Yup, this is a rant. I wear my 40 years of hockey fandom on my sleeve. I consider myself a die-hard hockey fan. I would watch a bunch of kids playing hockey on a pond. I have made hockey pucks out of the foil ring ding wrapper and played desk top hockey with pencils (and not those fancy ones with hockey stick erasers, but the hard core No. 2 yellow ones), with our snack milk cartons as goals taped to our desks. Yes I can tell you that Gary Doak wore number 25 for the Bruins; Guy LaFleur was so damn good that saying that was grounds for disownment in my house; that the Islander dynasty was what I felt robbed of growing up as a Bruins fan; that I still site “Orr be nimble, Orr be quick, Orr jumped over the hockey stick” as my favorite nursery rhyme; that I cheered for ’80 Olympic players no matter what NHL team they played on; that while I was sad to see teams like the Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota North Stars, Quebec Nordiques, Hartford Whalers, California Golden Seals, and Colorado Rockies disappear from the NHL landscape, I have been just as thrilled to see hockey take root in Nashville, Tampa Bay, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, and return to Colorado and Minnesota.
What I cannot understand is why people who consider themselves “true” fans of the game seemingly do not want to see the game grow and extend it’s reach. Now I am not for a second a fan of things like the Fox glowing puck, or the shoot-out for that matter. But in an era of the shrinking expendable income dollar, and a growing number of fan options – everything from UFC, PBR, NASCAR, MIIL, and the PGA just to name a few – what is so wrong with the NHL trying to expand its niche and increase its fan following? As I said, I am not at all a fan of the shoot-out, but who can argue that eliminating the two line pass has done anything but make the speed of the game even more evident, even to the casual observer.
So why the rant? In the last month I have read, listened to, and observed a plethora of bashing of the Winter Classic. This is an event which was designed to showcase hockey and put the game we love in the national spotlight for a day, in the hopes of exponentially growing the fan base and making a new generation of fans. I can fully appreciate the “hate” for the seemingly constructed rivalry of the Caps and Pens, specifically Crosby and Ovechkin. However, if I learned anything from watching HBO’s 24/7 it is that these two teams really do hate each other. So maybe it’s not an Original Six rivalry steeped in generations of bad blood, but I can get past the EVENT. Why? Because I am a hockey fan and I get to watch as many games of my team, and my enemies (yes, I have Center Ice) all season long. I get to watch them without the pomp and circumstance of the Winter Classic, and I get to listen to hometown announcers, some good, some bad, but ones that don’t have to explain a line change isn’t about drying laundry. But if for one day, ONE game we have to “dumb down” the game to start building the game we already love, then for the love of Bobby Orr, bite the bullet! We as “true fans” have everything to gain! More fans equals leverage for a new league TV deal, more tickets sold, more merchandise revenue generated, and all of that translates to a stronger and more vibrant game. If you want your favorite team to sign young players and your favorite players to long term contracts or not have to bust up a Stanley Cup winner, then we want revenue to the league and its teams to allow for a raise in the salary cap.
Am I less than patient when I hear my fellow fans in the TD Garden yelling about things they clearly do not understand about the game? Yes. However, I love to answer earnest questions about why icing was waived off, or why we are cheering a good cycling shift even if the team didn’t score. I love talking about the game of hockey. Regardless of if they are a casual fan, a “love at first sight” fan, or a die-hard fan, there is nothing better than hockey fans; so help the game grow! Yes, even the “pink hat” fans (by the way, I despise that term) are value added to the growth of the game. Not to mention explaining something to them might even deepen your hockey knowledge, if nothing else consider it to be your good deed for the day if you can get them to come back!
Which brings me to the last part of this diatribe; hockey is for EVERYONE! Yes, I said it Canada, you do not own the game of hockey any more than Brazil owns the game of futbol. Fans of hockey in the US and other countries you do not have to prove your “worth” nor pay hockey dues to Canada for the right to love this sport. I have been deeply disappointed to hear some of nationalistic garbage generated on both sides of the border over the Olympics, the Winter Classic, and the World Junior Nationals. I am more than capable of handling my share of trash talk, I am a Bruins fan after all, but the venom and vitriol which has been made personal (thank you interwebz) is beyond absurd. I wear my red, white, and blue proudly, but I will freely admit that I could sing the Canadian National Anthem in English and French before I could read. Why? Because I swear the Bruins played more teams from Canada than the US and it seemed like both were played before every game. The beauty of sharing this amazing game via mediums like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, chatrooms, etc. is that we get to SHARE our love for the game, not stake a claim to it in some sort of warped superiority trip.
So for me, there is plenty of room on the hockey bandwagon. In fact, the more the merrier and then maybe I won’t have to justify my request to have a “sports bar” put on the hockey game instead of a grapefruit league, split-squad baseball game. I say bring on the raw look at the game like 24/7, one of the best things that I think has happened to the sport since the Miracle on Ice. I say bite your tongue, as Uncle Gary will likely test your resolve as a “true” fan with other gimmicks like the All-Star game, NHL Awards Show, and yes hand-picking the teams and sites for the Winter Classic. But for the other 81 games a year (well minus ties resolved by shoot-out), we still have our game to celebrate, appreciate, and share. The more fans, the bigger the party, and who doesn’t love a party?