http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/7089200/how-pick-nhl-teamQ: Help! No NBA, turning to NHL. Don't know what team to root for. I'm a Pacers fan, so I should root for what NHL team?? Thanks!
— Greg S.
Yay hockey! There are a couple of ways to approach this, depending on what it is you're looking for.
1. You could stay local.
The team: Indiana is practically equidistant from a handful of franchises: the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, and Columbus Blue Jackets surround the city of Indianapolis like spokes on a wheel. I'd rank them in that order, or just gravitate toward whichever one has the best local representation (so you have buddies at the sports bar) or best TV coverage (which seems to depend on where exactly in Indiana you're from).
The risk: After years spent cultivating basketball rivalries, trying to cheer for a geographically nearby team could just feel all sorts of wrong. As someone who grew up halfway between New York and Philly, I know how that goes.
The reward: You could go to some games live, which is the best way to experience hockey, or at least see most of the broadcasts on your regional sports network, whatever it may be. You'll "stay Midwestern." Time zones will be less of an issue. If you pick a team like St. Louis, you can mostly preserve any regional rivalry NBA hatred you may have.
2. You could get in on the ground floor of a currently rebuilding team.
The team: The Edmonton Oilers. They have had two straight no. 1 lottery picks, the most recent of whom — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a.k.a. "The Nuge" — scored his first NHL goal Sunday night in his first NHL game. They have an intriguing young goalie. Their uniforms are sweet.
The risk: The team might lose a lot this season. You'll have to be patient, which might not be something you're looking to do in your first year as a hockey fan. (Would you try to get someone to love reading by handing them a copy of Bleak House?) You'd have to get Center Ice or GameCenter to see games; even then, you may not get much. The Oilers are currently embroiled in a messy arena-financing dispute, which is never fun for anyone.
The reward: You'll develop that "in good times, in bad times" kinship that can make sports so (bitter)sweet. You'll largely avoid accusations of being a bandwagon fan. You may ultimately end up learning more about hockey — because you'll spend half the season paying attention to prospects whom your new team might have its eye on in the lottery. You'll have low, and thus easily surpassable, expectations.
3. You could latch on to a team on the cusp.
The team: The Tampa Bay Lightning made it to Game 7 of last year's Eastern Conference finals, and they're one of the fastest and most fun teams to watch. The Washington Capitals have Alex Ovechkin and a colorful coach. The San Jose Sharks and LA Kings, neither of whom have won a Stanley Cup, both have compelling rosters when it comes to talent and personality.
The risk: Too-high expectations; an aging goaltender (Tampa); games in inconvenient time zones (the California teams); a crowded bandwagon, and thus no real sense of camaraderie; having to explain yourself.
The reward: Strong competition all season long; exposure to some of the league's marquee players; the potential for a deep playoff run, which is when everything really kicks up a notch.
4. You could pick an oft-nationally broadcast team.
The team: According to Puck The Media, the teams that will be getting the most national airtime (on Versus and NBC, under a big, new broadcast deal) include the Rangers, Penguins, Bruins, Flyers, and Capitals. Assuming you hate New York and don't want to jump to a Bruins team that just won the Cup, that leaves you with Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington. (Closer to you and pursuant to no. 1 above, Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago will also be well represented on national broadcasts.)
The risk: You'll be buying right into the NBC hype machine from the start, and you'll have to hear a lot of analyst Pierre McGuire — who talks like Barry Melrose despite being from Jersey, and likes to overuse the word "slick."
The reward: You'll get to see games on TV, and you'll get more of the human-interest side of your teams, which is always helpful when you're getting to know new players.
5. You could pick a team that is Pacers-esque.
The team: If you like the Pacers' long and storied place within NBA history (including their inability to win any championships in the modern era), you might love the Toronto Maple Leafs. (General manager Brian Burke is a teensy bit like hockey's Donnie Walsh.) If the Pacers' current iteration — a largely below-the-radar squad that gave the flashier Bulls fits in the playoffs — is what you are after, the St. Louis Blues or the impressive-looking Buffalo Sabres might be your best bet.
The risk: This is an arbitrary way to pick a team.
The reward: You'll feel aesthetically harmonious. Maybe.
My suggestion: Taking into account geography, talent, similarity to the Pacers, a lack of conflicting basketball rivalries, TV coverage, and famous celebrity fans (Jon Hamm), I'd suggest the St. Louis Blues as a good place to start — at least initially. And don't feel bad if partway through the season you decide you like someone else better. You have a rare opportunity to shop around without consequence — if anyone asks, just say you're an NBA refugee. Hockey fans have been through a painful lockout of their own. They ought to understand.
For people thinking about giving hockey a try because of the lockout and looking for a team to follow.