2005-11-04

Hockey is Tailor-Made for the American Sports Fan

For years I have always wondered and tried to intellectually rationalize why hockey isn't more popular across the United States in terms of media and television exposure. Furthermore, it barely registers on the publics imagination. Then again, since the rise of football in the 1960s, even baseball has lost its grip on the American sports fan. Sports mad America has two passions in different regions and demographics now: College and NFL football & NASCAR.

That doesn't mean hockey isn't popular in certain parts of the country. Minnesota is a hockey-crazed hotbed at both the Collegiate and amateur ranks. The state consistently produces world-class players. In Detroit and Philadelphia, the Red Wings and Flyers outdraw the Pistons and 76ers respectively. Massachusetts has a long and proud hockey culture, as Bruins hockey reveals.

Chicago and New York, two of the country's biggest markets, have devoted pockets of Blackhawks, Sabres, Islander and Ranger fans. I think the Devils, despite their successes, are only followed by Bruce Springsteen.

The first real stage of the NHL's attempt to make inroads with the average American sports fan was presented when Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. The impact on California's hockey inscriptions was immediate. Since then, its growth and development has been impressive. It is not uncommon to see California teams come up to Canada to play in major tournaments, and excel. In some cases, they even win. The thinking is that most southern states do not connect to hockey for several reasons.

Weather is often cited as one. The myth and allure of hockey in northern climates is that kids play the sport outdoors and thus create an immediate love for the game. This kind of grassroots 9make that iceroots) connection can never be underestimated. In Canada, the ritual in this country was playing hockey on Saturday and then getting home to watch Hockey Night in Canada. The sport has achieved a level of passion that only soccer fans can rival.

Another is that the sport is a foreign one and has little relevance to the American experience. To me, this one is less plausible. Football is not a purely American sport. Canadians had a hand in how the sport evolved from rugby in the late 19th century. Eventually, both countries developed their own styles and rules. Basketball, while invented in the U.S., was an idea from a Canadian. Americans will latch onto a sport regardless of origin. If they love it they will support it. I think anyway. The truth is that if there is any holes in my argument it's that basketball and football are not viewed to be foreign at its roots.

Yet another misconception is that Americans simply don't understand the game. While on some level this is true, especially if we're talking about places that are just being introduced to it, in a larger sense this can be dismissed. The American sports fan is sophisticated and knowledgeable enough to grasp the intricacies of the game.

Ironically, while the sport is a favorite whipping boy among ESPN personalities and often dismissed as a fringe activity, USA hockey has quietly built a superb hockey program that rivals the traditional powers. American hockey is clearly on par with Canada, Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic and Finland. In fact, it would not be a stretch to say, given the enormous population base in the U.S., that one day American born players will come to dominate the NHL. We may very well see the United States win on a regular basis at the World Juniors, World Cup, World Championships and Olympics.

The same contradiction can be seen with soccer - another sport Americans seem to love at the grass roots level but have little interest at the pro level. While hockey is a sport with limited appeal on a global scale - save North America, Europe and parts of China and Japan - soccer is truly the world's game - except in the U.S. Yet to soccer fans, the U.S. has once again quietly found itself in the upper echelons of soccer nations, cracking the top 10 in the FIFA rankings. It is a ranking system with dubious methods, but a recognized one nonetheless. In fact, America is so committed to developing its soccer program through its huge reservoir of talent, I have predicted that we may not only see an American squad reach the finals one day but go all the way and win it.

This brings me to my point. When the U.S. juniors won the gold medal a couple of years ago over Canada, this achievement went unnoticed in the U.S. Moreover, Canada and the U.S. have created an intense rivalry on levels from junior to professional, and from amateur ranks to the women's game. While Canadians feel this is one of the most intriguing battles in sports, Americans seem to be oblivious to this exciting fact.

Many of us remain perplexed. Hockey offers everything Americans cherish and adore in a sport - if not in life. It has power and agility, violence and elegance, high level of skill and speed. It is an intense sport with deep and traditional history. It's a game that embodies all the qualities Americans have come to appreciate in their culture. So why is hockey consistently pushed aside by mainstream sports media and fans?

3 comments:

  1. Here in Florida, college football, Nascar, and the NFL rule. Hockey doesn't register.

    I lived in Mississauga in the 1970s and tried to get interested in hockey to no avail. I had better success with the CFL and still watch it on DirecTV from time to time. Of course, I had a background in pro football, so the CFL wasn't alien.

    To me, hockey is soccer on ice, and that's it. Soccer is terminally boring. One of the reasons I like football is that I can strategize along with the coaches between plays. It's more like war.

    When I lived in San Jose, Ca, and the Sharks came on strongly in the nineties, I started watching the game some, but frankly, my eyes glaze over.

    Of course, driving a car around in a circle 500 times is even more repetitious than skating up and down a rink. But, consistently, I don't watch Nascar either.

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  2. The strategy element is something I should have brought up. True, that is part of the appeal of baseball and football. They do allow, because of the stoppages and pace, fans to play call. Hockey and soccer are continuous sports with different flow. Their inherent strategies change with the flow. For those interested in reading about the football phenomena 'America's Game' by Michael MacCambridge is a great read.

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  3. Anonymous11/22/2005

    i really enjoyed that post being a HUGE hockey fan myself.

    i hate it that NASCAR is more popular than hockey in the states....cars driving around in circles fast???? please!

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