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Thursday, April 19 Sports

Column: What's in a rivalry?

"Sit down, shut up!"

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"We can't hear you!"

"Find a new chant"

"Just like football!"

"Blue Wave hockey!"

"Haaa-aaail NC!"

Such was the scene last Saturday when the Darien and New Canaan boys hockey teams came to blows over the FCIAC championship at Terry Conners Ice Rink in Stamford.

On the ice, the rivals battled bitterly until New Canaan scored three third period goals to best Darien 5-2 and claim their conference title. Outside the rink glass, two halves of a split crowd, one clothed in midnight black and the other dove white, held no barb back while berating each another for the larger part of 90 minutes.

It didn't matter whether you were moving about in sneakers or on skates. Last weekend, no one could escape the passion, fervency and healthy hate of rivalry.

The atmosphere was tremendous. And in my eyes, it was the type of setting that cannot be topped in all of sports--bar none.

Opening Day? Pass.

All-star game? Yawn.

Game 7? Fuhgetaboutit.

If I ever get a sports last meal, you can serve me two rivals going at it on any playing surface, at any time, in any season. There's a reason why players, coaches and fans get so hyped for these games.

Something specials happens in the heated interaction. Something that can't be replicated on any other stage.

Something that caused Darien coach Chris Gerwig, who undoubtedly believed his team would beat New Canaan, to say three days before puck-drop:

"Bottom line, it will a great game no matter what."

How could anyone know that?

Sure, the Blue Wave and the Rams were both top seeds that had been playing well. But, did anyone happen to catch last month's Super Bowl between the two best teams in football, who had also been playing pretty darn well?

The final score read 43-8. Good teams on every level can and do play bad games.

Not to mention, Darien had beaten New Canaan by a combined margin of 10-3 in its previous four meetings.

Yet, Gerwig was right. Despite the lopsided final score, the two teams played closely for most of 45 minutes and finished just two shots apart in the stat sheet.


By the same process that led New Canaan captain Jack O'Rourke, who had just been named a champion of the entire FCIAC conference, who had just capped off his senior year with a title and whose team had won its 14th game since February, to specifically comment in the post-game:

"It feels good to score against Darien."

Rivalry. That's it. That's all. That's the beauty of it.

When teams like New Canaan and Darien go head-to-head, you absolutely can throw the records out the window. Hell, you can throw all other happenings in the world going on at the same time out the window. During these games, each team and its following want to beat the other side so badly that the atmosphere consumes everyone involved. Players compete harder, coaches grow more intense and fans go bonkers.

The here and now of the rivalry becomes all that matters.

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And that's the rub.

For isn't that the biggest perk sports has to offer us-- an escape?

In a way, rivalry games bring us closer under the guise of all that yelling and intensity.

Not in a join hands and sing "Kumbaya" kind of way; instead, simply bringing people together to share in the greatness of sports and add to the atmosphere.

Now, while there's nothing in the world that may seem more pleasing than beating down your rival across the rink, court or field, the simple fact is that you can't harbor that joy without them present.

You need a rival who, as many times as you may shout "you suck" at, is still an equal, and that's why it feels good to beat them. If they're not a quality opponent, then game after game, you just have the antithesis of the thriller: a blowout.

Why do rivals feel so passionately about one other?

Most often, sports rivalries stem from simple geography. Teams fighting figurative territory wars, much like the games they compete in. Sometimes, rivalries spring up from bad history between a pair of evenly matched teams or players. In the best of occasions, a rivalry is born from a combination of each.

Darien and New Canaan, of course, share both. Geography set the table, and the rest, as they say, was history. The games are classics, time and time again.

That's why I would take contests like these over any other, even those with a state title or even a Super Bowl on the line. Because in a rivalry, you don't need anything on the line.

Throw the records, the storylines, the whole world out the damn window.

All you need is them and you.

And that's the beauty of it.