During the dog days of the summer sports season, hockey fans have tried to find something that can replicate the game they love. Fortunately, the 2012 Summer Olympics in London have been a welcome distraction until NHL training camps open in September.
But it hasn't just been marquee sports basketball and track and field that have drawn the attention of hockey fans. NHL players and fans alike have rallied around water polo, a sport with more than its share of similarities to hockey.
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"[They both] have nets and power plays and goaltenders and penalty shots. Also, the resilience the [water polo] players have is very comparable to hockey," said Hall of Fame broadcaster Mike "Doc" Emrick, who has called hockey play-by-play for almost 40 years and is doing the same for NBC's Olympic water polo coverage. "There is a feeling, too, that part of the character is similar to hockey. Unless [an injury] is really bad, you don't go for repairs. You just get back in."
Emrick first covered Olympic water polo at the 2004 Games in Athens before missing the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He returned to the pool this summer in London, this time joined by a few colleagues. While some members of NBC's hockey production crew are also in London, the most interesting addition to the team has been hockey analyst Pierre McGuire, who has provided postgame interviews in water polo as well as for cycling and shooting events.
Appreciation for water polo has been voiced on Twitter, where a number of current and former NHL players, including Steve Ott, Brian McGrattan and Toby Peterson, have been expressing their respect. The Dallas Stars even asked their Twitter followers if they were watching water polo to whet their appetite for hockey.
Chicago Blackhawks prospect Jeremy Morin may have best expressed hockey's appreciation for the toughness of water polo, tweeting, "If the entire NHL isn't scouting some of these water polo guys/girls for a net-front presence, they should be."
For Emrick, who took a week off after the Stanley Cup Playoffs before studying video of previous water polo competitions to prepare for London, that toughness has been a huge part of the appeal to hockey fans.
"[Water polo competitors] are remarkably courageous, because the only protection they have is over each ear. If you get hit by the ball or by a punch, you're taking one for the team," Emrick told NHL.com. "[U.S. team member] Ryan Bailey told me he had a dislocated thumb and three broken ribs. He was kicked under the water. How hard does someone have to kick through the water to break three ribs? And no penalty [was called] because it wasn't seen. It takes a lot of moxie to play that sport."
Water polo is most popular in Eastern and Central Europe, where Yugoslavia and three-time defending Olympic champion Hungary have long dominated international competition. A number of players, including some Americans, have made a generous living playing professionally in leagues located in Italy, Greece, and the former Yugoslavian republics.
A longtime fascination in Europe, the sport has been gaining some traction in North America, especially now that the U.S. men's and women's teams each clinched a spot in the Olympic quarterfinals, despite the men's 11-6 loss to Serbia on Saturday.
Emrick, who has covered hockey's grittiest battles for decades, needed only a few weeks of covering Olympic water polo to recognize it might be the world's toughest sport.
"[UCLA head coach] Adam Krikorian had a drowning drill. It was largely because you have to expect that you're going to be pushed under and held under [the water]," Emrick said. "So he had what he called 'the drowning drill.' That part makes it a little different from hockey."