The Best Game You’ve Never Tried: Welcome to Fantasy Hockey

Several times last night I clicked the “refresh” button on a webpage that would mean nothing to most normal human beings. It’s just a bunch of names: mostly Russian or Canadian; and a bunch of numbers, mostly ones and zeroes with the occasional exciting two.

Welcome to Fantasy Hockey.

Two myths need to be busted before I go any further.

Myth #1: Hockey is slow

No. Whoever told you this undoubtedly made the case that there is very little scoring in hockey, which is true compared to football or basketball (this is usually what they mean). But this non sequitur is as unfair as it is stupid. By those standards bowling should be your sport of choice; hardly a roll goes by without scoring! And look at those final “scores”! 200 points, count me in! Or if you favor consistent scoring perhaps you would enjoy golf–you score every time you take a shot!

Hockey is slow like the Kentucky Derby is slow, which is to say it isn’t. It’s 35-40 minutes of action, followed by 15 minutes of intermission, repeated twice. Then maybe you have 5 more minutes of very fast action and a shootout. Oh, the tedium! During that time a goal is scored on average every 15 minutes of action or every 30 minutes taking into account period stoppages and occasional commercial breaks. The entire game takes at most 2 hour and 45 minutes, or about five innings of Yankees-Red Sox baseball. During that time you will have 9 commercial breaks during the actual playing of the game. Baseball has 18… plus pitching changes. Football has 15-20. For those who are counting, soccer (another “boring” sport) has zero.

Myth #2: Hockey is complicated

Nice try. You’re probably also the guy that yells “Balk!” every time an opposing pitcher throws to first base and boos when the umpire doesn’t call A-Rod out on a pitch that was definitely a strike from your vantage point 500 feet from home plate. Hockey is about as complicated as soccer, which (if you have trouble with hockey) you probably also think is unfathomable. Soccer, let me remind you, involves kicking a ball into a rectangular net. You should probably hire someone else to do your taxes.

So, let’s pretend you’ve gotten this far and you’re at least open to the idea that there are some redeeming qualities in slapping a piece of rubber with a branch into some twine. Now here’s why you should take that obsession a step further and invest in the fantasy variety of the sport.

#1: It’s Easy

Wait, what? you might be saying. No, seriously. The stats aren’t exactly rocket science. You get guys who score goals, and you get goalies who don’t give up goals. That’s about as much as you need to know. There are no yards, or strikeouts, or BABIP. You might join some quasi-meterosexual Hockey league that includes Penalty Minutes and Faceoffs Won, but that’s about as complicated as it gets. You don’t have to worry about when to draft a closer or whether you need a fifth running back. Seriously, just get guys who score goals, and if it’s too complicated to pick a goalie who doesn’t give up goals then just get a goalie that plays. He’ll probably get you a save or two.

#2: It’s strategic

Now I know you love your Fantasy Football league. The one you can’t stop talking about where you won on Monday night because Mason Crosby kicked two field goals and that last Packer drive stalled just in time for that fantasy game-winning third chip shot from 33 yards out. Man, you’re brilliant for foreseeing that. But here’s the thing, maybe next time the Packers don’t stall, or maybe your little season goes down the drain because Bill Belichick decides to run up the score, or perhaps your big, bad star running back hurts his knee and your whole season comes crashing down around you. Fantasy football is about 25% knowledge, 50% paying attention and 25% luck (for more on this see my post, “The Luck Effect: Why fantasy football rules the world of geekdom” on my personal blog). Is there luck in fantasy hockey? Yes, but it’s less of a factor, because of the larger sample size and lower frequency of serious injury.

Most importantly, you have more players, and because of that your players don’t win or lose many weeks by themselves. It is, in a real sense, a team effort. For every Sidney Crosby there are ten Jamaal Charles’ in the NFL. Personally, I think every Charles owner should join a hockey league to purge themselves of the stench that is their fantasy football season.

#3: You won’t have to listen to 10,000 fantasy experts telling you what to do

It might seem like a service to have every non-pornographic site on the web dedicated to your fantasy obsession, but let me show you the freedom of thinking for yourself, making your own decisions, and not having to call in and wait on hold for 45 minutes to have some wonk tell you who to start between Laurent Robinson and Antonio Brown. This is the frontier, people. You actually have to search on a secondary site to find which goalies are starting! You will speak of these days to your grandkids when they’re accepting fantasy trade offers with their telepathy devices in your hover car.

There are other reasons to develop some fantasy puck pride that you’ll never enjoy if the most exciting thing you do is join that fantasy football keeper league and cry when Troy Williamson never develops into the stud you wanted him to be. For Minnesota fans, the biggest reason to get excited is a rather simple one:

#4: The Wild are good (and will be for several years)

Unless you have an obscene dedication to your fantasy WNBA team, you aren’t participating in a fantasy game involving a real-life Minnesota team that is having even a modicum of success. The Twins, Vikings and Wolves have put together one of the most memorably bad 2011s in the history of sports. Try to find a state with a worse combined winning percentage across all the major sports… keep looking.

Wolves 17-65 .207%
Twins 63-99 .389%
*Vikings 2-11 .154%
*painfully still ongoing

It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to tell you that those are pretty bad numbers. 82-175 combined. That means for every game a Minnesota team has won in the past year they have lost two games–actually it’s a little worse than that. We could throw in Gophers football, but my head might explode.

Meanwhile there’s this happy little story coming out of downtown St. Paul with this quaint little game of hockey. At 20-8-4 the Wild are tied for the best record in the NHL. During the last two months they have played 32 hockey games and managed in that time more wins than the Vikings and Wolves combined 2011 totals in 95 games. So, take your desire for more scoring–your antiquated, senseless idea that hockey is boring–and bring it to Excel Energy Center. Get a beer, sit in that seat and tell me it’s not for you.

Then, when you realize that all your misconceptions about hockey are just that, get on Yahoo or ESPN, join a league and target Kyle Brodziak in the late rounds. Enjoy Niklas Backstrom manning your nets or Mikko Koivu doing, well, everything. Then, you can set about the task of learning about players on other teams: guys named things like Lubomir Visnovsky, T.J. Oshie, Zack Parise, and James van Riemsdyk. This might not be the final frontier of fantasy sports, but you can see it from here.

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