We’re supposed to believe a lack of mainstream appeal is hockey’s tragic flaw. Brian Lutz argues it’s just the opposite.
We have been told that hockey doesn’t matter in today’s sporting landscape. We’ve heard about the shrinking TV audiences and the half-empty arenas; we’ve seen hockey slowly phased out of the highlight shows and the sports pages. In the National Sports Discussion, hockey is by and large treated like an imposter who somehow got a seat at the head table.
Hockey remains a member of professional sports’ holy quartet, but begrudgingly; if the higher powers had their way, the sport would be lumped in with golf, soccer, and the rest of the cast-offs. But as our overbearing obsession with sports—the relentless blogosphere, the mind-numbing pregame shows, the perpetual pointless arguments—gets closer and closer to the tipping point, could hockey’s alleged irrelevance ultimately be a good thing?
Sports are supposed to be our escape from reality, something to take our minds off the trivialities and burdens of regular life, a remedy for the everyday struggle. These are games, after all. But in the 24-7 age of instant updates and insider information, being the average fan suddenly seems like a lot more work that we don’t want or need.
No longer is it acceptable to simply watch the games and check the standings every now and again. As 21st Century Fans, we must be able to analyze the luxury tax, rattle off advance statistics, and name-drop players we would love to see in a trade. We must be intimately familiar with every notable player or coach in franchise history. We must have an opinion on every meaningless transaction or call-up. We refer to our team as “us” or “we.” We must own at least one jersey.
Slowly but surely, the fun is being sucked out of the overall experience. The point of no return has been passed. Crowds dress alike and cheer when prompted. A nine-inning baseball game can take four hours. Utilitarian stadiums and arenas have the glorified charm of a shopping mall. Players have no qualms about signing with their former team’s bitter rivals.
Sports are now simultaneously thrown in our faces and shoved down our throats. Any mundane story or innocuous quote can turn into a 48-hour inquisition. Opinions must be formed, debates must be had. When Joe Flacco “wins” the Super Bowl—forget the other 52 Baltimore Ravens—it must be immediately determined where he ranks among the current quarterbacks. He must be considered elite, unless he isn’t, in which case we must hash out the definition of elite. And we must carve out 20 minutes of each nightly highlight show—forget actual highlights—to watch ex-jocks senselessly debate something that can never be answered.
What does this all mean? Last spring, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin gave an interview with NBC’s Bob Costas, during which they discussed why Tomlin loved football so much as a young child. “I’m not one to believe that you peel the curtain back for everything,” said Tomlin. “I like some of the mystery that is the game of football. I grew up in a time period where we didn’t have a lot of access…it was purer to me then, I guess. Being a kid that grew up 20-30 years ago, and following professional sports…it was special. You were thirsty for it.”
Today, we are drowning in it. Stats, blogs, Twitter feeds, trade machines, shot charts: there is nothing we don’t know, very little we can’t see. The white noise of ESPN and talk radio and power rankings and performance metrics is nearly impossible to tune out. But hockey—ignored by the masses, shunned from prime-time—has become a frosty oasis, a sport that retains a joyous innocence in an age when mystique struggles to survive. For once, the Nike commercial got it right: Hockey is ours.
When yet another NHL lockout began last fall, all the usual jokes were recycled. Do I miss hockey? I didn’t even know it was gone! There was little sympathy for a badly mismanaged league mired in another prolonged work stoppage, its third since 1994. But there was also an undercurrent of sadness for the game itself; it was thought that another lost season would be a death blow, pushing hockey permanently to the fringes of significance.
The NHL, of course, is back, just as good as ever. Hockey’s underground popularity endures. But still: you have to be thirsty for it. You have to seek out games, stories, fans, hockey bars. You can hardly walk two blocks without tripping over an NFL junkie. But part of hockey’s appeal is that it is not ubiquitous. Scarcity, in this age, can be a positive.
It’s no secret that major sports today have an ongoing obsession with more: more teams, more money, more revenue, more ticket sales, more timeouts, more commercials, more jerseys, more beer sales. Athletes must be bigger, faster, stronger. Seasons start sooner and end later. Games drag on deep into the night. We must have more statistics, more measurables, more scouting, more coaches, more trainers, more substitutions, more instant replays, more equipment options.
The NHL can be just as guilty as the rest—overexpansion has been a key factor in all three lockouts—but the game itself still stands out for its subtle restraint. Think about all the ways in which hockey eliminates the bullshit. One time out per game. Very few instant replays. Substitutions on the fly. Constant, chaotic end-to-end action. Limited commercials. Penalties that actually mean something. Coaches who must make lightning-quick adjustments in real time. Other than the between-period breaks, there is little down time.
It is a far cry from all the yawn-inducing minutiae that we must put up with elsewhere. Managers and pitching coaches can waddle out to the mound at their will and pleasure. Football’s touchdown-extra point-kickoff-change-of-possession sequence can last longer than the average sitcom. In the final two minutes of an NBA game, you could spend most of the time watching teams exchange timeouts while the referees debate whether to add or subtract fractions of a second from the clock.
Hardly any of this flies in the NHL, and for good reason: it slows down the game. In a sporting world mesmerized by speed—cue the phrases “speed kills;” “we need more speed;” and my personal favorite, “you can’t teach speed”—hockey is one of the fastest sports. Slapshots blaze past defenders at 87 miles per hour, on average. Players zip around the ice at speeds they could never reach on foot. Picture the breathtaking sight of a speedy forward steaming through the neutral zone, tilting the ice in his favor as defenders frantically scramble to get in front of him. The game’s best players are able to control the pace so well, it is said that the game slows down for them.
