There are many perks that accompany being a hockey writer, and one of them is knowing that, despite not being invested emotionally in any franchise, you will be accused at one point in time or another of having it out for every NHL franchise. And I can assure you that working at an international publication such as THN only enhances the hilarity as the accusations stream in regularly.
Here at hockey's magazine of record, we receive angry emails and letters screeching at us for virtually every conceivable bias: for some people, we're part of the swarthy "Toronto media" and anti-Maple-Leafs; and for others – most of who reside (a) in Canada and (b) outside of Southern Ontario – we're Leafs-obsessed and sleep under blue-and-white sheets every night; we hear from Americans who'd swear on a stack of hockey bibles we're stridently cheering for Canadians and anything to do with the "Canadian game", and we receive input from Canadians furious at our "obviously" blind allegiance to NHL Gary Bettman's U.S. Sunbelt expansion strategy; we're blasted by those who think we giddily cover Sidney Crosby's every sneeze, and we're ripped from others who think every member of our editorial team rues the day No. 87 became a star and do all they can to slight Crosby at every opportunity.
Much like the modern NHL player cannot absorb a clean-but-fair hit without four of his teammates rushing in to pummel the opponent who (I repeat, cleanly) hit him, many modern hockey fans are hypersensitive to any perceived slight. If you're including a number of of teams in any positive list and you omit a particular franchise from that list for the sake of a palatable word count, you can rest assured you'll hear from at least one fan from the omitted team pouting about it. And when you release your predictions for the first round of the NHL playoffs, as I did Sunday afternoon:
you can bet your life someone from a team you didn't pick to win will quickly point out the "hate" you hold for it (and, by extension, for them).
I'm here to tell you it's all nonsense.
Some people need to feel as if others are actively out to get them to enjoy their sports, and that includes everyone – officials, journalists and fans from opposing teams – who isn't wearing their team's colors or believing in the best-case scenario for that team at all times. So be it. But the truth is, we're all doing our best at THN to provide an opinion informed by discussions with people in the industry we cover. We're not afraid to have our projections interrupted by the unexpected contributions of a rookie or fringe player, because that makes for a great story. And telling great stories is what we're trying to do in this business. But expectations and estimations are natural.
If you pitted a gorilla against a chimpanzee and asked people to set expectations on who would emerge victorious, you wouldn't be hating the chimp by predicting that, in most cases, it will be demolished by the gorilla. The same holds true for hockey predictions and analysis. To critique your team – to say, for instance, I think the Vancouver Canucks are a better, deeper team than the Flames this year, or that the Pens will likely be throttled by the Rangers – is not to cast aspersion on Pittsburgh or Calgary. You may not agree with that estimation, but don't equate a difference of opinion with nefarious purpose.
I repeat it often to people, and I still mean it: I don't cheer for any team. I cheer for individuals I've come to know, and there's always a reason to be pleased for whichever franchise moves on to the next round. If the Senators win the Stanley Cup, who won't be overjoyed for ailing Ottawa GM Bryan Murray and assistant coach Mark Reeds? If the Predators win it all, who wouldn't look at David Poile and think, "I'm happy for that guy"? If the Red Wings win it, who wouldn't tear up at the notion of Gordie Howe seeing his team celebrate one more time?
So yeah, these are my first-round playoff picks, but they're not my children. With the parity of the NHL in the salary cap era, I wouldn't lose any sleep if I didn't get a single series prediction right this year. And if I go 15-0 throughout the entire post-season, I'd be happy in one way, but disappointed in another. Who wants to read a book or see a movie when you can foresee every plot point before it occurs?
We want to be surprised, but you don't have surprises without expectations. And that's what predictions are. We lay them out, and teams prove us right or wrong. Hate hasn't a damned thing to do with it.