“I guess we can officially say that hockey is dead, eh?”
I couldn’t change the channel quickly enough. I can take sports radio when one of my trusted advisors, Rich Eisen or Dan Patrick, is on the air, and the Loose Cannons, Steve Hartman and Mike Costa, when they stick to sports, and I will find Vic the Brick Jacobs wherever he lands on the dial, but the self-satisfied voice of a sports radio host dissing the game of hockey when I’m still not over the loss of Gordie Howe was just too much.
*Quick digression. Vic the Brick is an original, the auteur who brought the phrase “Feelin’ You” and ” Give it up to the Azul” to sports radio, and the fan who brought stalks of bamboo to Lakers games to show them how to “bend rather than break”. Citing bushido and zen koans, Vic takes any broadcast to a new level, perhaps calling on his background covering cockfighting and the South Pacific Games in Fiji, or from his time with a punk band known as Dino Lee and the White Trash Review. He’s been described as a Buddhist Wolfman Jack from Queens. A sports purist however opined, “Vic the Brick makes Dick Vitale sound like Walter Cronkite”. That’s fair.
So, with the exception of a few lonely sports radio hosts, hockey gets short shrift in almost every medium.
Pick the twenty sports films that are considered inspirational, from Rudy to Chariots of Fire – we might sneak in with Miracle, maybe. Yes, we get to the ice with The Mighty Ducks and the successor films, but inspirational? Then, with four exceptions, the remaining hockey films can all be classed in the odd-ball sports category – Slap Shot, Goon, Mystery, Alaska, Les Boys.
To be frank, the exceptions in this case absolutely prove the rule.
Youngblood is the bildungcinema notable for pairing Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze and slightly featuring a very young Keanu Reeves (his second film). Most notable moment? When Captain Patrick Swayze shaves Rob Lowe’s testicles. Inspirational?
Sudden Death. That’s the title of the film and its primary conceit. See, it’s the seventh game in the Stanley Cup playoff between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks and a band of terrorists has planted bombs throughout the arena, and, to make sure we get the point, the hero, Jean-Claude Van Damme, picks up a terrorist in each of the three periods until the game goes to …Sudden Death.
And, every true hockey fan’s favorite, MVP: Most Valuable Primate, the first of the MVP films, spawning MVP2: Most Vertical Primate, and MXP- Most Extreme Primate. You can pretty much guess what’s going on, given that the lead role is played by a chimpanzee with astounding athletic ability. He’s befriended by a deaf girl, exhibits a rare understanding of sign language, and turns out to be the best player in a junior hockey league. I’m not even going into the plot of Most Vertical Primate, except to note that it, too, involves damage to testicles.
Great hockey novel? Uh, none. Great hockey song? Yeah, none.
I can live without the movies, songs, and books, but try to find hockey on ESPN outside of the two resident fans, the incredibly underrated Linda Cohn and Steve Levy, who broadcast NHL games before taking up his work with the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Neil Everett may like hockey, but his man-crush on Barry Melrose is the stuff discomfort is made of.
As a kid, I was absolutely sure of three things: The Yankees would be in the World Series, the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World was the most celebrated title in sports, and hockey was played in Montreal,Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and New York.
Any real sports fan knew all about Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Terry Sawchuck, Glen Hall, Stan Mikita, Alex Delvecchio, Jacques Plante, Number 4 – Bobby Orr, Frank Mahovlich, Rod Gilbert, Bobby Hull, Ken Dryden, Phil Esposito.
I don’t dare ask how many current players are mentioned in everyday conversation about sports. Syd the Kid, maybe.
So, what happened?
Well, as it has in all sports, expansion spread talent too thin and fan base too widely. I’ll give you Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Jersey, but Atlanta? Phoenix? Dallas? Carolina? Nashville? These do not bring ice time to mind. I know, the Hurricanes beat the Oilers in the Stanley Cup, and the Lightning are a force to contend with, but in terms of partisan fan allegiance, Atlanta? Sharks fans are real fans, but Kings fans adopt the LA vibe, jumping on and off the bandwagon.
I was going to write about the absurdity of trying to play hockey in the South then remembered Buffalo 1975, a Stanley Cup game interrupted by fog in the arena.
I think the NHL could have maintained its place as one of the Big Four Sports in the US if ESPN had not dropped hockey from its schedule of televised games and if somebody had figured out how to televise the sport as effectively as the other Big Three have been televised.
NBC has done a great job of catching up as a result of having worked Olympic hockey and is now the major outlet for the NHL outside of the expensive package sold as NHL Center Ice. NBC has figured out that the general public likes the Winter Classic, so they present that, even though it’s a tough game to televise and frequently a sad excuse for hockey as many cities no longer get crackling black ice even in January. We get one game a week and a brief moment during the event known as “Hockey Week Across America” which culminates in one national game and four regional games televised on Sunday. We get a nationally televised game on the day after Thanksgiving, and the Stanley Cup gets pushed around to three or four networks.
So there’s that.
Hockey is the best sport to watch in person. Any seat in the house is a good seat, and for the most part, the cheaper the seat, the more knowledgable the fan. Hockey fans love hockey and thus can appreciate the strengths of the competing team while loudly proclaiming its weaknesses. My daughter and I wore our Red Wings gear to a playoff game in San Jose. Could have been a terrible mistake as the arena is known as the Shark Tank, but the Shark fan seated next to us nodded and praised Pavel Datsyuk as the most skilled playmaker in the game and then begged Joe Thornton to put him down.
