The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Sports Week: America, Get With it – The Puck’s the Thing

Written by: Carson McKnight, Special to CC2K

ImageWhat if I told you there was a sport you could watch that had the hard hitting of football, the athleticism of basketball, the drama of baseball and fans with the passion of international soccer fans?  Add to that pro and semi-pro teams all across the country and that it’s something to get you through the cold days of winter.

The sport I’m referring to is, of course, hockey.  And for some reason Americans just won’t get into it. 

Personally, I don’t understand.  I’ve been a hockey fan for a good portion of my life.  This is thanks in part to the Pittsburgh Penguins winning the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons (1990-91 and 1991-92 if you’re keeping track) during my formative years as an adolescent boy.  I was supposed to like sports and the Penguins were the only game in town for a while.  The Pirates (Pittsburgh’s “baseball team”) were on their way towards some record-breaking seasons (losing seasons, that is) and the Steelers, while great in the 70’s and recently were sort of mediocre in the early ‘90s (Neil O'Donnell, anyone?).  So I was a hockey fan.  And what a hockey fan!  I started playing hockey (not on ice, that was too expensive and required too much skill, but street hockey, woo-hoo!), reading hockey, wearing jerseys, I even grew my hair like a hockey player in the early ‘90s (see: Mullet).

Now I understand that not everyone had the opportunity that I did to watch a great team like the early 90s Penguins play.  They did have a bona fide hockey superstar in their town like Mario Lemieux, a man who had such a profound impact on the place that you can now find multiple Pittsburgh natives in the NHL, a dramatic increase from 15 years ago.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be a fan of hockey.  In fact, it almost means you should be MORE of a hockey fan.  Follow me on this one.

Have you ever heard the expression “Buy low, sell high?”  Well there is no major sport lower in popularity right now than hockey, but mark my word, it’s on the rise.  And you can get in on the ground floor.  You’ll be the person who knows the difference between the red line and blue line.  You’ll know that icing is more than just what is on the birthday cake.  You’ll even be able to tell people why Nashville is in the Western Conference!  Ok, maybe not the last one, I have no idea why they did that. 

In trying to figure out why hockey isn’t more popular I asked a few people why they don’t watch hockey.   For some it’s just a matter of not being able to find it on TV.  And that’s a valid complaint.  If you tune into ESPN for your sports you’ll be out of luck when it comes to hockey.  Sure you’ll get the occasional highlight the next day but ESPN doesn’t carry hockey games.  For that you’ll have to tune in to NBC on Sunday afternoons, wait until the play-offs start (second week of April everyone!) or tune in to Versus.  Yes, it’s a cable channel, I promise.  It used to be called the Outdoor Network, but after they got the NHL contract a few years back they changed their name.

Right, so now you can find the games, but maybe you’re one of the many people who just can’t follow the action due to the rules or the small puck.  Again, it’s a valid complaint.  The puck is small and hard to follow and the rules, if you’re getting to know them, are a little confusing sometimes.  If only we had a network that was willing to not only highlight the puck but explain the rules to new fans as well.  But come on, where will we find a network that would do something like that?  The answer:  FOX!  Yep, that’s’ right, Fox used to cover the NHL and they had those very things.  But their contract ran out and believe me, all of the already hockey fans couldn’t have been happier.  The “Fox-track” system was a joke to us hockey-snobs, and it’s pretty rare that new viewers tuned in and said “Hey, this IS fun.”  Instead the true fans felt they were being talked down to and the casual viewer still didn’t tune in because they were watching basketball . . . or football . . . or baseball.  Yeah, all three of those sports have seasons that overlap with hockey.

OK, so what if you DID find the games and they DID have a highlighted puck and rules explanations, would that be enough for you?  Probably not, but you’re most likely one of those people who can’t stand the fighting and wants to see it abolished from the game.  No?  You’re only watching because of the fights?  Wow, well here it is another big argument in hockey.  See some of the folks involved with NHL and even some folks who aren’t, think that fighting should not be part of the game.  They say it takes away from the sport and just delays the match.  And this may be true, but other people only watch for those sweet moments when two players start to beat on each other.  Who is right?  I don’t know.  Personally I’m not a fan of the fighting; I just don’t see how it helps.  And in fact I think it hurts the legitimacy of the sport, making it seems more like a spectacle than a sporting event.  But hey, if a few more people watch then who am I to complain.

So with all of these problems that only have short-term solutions why should YOU watch hockey?  All I can say is that while the scoring might be fewer and farther between than in a basketball game, or even a football game, when those moments do happen they are some of the most exciting in sports.  Some of the goals scored by players over the past 100-some years have been examples of the most athletic a human being can be.  The ways players find to beat goalies (and the ways the goalies find to stop the players) borders on incredible.  They can take your breath away.  And if there is a more exciting sequence in sports than the penalty shot, I don’t know what it is.  Indeed, the NHL did a smart thing by instituting a shoot-out at the end of the five-minute overtime period in regular season games.  Now we get to see out favorite players on “penalty shots” more than just once every two or three years.

So here is all I ask: find out who your local team is.  Maybe it’s a team that plays in the NHL or maybe you’re lucky enough to live in a city that has an AHL (American Hockey League) or ECHL (East Coast Hockey League) or any of a number of minor league teams.   Get yourself a ticket for a game.  It doesn’t have to be an expensive ticket.  It can be one that’s way high up and only costs $8.  Go and watch the game.  Listen to the crowd.  Feel the chill coming off the ice.  Learn the words to “The Hockey Song.”  And if you don’t understand what just happened ask the person sitting next to you they’ll be happy to explain it.  And if they don’t, just pull their shirt over the back of their head and punch them once in the face for me.