Thursday, September 13, 2007
Why I Love Hockey #25: Henrik Tallinder
Back in 2005-2006 I thought Tim Connolly was my favorite player. I really did. I was in awe of what he could do with a stick and a puck. Sometimes, even watching in slow motion, I just could not see how he did some of the things he did. I was also getting a kick out of most of Buffalo backtracking and claiming they knew the day would come when it would be clear that we were on the winning side of the Peca trade. (Oh, Buffalo. I love you like crazycakes.) I was really upset when Timmy got crushed in the Conference Finals. I did not enjoy watching him lay on the ice, Kotalik peering down at him, looking for all the world like he was saying, "Dude. Are you dead?" I did not enjoy watching Kotalik and a trainer prop him up and slide him off the ice. I did not enjoy the glazed over, lights out look on his face. I did not enjoy listening to conversations about whether his career was over or not and in fact, temporarily banned another classroom aide from my room because he kept coming in to ask me things like, "Do you think Connolly will ever set foot on the ice again?" I spent the entire off-season scouring message boards for updates. I was encouraged when the Sabres re-signed Timmy for three years and then discouraged when he seemed to fall off the face of the earth after that.
And then the season started. And I missed Timmy. But I didn't MISS him. My friend Sue adores Maxim Afinogenov and any time he's out, even just for a couple of games, she's going nuts the entire time. I was bummed by Timmy's absence but I was definitely not going nuts and after a while, I didn't even notice as much. That's when I started to feel like maybe my favorite player was still out there waiting to be discovered.
I don't remember the specific game or opponent but I do remember there was a moment when I watched Henrik Tallinder move the puck up the ice and thought, "Holy cow, he is beautiful." Now I'm not talking about physical appearance here (though I do think he's a pretty handsome fella). I'm talking about his on-ice presence. He's just so darn graceful. I don't know if it's his long, lean frame or if it's simply something ingrained in his particular skating style but he's looks so effortless. Max and Soupy are blurs of legs and motion and Hank seems to almost be moving in slow motion in comparison. But four or five easy strides and geez, he's covered a lot of ice. Where Max often looks like he's barely keeping control of all his limbs, Hank never looks like he's about to lose control of the puck. Even on the rare occasion that he does lose control he never looks panicky or jumpy. I love watching him during pre-game skates. At some point during every skate he moves out to center ice and skates backwards from one side to the other, back and forth, over and over and I'm completely enraptured. I can't even stand on skates so how someone can look that relaxed and at-ease skating backwards is beyond me.
I will admit that a lot of my initial affection for Hank was in retrospect. After that day I first took notice of him, I started thinking about him more. "You know, he was really great in the playoffs, one of our best players. Losing Timmy really hurt our offense but it might've been Hank's injury that really caused the wheels to come off." At first I felt bad about that. If he were really my favorite player, wouldn't I have noticed him while he was playing the best stretch of hockey he's played in his career? (Not that he wasn't good this past season. But he spent a lot of time on IR - Hank the Tank my ass - and I think the broken arm, the re-broken arm, and the nagging ankle sprain affected his game physically and maybe even a little bit mentally.) But after a while I got over it because I think that's just the type of player Hank is. He plays a very solid, very quiet game which results in him being pretty under the radar. Every once in a while he pulls off a move that makes you sit up and take notice. I remember a game against Pittsburgh where Hank was the only thing between Sidney Crosby and the net. He stayed with him, stayed with him, stayed with him and then at precisely the right second calmly reached around with those long arms and poked the puck away, making Sid the Kid look like just another hockey player.
But that's not how it usually goes. Soupy sometimes looks flashier because he has to haul ass down the ice to make up for the fact that's he's out of position. Spacek and Teppo are more visible because they get more power play time. Hank is almost always where he needs to be so his play doesn't need to be dramatic. While he can carry the puck and he has a pretty accurate shot, he's not a goal scorer and probably never will be. He's a defensive defenseman and like I said in the previous post, if those guys do their job correctly, they're probably not getting noticed too much. Even Sabres fans who know how valuable the Tallinder-Lydman pairing are take them for granted, I think. Our defense was a bit of an adventure to watch sometimes last season so it was nice to relax for 30 seconds here and there and pretty soon people were relaxing without even realizing it. And you know, I like it that way. Listen, I have no problem with people loving Afinogenov and Vanek and Miller. They're all very good hockey players and their popularity is completely justified. I also think your favorite player is your favorite player. There's just something in that particular guy that calls out to you, that fits you and what you love and appreciate about the game at that point in your fandom.
But... I would be lying if I didn't admit that there's a teeny tiny part of me that feels like those guys are so easy. The flashiest guy on the team, the leading scorer, and the starting goalie? Man, come on. And I would be lying if I didn't admit that there's a teeny tiny part of me that's proud of the fact that my favorite player isn't that high on the popularity chart. I love walking into HSBC Arena on game night and seeing just a handful of Tallinder jerseys. I love wearing my jersey on Sabres day at the grocery store and getting comments like, "Tallinder, huh? That's an odd one." I love talking to people about what a beautiful skater he is and having them say things like, "Really? I've never noticed." Part of me wishes people would notice, but part of me knows if Hank were more noticed, he'd probably be a different kind of player. And if he were a different kind of player, then he wouldn't be my kind of player.
Earlier I mentioned that it was partly Timmy's time on IR that made me realize he wasn't really my favorite player. Well, Hank spent enough time on IR last season to help me realize that he really was. (I got it now, Hank, thanks. You don't need to spend any time on IR this season.) When he re-broke his arm, I spent weeks telling people how I thought the doctors should attach adamantium to his entire skeleton just like Wolverine so it would be impossible for him to break another bone. When friends complained about how long it was taking to come back from a "stupid sprain" I cited medical people who said that sometimes a high ankle sprain was worse than a break because it tends to linger for so long. When that jackass Daniel Alfredsson freakin' boarded Hank in the playoffs I sat in the 300 level of HSBC freaking out about how he wasn't getting up and how that usually meant he was hurt and how he probably broke his arm again. ("I knew they should have gone with the adamantium! I knew it!") During the Games to Remember this summer we got three games in a row with no Hank and even though I'd seen all those games once before, I was still upset that I had to sit through that many games without my favorite player. Who picked those games anyway?
So here's to you, Henrik Tallinder, Heather B's favorite Sabre. (Please don't get hurt.)