By Chris Hallenbrook
With the Stanley Cup Finals getting underway in Chicago, it seems like a good time to discuss what it is that wins championships. In all four major sports that (pitching and) defense win championships is such a truism that it has become clichéd. And yet, in all four leagues, fans seem to prefer offense, and the rules are being changed to give the people what they want. In baseball, they say that chicks dig the long ball (and Selig turned a blind eye to steroids because fans of both genders flocked to the power displays), the NFL has become an outdoor version of arena football, basketball caved in to those who love offense decades ago when they invented the three ball, and in hockey the 2005 season saw shrunk goalie equipment to facilitate more scoring and thereby boost TV ratings. The people have clearly spoken, and they love offense. Thus, the odds say that you, whoever you are dear reader, will think I’m crazy when I say: I love defense!!!
Seriously, I love defense. I love seeing a great pitching duel is baseball. A lot of people complain there is no action in them, but to me watching two pitchers dominate hitters is amazing, especially as they each know one mistake will be the game because the other guy is lights out. Great pitching beats great hitting, and it is beautiful to watch guys with nasty stuff make the sluggers look silly. Sure, I grew up in the steroids era, but the memories that stand out most are not the bombs Big Mac, Slammin’ Sammy and Company launched. It’s Pedro’s historic dominance in 1999, Nomar Garciparra going deep in the hole at short and making it look easy over and over again, Trot Nixon crashing into walls and coming away with the ball.
In football and basketball, no one ever doubts that defense wins championships. It isn’t sexy, especially in basketball, but watching one’s team manhandle the other team’s superstar scorers is amazing. Now there are flashy defensive plays like the pick six or the epic blocked shot. But just as beautiful to me is the goal line stand, the tackle for loss, the nose tackle stuffing the run as if he knew the play before it was called. When the Celtics won the title in 2008, the way they played on offense was great, but it was the shutdown D, Perkins neutralizing Dwight Howard and the like, that was truly a joy to watch.
Last but not least there is hockey. Let’s just look at the Eastern Conference Finals. The Penguins were the highest scoring team in the regular season and were historically prolific in the playoffs. But then you have Jaromir Jagr putting Crosby on the ice and probably saying, “son, I have aches that are older than you,” and Gregory Campbell redefining “taking one for the team” when he broke this leg blocking a shot. How can you not love the toughness and dedication of guys who go to the ice to block pucks with their bodies before they can get to the goalie? There was a truly sensational series in the final minute of Game 4 where a Bruin was on the ice in the shooting lane, and a teammate who has between him and the net dove over him to get at the puck him as if throwing himself on a grenade. It doesn’t matter what sport it is, defense is where it’s at.
So call me a relic, call me what’cha will; say I’m old fashioned, say I’m over the hill, but while you tune in to watch the superstars run up the score, my heart lies with the defense trying to stop them.