I’m a hockey apologist. You know the type—the person who is constantly telling people that hockey is the greatest game in the world with the greatest athletes in the world. The person who makes excuses every time a horrific fight makes headlines. The type of person who will tell anyone who will listen that they just need to go to a game – see it live – and they’ll be transformed for life.
It’s the sports equivalent of an evangelist. Just give us a minute of your time and we’ll show you the wonders of our passion. It’ll change your life. Just give us three hours on Saturday night and I promise it’ll be the best thing you’ve ever experienced. It’s good on TV, but you can’t get the full feeling of it until you see a game in person.
Like I said, I’m an apologist. And since you’re reading a hockey blog, there’s a good chance that you are too. We think it’s the greatest game on earth, it’s growing, and it’s only a matter of time before the sport explodes into every household in North America.
The problem is that sometimes sports fans can be so close to the trees, they can’t see the forest. I’m someone who is reading hockey articles from around the 30 markets, attending an NHL practice, taking in an NHL game, talking to friends about hockey, or watching a game on TV. But sometimes I need a reminder that I’m not the norm—just because I know that the Florida Panthers had a complete facelift in the offseason or that the Kyle Turris drama is a complete joke in Phoenix, doesn’t mean that it’s exactly well-known national news in the United States.
And that’s the key. Those are national stories in the hockey world, but not national stories among the traditional sports landscape in the United States. If an NFL team were to overhaul their team like Dale Tallon blew up the Panthers over the last seven months (and continues to do so), we’d have hundreds of analysts breaking down every transaction on ESPN, regional networks, local news broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, and websites all over the country. If a 3rd overall pick was embroiled in a contract dispute in the NBA like Kyle Turris, there would be constant status updates leading up to the December 1st deadline. As it stands today, the causal American sports fan a) doesn’t know Turris; b) doesn’t understand the dispute; c) doesn’t know that there’s a December 1 deadline; and d) doesn’t care about any of it because none of it has been shoved down their throat.
ESPN plays by Steve Jobs’ rule: people don’t know what they want until you show them what they want.
Anyone who says that ESPN’s constant coverage of particular sports and teams doesn’t shape the national sports discussion is either in denial or works in Bristol, CT. But this isn’t an article to bash the Worldwide Leader. There are plenty of other sites that can quench that thirst for Haterade around the internet. This is much more important for hockey fans than just article that rakes ESPN over the coals for their slipping standard.
NHL’s current position
Sometimes it’s tough to look at the mirror and be honest with what we see in the reflection.
The perfect example of the NHL’s place in the American sports landscape was demonstrated last week—and it had nothing to do with hockey at all. It was when the news of Dan Wheldon’s tragic passing made news all over the United States. 99% of people around the US have no idea what’s going on within the IndyCar circuit on a daily basis. But when Wheldon prematurely lost his life in Las Vegas on a track that was too fast, news outlets instantly made it a widespread story.
The story transcended IndyCar and racing in general. It was about a champion who was testing cars to make the sport safer and lost his life because the cars were unsafe on an unsafe race track. It was about a father who had just won the Indy 500 and kissed the bricks with his daughter. It’s the story of a successful son and husband who wouldn’t be returning to ever see his family again.
Those aren’t racing stories. Those are human stories.
The reality is that we can count IndyCar stories all on one hand. If you see open wheel racing in the States, its either Danica Patrick’s face in front of the cameras, a big crash, horrific tragedy, or a very quick rundown of a race’s results before cutting back to football.
Why does that sound so familiar? Let’s amend some of those and tell me if these ring a bell:
- It’s Sidney Crosby in front of the cameras
- It’s a big fight
- Someone got hurt on the ice from a dangerous hit
- A rundown of quick scores before cutting back to football.
That’s the cold, hard truth right now. Hockey may be the fourth biggest sport in the United States—but it’s a distant fourth. The reality is that the coverage has more in common with the fringe IndyCar circuit that it does with the NFL or Major League Baseball. IndyCar has Speed TV and hockey has the NHL Network. The diehards know where to go when they want to find it.
But they know they’ll have to look for it.
Opportunities this season
To understand the NHL’s true place among the American sports landscape is to understand how much work there is to be done. More importantly, it’s to understand the opportunity the league – and sport – has this fall when it’s the only attraction on weekdays.
Let’s be realists: college football owns Saturdays and the NFL has Sundays on lockdown. There’s going to be a huge, temporary sports vacuum (whether the NBA returns or not)—it’s the league’s job to make sure that hockey is the sport that fills the vacuum. Like Dustin Penner said over the offseason: “The NHL: it’s your only choice.”
Here’s the thing: so often in life, we don’t realize that there was an opportunity until the time has passed. That’s not the case for the NHL. Sports fans have know for months that there’s a huge opportunity for the league to grow the game during a potential NBA lockout. Its #1 competitor for eyeballs during the marathon season (and playoffs) is either sitting this one out or will have some serious damage control to spin in the next few weeks. Make no mistake about it—whether the NBA returns in late November, December, or January, there’s an opportunity for the NHL to make inroads. Whether the league is ready for it or not, opportunities like this are once in a lifetime openings to augment the roots of a fanbase.
The situation the league faces is the same as predicament hockey fans in have Phoenix. The diehard fans in Arizona are as passionate as any fans around North America. The problem is that there just aren’t enough of them. In so many different areas around the United States, the same could be said about the entire sport. Hockey fans are among the most passionate of any sport—there just aren’t enough of them. This is the opportunity to bring more in.
Remember, we are the hockey apologists. We’re the evangelists. People like us should be on late night public access channels so we can spread the word. We aren’t the ones who need to be convinced; the NHL already gets our money. But if the NHL wants to spread its influence and grow the game, the league needs to make the most of their unparalleled spotlight while they’re the only game around.
Like the old saying goes: “Opportunity knocks but once.” Let’s hope the NHL answers the door.