For some reason hockey’s finest players are not often in the Conversation about elite athletes. We marvel at physical specimens in football and basketball. It’s long been decided that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. Few seem to appreciate the complexity and skill it takes to make the puck dance on a stick. But anyone who’s put on a pair of skates has to agree that what hockey players can do on ice is every bit as impressive as dunking a basketball or hitting a home run.
It’s undeniable that hockey has few crossover stars. But it’s also true that hockey players are, in many ways, the last remaining regular guys in major professional sports. There is a near-complete absence of divas, phonies, and me-first hotshots, and those who gravitate towards this are just as quickly ostracized. The Terrell Owens of hockey does not exist, and for this we can only be thankful.
When HBO’s 24/7 took on the Winter Classic, giving us a glimpse into the everyday lives and personalities of the men behind the sweaters, it was like a cold breath of fresh air. The players are revealed to be candid, goofy, likeable, down-to-earth. Nobody takes themselves too seriously; no one “cares about their brand.” The practical jokes and camaraderie showed us that close-knit teams can still exist deep into the professional ranks. The highest authority in the sportswriting kingdom, Bill Simmons, has said that hockey is probably the last remaining major sport that could serve as the subject of a single-season behind-the-scenes book. Anything else would be too boring, too stale, too sanitized.
It is hockey’s colorful fringe players—the muckers and grinders, goons and enforcers—that have given the sport it’s no-nonsense, blue-collar reputation. These are the guys we want to have a beer with, the players who remain hugely popular with fans, sometimes long after they have left the game. Gary Roberts sleeps with a pillow under his hockey stick.
Other sports can boast of players who shun individual accomplishment for the greater glory of the team, who truly do what it takes to win—you’ve probably heard them described as “gritty.” But only in hockey are they allowed to fight each other.
Yes, any hockey discussion must include a word about fighting. The tradition has its fair share of critics, and the recent early deaths of prevalent fighters like Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien have fueled the debate about fighting’s role in the sport. And staged fights between goons, while they may have entertainment value, serve no higher purpose. The true fights—the ones triggered when a superstar takes an elbow to the head, or a goalie is smashed into without reserve—are the ones that will endure as the natural consequences of a violent game.
Every major sport, to some degree, has been sissified in the name of modernization. Defensive backs in the NFL get flagged for barely touching wide receivers. The NBA relaxed their hand-check rules in 2005, fearful of a prolonged drop in scoring. Starting pitchers must be removed if they throw too many pitches. Soccer players can be carted off in a stretcher for a sprained ankle.
We see none of this in hockey. Minutes are rarely limited. Players maintain a well-earned reputation for battling through injuries. Even with the ongoing concussion crisis, the game remains as physical as ever. Fighting is still an integral part of the sport. Players don’t hesitate to throw their bodies in front of pucks at any juncture.
Why then, has hockey’s reputation diminished? Few other sports can offer a similar mix of speed and physicality, and none can match hockey’s unpredictability. Every ice surface plays a little differently; pucks bounce their own way in every arena. When plays and formations are drawn up, X and O rarely stay on course. Every rush to the net is full of endless possibilities. No two goals are alike. Power plays. Empty nets. Fisticuffs. Who decided this wasn’t exciting? Are you not entertained?
There was a fairly major story in the first half of this shortened NHL season. The Chicago Blackhawks did not lose in regulation in their first 24 games, an NHL record. Did the Blackhawks make the cover of Sports Illustrated? Nope. Was their streak the lead story on SportsCenter? Not once. In fact, ESPN’s unenthusiastic and awkward coverage of the streak became a story unto itself. For this, they were properly mocked by all corners of the Internet. Of course, the network had more important things to talk about, like whether Joe Flacco deserves his recent contract extension, or whether Kobe and Dwight Howard are getting along this week.
We live in a world today where the tale of a 20-year-old college student’s fake dead girlfriend is more than a news story. It’s an unavoidable obstacle. Every mouse click, every tap on the seek button, every flick of the channel can bring you up close and personal with a senseless story most of us never cared about in the first place. What used to be an unusual phenomenon—remember the quaint times when people complained that the Super Bowl was overhyped—has become the norm. It is the rare bird today that is not overhyped, overanalyzed, over-promoted. It no longer matters whether you deserve the spotlight. Tim Tebow gets as much press as LeBron James.
The communal experience of following sports has now entered the extreme. All of the women at your office fill out NCAA brackets; your crazy aunt plays fantasy football; your 10-year-old cousin can explain how the salary cap works. But none of them can spot a neutral zone trap or tell you who Shea Weber is. For decades hockey has coveted the casual fan. It might just be better off now that most of them have been weeded out.
Hockey can be boring, chippy, disjointed, confusing, and frustrating. It will always belong to Canada. It may never be a cross-cultural force like soccer or basketball; it may never equal the staggering popularity of football or baseball. But as it remains on the fringe of the mainstream, hockey is free from many of the modern novelties that serve mostly to annoy us.
So the next time you find yourself listening to two stuffed suits bicker about Jacksonville’s backup quarterback, or click on another meaningless top ten list of the best current left-handed outfielders, perhaps you’ll find that changing the channel to a hockey game—assuming you can find one—would be cathartic.
We’ve heard that hockey is a niche sport. We hope it stays that way.
Photo: Rex Arbogast/Associated Press