Canadians from coast to coast have been studying the past few weeks. Not for school, not for work, not for self-improvement but for their hockey pools. In countless homes and offices across this hockey-crazed land, groups of men and women have been poring over hockey stats and formulating their strategies for drafting a winning hockey-pool team for the new NHL season that starts today (October 1).
For many of us, it's not only the prize money that motivates us. Winning your pool is always a nice bonus, but our primary motivation is the bragging rights that go along with a competitive team. No one likes being embarrassed, and the fear of drafting a “dog team” will encourage many to hit the books early. There is no joy in being needled incessantly by your fellow poolies over the course of an eight-month regular season when you draft a bottom feeder.
With the growth of the Internet and the proliferation of fantasy sports sites, anyone can now access enough information to become an expert. Gone are the days when one or two sporting magazines published special hockey-pool issues. Gone, too, are the once-a-week newspaper listings of all the NHL players and their point totals, from which your pool manager (aka the man with no life) would total and rank each team. Web sites like www.officepools.com/ now provide instantaneous updates on results, scoring summaries, injuries, and your pool's current standings.
If you want to be a contender, you can't just cut out last year's players' point totals, stroll into your draft, and wing it for the next three hours. These days, most poolies come prepared with their ranking lists and reams of statistical records and “insider” information gleaned from a variety of newspapers, magazines, and Web sites.
I have been participating in the same hockey pool with virtually the same group of guys for the past 20 years. We call our pool the “cruel pool” because only the winning team gets the cash, and “like life, there is no prize for second place.” Our pool's format is simple: first, we draw names out of a hat to determine the draft order; then we draft players for 10 rounds. At the end of the season, the pool team that has accumulated the most goals and assists is declared the winner. There are no substitutions, no injury replacements, no trades, and no positional drafting. The winning team pockets all the cash and gets its name etched on our replicas of the Presidents' Trophy and the Stanley Cup.
My pool mates are largely an anonymous bunch who convene twice a year to trade barbs and pound their chests. There are no women in our pool, not because they are not welcome but because they probably can't imagine anything more gruesome then sitting around yelling and arguing about hockey. No one at this gathering asks about your feelings, your family, or the book of the month. Most of the teams have names that are created out of some fantasy from the owners' deluded minds. Handles like the Ordinary All Stars, Renaissance Man, Hot Sauce, Sage, G-spots, Kona, Mr. Big, and Cousin Oliver must have some significance, but I'm afraid to ask. The draft itself is organized mayhem and drags on for hours as the picks get harder to find. Each pick that you make is like venturing out on a bed of burning coals, and your selection is immediately judged and juried with either faint praise or rancorous abuse.
These are phrases you want to hear after you pick a player: “Good pick, I wanted him” and “You *$%#@*, that was my next pick!” And these are words you don't want to hear: “He's out indefinitely with a concussion,” “He just got sent down to the minors,” and “He's holding out for more money.”
Once the deed is done, you will live and die with your players during the next eight months. Each morning, many of us will forsake precious minutes of sleep to slip on our robes and stagger over, coffee in hand, to the computer to find out how our team fared overnight. Your day hinges on what the score sheet says, and your team either rests on your head like a crown or hangs around your neck like an albatross. By Christmas, you and everyone else will know whether you are a contender or a pretender.
So be prepared, and remember: it's just a game. Yeah, right!