Flight Of Fantasy

Fleeting Fad Or Multi-Million Dollar Obsession, This Latest Craze Is Changing How Many View The Game

Somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean, Ron Morelli was jolted from his cruise-induced slumber by the ringing of his cell phone. A thousand scenarios rushed through his mind  as he quickly answered to find his son, Mark, on the other end of the line.

“Is there anything wrong at the house?’ Morelli asked.

“Nothing,” was the response, “but Brian McCabe just went on the disabled list. Who do you want me to pick up for him?”

Therein lies the problem with taking a vacation during the hockey season.

It’s important to note that Morelli is not an NHL general manager, team scout or player agent. His involvement in the game runs no deeper than a healthy obsession with the day-to-day statistics and transactions that form the backbone of one of the fast-growing trends in the game today.

Fantasy hockey has opened up the inner workings of the game to uninitiated masses once consumed only by wins and losses of their hometown teams. It has converted the casual fan into a stat junkie in search of a constant edge over his fellow number-crunching rivals. And the truth is, once you start playing fantasy hockey, it’s almost impossible to look at the game the same way again.

It’s a far cry from the early days of the hobby, when names like Guy Lafleur, Phil Esposito and Bobby Clarke were scribbled on scraps of paper and tossed into a hat for a sort of ad hoc draft, thus relinquishing all control and fate to the hockey gods. From there it was only a matter of assembling a roster of snipers and grinders and power-play specialists for that week’s competition and keeping track of their progress through the tiny agate-type box scores in the morning paper. Of course that didn’t take into account those pesky West Coast games that would finish up long after the steel drums of the newspaper presses began to churn out the news.

These days, hockey fans get their information from websites and smart phone apps dedicated to delivering the news in real time. A Zach Parise goal in New Jersey immediately shows up on the ledger sheet of a fantasy hockey fan in Phoenix, just as a Jonathan Quick shutout in L.A. pops up on the iPhone of an East Coast number cruncher.

Just as the technology has kept up with the insatiable demand for immediate information, the NHL has done its part to bring the numbers and juicy news streaming like a stock ticker. On its website, the league employs several full-time writers who keep track of everything from injuries to healthy scratches to potential trade rumors, all in the name of giving the fans the same
information available to league general managers.

It wasn’t always that way. As the popularity of fantasy sports began to take off in the 1990s, a battle was waged over control of the most precious commodity in the hobby – the mountains of data churned out on a nightly basis.

In a relatively short period of time, fantasy sports have become a billion-dollar industry dedicated to spitting out stats for the most hardcore fans. It’s the reason the Fantasy Sports Trade Association recently hired a federal lobbyist to look out for their interests.

While there are as many ways to participate in a fantasy hockey league as the New York Islanders have third jerseys, it is relatively easy to get started.

Most fantasy leagues follow a simple formula of 12 to 15 skaters plus two goaltenders. Players then accumulate points for typical statistical categories, such as goals and assists, saves and shutouts. There are various types of fantasy leagues, including the popular head-to-head league, where fantasy owners are matched against one other weekly in mano-a-mano duels.

The owners attempt to win as many categories as possible per week, with their weekly scores going toward to their cumulative score. At season’s end, the top teams face off for the league title, where the victors receive anything from cash to local bragging rights for the season.

There are websites and magazines devoted to daily inner workings of fantasy hockey including how to beat your buddies by drafting better players and the tell-tale signs to watch for during the season in order to pick up rising stars and drop players who have failed to live up to lofty expectations.

“You get caught going through those lists like you’re reading the Bible,” Morelli said. “[You’re] just trying to look for that one little thing that nobody else is seeing — not that everybody else isn’t doing the same thing you’re doing.”

No matter what your goals for the season, Michael Finewax, a hockey editor at Rotoworld, a website devoted to fantasy sports, said there are leagues that cater to everyone from the most casual fan to the hardcore stat junkie.

“Try to find people who want to spend the same amount of time as you for your pool because if guys are devoting a lot of time, they’re going to get upset at you for not devoting as much time and vice versa,” Finewax said. “That’ll make for the most fun pool. Because after all, it’s supposed to be fun.”

Ultimately, fantasy hockey is just one more way to stay connected with the game that we all love. It gives us a reason to tune in to a midweek clash between Edmonton and Calgary or to cheer the slumping winger we picked up in free agency who just scored against our hometown team. It connects us with friends and strangers alike, building a deeper sense of community in the process.

One last word of advice for anyone looking to jump into the fantasy hockey pool: keep up with the waiver wire, or risk being left behind.

“You gotta pay attention,” Finewax said. “You’ve gotta watch all the time.”

Even if you’re out to sea.

Issue: 
2011-12

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