey fanatic. I have been playing hockey and/or broomball (its poor-man's equivalent) since I was six; I have been watching the NHL and the Frozen Four since about the same age. I remember when, on trips to Idaho to visit my uncle, we would go to the rink for hours and watch his beer-league games. I remember the smell of the Snow King Center in Jackson, watching the Moose play minor-minor-league hockey against regional teams. I can still taste the subzero chill in the air as I skated around the frozen employee parking lot -- flooded every winter for skating and for the resort's championship-winning broomball team to have a place to practice...

 

Johan Hedberg, savior of the 2001 Pittsburgh Penguins... 
My senior year of high school, I worked as a bellman at the Wort Hotel in Jackson, Wyoming. I would take my radio and my keys and go into an open room to watch game after game. The night front-desk clerk, Eric, would pull a television behind the front desk after the general manager and rooms manager left for the evening, and we would watch the night's action between guests. He was a big Blues fan, and they went all the way to the Western Conference finals before succumbing to Bourque's destiny in the form of the Colorado Avalanche. In the East, Johan Hedberg had come straight out of Manitoba with a goofy cartoon moose on the side of his helmet and guided the Pittsburgh Penguins past Washington and Buffalo all the way to the conference finals... where he failed to outduel Martin Brodeur...

 

I sat and watched every game of those Cup finals -- Roy versus Brodeur, Bourque versus Stevens, Sakic and Forsberg versus Arnott and Nieuwendyk -- on a king-size bed in a La Quinta Inn outside Oklahoma City. I was in town for the NFL (National Forensic League) National Finals at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, off work and all alone in town. I toured the bomb site the day Timothy McVeigh was executed...

 

Bourque got the sixteenth win, the Avalanche were champions, and hockey was vibrant in my life...

 

I went to Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, the next year. I watched Canada win Olympic gold for the first time in fifty years in a dorm basement; I watched Detroit defeat Arturs Irbe and Kevin Weekes in net for Carolina back in Wyoming that summer.

 

I have so many memories of hockey that it pains me to think of it as obscure. I remember the last time the Montreal Canadiens -- my favorite team since childhood, because they were in the first game I ever saw -- hoisted the Cup, way back in 1993... I was eleven and the sports world looked great. Some kid came to quarterback my beloved Green Bay Packers via Southern Mississippi and Atlanta; my hockey team was on top of the world, and the football team didn't look far behind. The World Cup was coming to America the next year, and Lillehammer was around the corner... and I only had to wait two years after Albertville!

 

Now, fast-forwarding to the present, I see a wasteland of fans uneducated about hockey. A recent throwdown opponent rejected my perfectly reasonable hockey topic suggestion for lack of knowledge. That was the final straw; hockey will be covered here from now on...

 

I pen... er, type... this column several hours removed from the remarkable comeback of those very Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of their second-round series with the Philadelphia Flyers. Philly, up 3-2 with only 28.6 seconds left in the game, allowed Alexei Kovalev to score the game-tying goal past Martin Biron to send it to overtime. Then, only 48 seconds into the overtime, Tom Kostopoulos potted the game winner to put Montreal up 1-0 in the best-of-seven series...

 

In the West, Detroit defeated Colorado by the same 4-3 scoreline in a renewed grudge match. Johan Franzen proved the difference maker for the Red Wings, netting two goals and setting up another from the second line to down Colorado. The Avalanche actually got on the scoreboard first thanks to Paul Stastny's ninth-minute goal, but then Detroit turned up the heat and put three past Jose Theodore to essentially seal the deal by the first intermission. Frantzen scored on either side of the first intermission to put the Red Wings up 4-1... two second-period goals by Colorado pulled them close, but could not prove momentum enough.

 

So both one-seeds won their opening game of the quarterfinals... Sharks play the Stars in San Jose tomorrow after Pittsburgh hosts the Rangers... but that is enough of thinking of hockey as an obscure sport for now...

 

 

One sport I KNOW to be obscure to most American sports fans is cycling, and the culmination of the classics season is coming up this Sunday. Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the oldest of the one-day classics (first ran in 1894), is a hilly affair through the Belgian Ardennes. Earlier today we witnessed Kim Kirchen defeating Cadel Evans in a climbers' sprint up the Mur de Huy in the Fleche Wallone, and last Sunday former Giro d'Italia winner and one-time world number-one Damiano Cunego took the Netherlands' premier classic, the Amstel Gold Race. Who will take this race? Stay tuned... because I am basically all out of predictions. I am going to stand by my Davide Rebellin prediction, as he is the rider with the greatest sustained success in the Ardennes classics in the past five years...

 

Calzaghe defeated Bernard Hopkins in a controversial split decision at the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas last weekend. The Welshman looked terrible early, but pulled through in the middle rounds to score well enough on two judges' cards to remain undefeated. Many sports fans have lost their mind over such a decision; but objective reasoning shows that Hopkins came out swinging early, looking decisive, before Calzaghe composed himself and got past the fact it was his first fight in Vegas -- hell, his first fight on American soil! -- and took the initiative. I have long been a fan of the Sardinian-Welshman (man, that has a more poetic ring than Polish-American...)

 

 

Federer won his first tournament of the year at the Estoril Open, after his finals opponent Nikolai Davydenko (there's THAT name again) had to withdraw with a leg injury. While this might not signal a full return to dominance, merely reaching the final of a tournament had vexed Roger up to this point of the season... so congratulations to him, and we'll see more of all these players as they gear up for the French Open... the play has shifted to Monaco, site of the Monte Carlo Masters. Novak Djokovic has returned to winning form, knocking off Andy Murray in straight sets today, 6-0, 6-4; Davydenko went through in three sets against Kohlschreiber; Sam Querrey knocked off Richard Gasquet; and Federer and Nadal went through in straight sets as well...

 

 

The golf course hosts action in Texas at the Byron Nelson Classic, while Trevor Immelman still gets used to his success. I, for one, am not shocked but thrilled to see a new potential challenger from a younger generation to take on Tiger... but he cannot allow his newfound stardom to interfere with his play. Immelman shot eight over par in the opening round at the Byron Nelson, and now finds himself already eleven in the hole to start the second round. He can't even call himself the highest-ranked South African. Here's to hoping the kid snaps his funk soon and gets back to winning golf...

 

 

The Champions League has reached its semifinal stage, as Manchester United drew 0-0 with Barcelona and Liverpool drew 1-1 against Chelsea. Any of these clubs would certainly be worthy finalists for the European Cup...

For the other European Cup, the UEFA Cup, Rangers and Fiorentina also played to a nil-nil draw today. On the other side of the semifinal draw, mighty Bayern Munich scored a late own goal to allow Zenit St. Petersburg into the driver's seat for the final. Having knocked off another German powerhouse, Bayer Leverkusen, in the quarterfinals, Zenit now appears poised to offer the exciting thrill which so rarely occurs in the bigger-brother competition that is the Champions League -- the Cinderella story. Stay tuned here weekly to see if the little Russian club can pull off the upset...

 

 

On that note sports fans, I'm out of here. Please drop me suggestions through the comments or the FanMail... and if there is anything else you would like to see in here, let me know! For now, I've got to get out of here and nurse this headache from thinking about hockey as an obscure sport in America...

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