Almost nobody comes to a hockey game in civilian clothes; we are who we are.
It’s a fast sport, an elegant sport, and a sport offering non-stop action (except for tv time-outs – a regrettable necessity). Non-fans complain about not knowing the rules, but there actually aren’t many. A player is offside if in the offensive area before the puck arrives, but a skater can be outside the blue line as long as the puck is still within – generous! Generally, if a player drives the puck from one end of the rink to the other team’s goal line, and the puck is untouched when it crosses that line, a whistle blows and the puck is brought back to the other end for a face-off. When a team is short-handed due to penalty, however, or if a player shoots from behind their red line and puts the puck in the net or forces the goalie to play the puck, no whistle – all good.
The game is so fast, and the puck changes hands so quickly, that it is a very tough game to follow on television. Added to that challenge, play around the net is hard to sort out; lots of bodies doing lots of things. There are two other notable issues in building the sort of fan base that recognizes Carey Price (2014-2015 MVP) when he walks down the street.
Any player who came into the league after 1979 has to wear a helmet at all times (ok, except for fighting) which makes it hard to recognize an individual player. Very few viewers know what hockey players look like, which is especially frustrating because so many of them look like Viking warriors. Those of us who treasure the knowledge that the team dentist sits on the bench during the game also love the post-game teeth out interview with the grizzled vet. By the way, these routinely mangled gladiators are the most articulate athletes in sport; they love the game and know how to talk about it.
Look, lots of professional athletes are tough, but hockey players are routinely stiched up (or stapled up) on the bench between shifts, then back on the ice in minutes.
Finally, unless the Detroit Red Wings are on the ice, teams don’t score enough (just shoot me). Watch an NHL all-star game to get a sense of the insanely talented skaters and puck handlers; they can do things with a puck the laws of physics do not allow. At game time, however, they face a goalie such as Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning, six foot and seven inches of goalie, assuming they can get past a defenseman such as six-foot nine-inch Zdeno Chara or six -foot seven-inch Chris Pronger. Let us also remember that Ben Bishop is guarding a goal that is 48 inches tall; that’s a lot of Bishop and not much goal. He’s wearing a blocker glove that is 8 inches by sixteen inches, a catching glove with a circumference of forty-eight inches, leg pads that are thirty-eight inches long and eleven inches wide, chest pads, arm pads, and carry a stick which can be as much as sixty-five inches long and a foot wide.
Not easy to put the puck in the net, and some great plays are foiled by bulk rather than skill.
“I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.”
There is still fighting in the NHL, and enforcers still make sure the scorers and goalies are not abused, but the number of fights has been reduced substantially, and there are relatively few goons left in the NHL. The San Jose Sharks have two of them, Andrew Desjardins and John Scott, whose combined annual salary is $1,400,000.00. Brandon Prust of the Montreal Canadiens makes $2,500,000.00 all by himself. Do these guys come off the bench specifically to mix it up with a player who has overstepped a boundary? Yup. And tv doesn’t even get the fights right, often missing the instigation.
Am I arguing that fights brings popularity? Kinda. But what is called the “European” style of play, seen in the Olympics and world hockey championships, often on a wider, longer rink, is also fabulous, especially when the right camera can follow the development of a play.
Yes, hockey has plays, just like soccer, but faster, with real hits that put players down without diving. TV has been terrible in following the play, pretty much sticking to a crumby angle on the player with the puck until he passes, at which point, the viewer has no idea what’s happening. Interestingly, the quality of image is much worse on local broadcasts, but the camera work is better. NBC puts some money into its weekly games, and I am grateful for their efforts.
Oh, I guess I should mention that the NHL has the worst commissioner in sports, Gary Bettman, who has been commissioner since 1993, and who is ridiculed and booed at every event he attends, including the awarding of the Stanley Cup. Booing Bettman has now become tradition, as much a part of the game as the octopus thrown on the ice at Red Wings home games. Bettman essentially killed hockey in 2012 – 2013, locking out the sport from September to January, during which time he collected a salary of $8,800,000.00. See what I mean?
It is a miracle that hockey came back from the lockout and continues to survive, despite Bettman. Olympic coverage helps, and the cities that love hockey really love hockey. It doesn’t hurt that different teams emerge as contenders throughout the season and throughout the years, and the Stanley Cup is rightly considered the hardest trophy to win after the best post-season play in sports.
You know what? I don’t care if schlock sports radio doesn’t pay attention to hockey. The World Pond Hockey Championship draws more than one hundred and twenty teams from fifteen countries to Plaster Rock, New Brunswick (that’s Canada for the non-hockey fan). The U.S. Pond Hockey Championship pulls players of all ages to Lake Nokomis, Minnesota, offering competition to an Open Division, a 40 plus Division, a 50 plus Division, a Women’s division, a Senior Division, and a division for amateurs who don’t want to face former pros, the Rink Rat Division.
That’s in Minnesota. Without contracts or an eight million dollar commissioner.
Anyone who has laced up skates with freezing fingers, shoveled freshly fallen snow off a patch of ice big enough to play three-on-three, felt a blade catch on cracked ice, used a shoe polish tin when the last puck dropped into open water, run cold water over frozen feet or hands until feeling returns, or taken a hip-check over a low board, knows that hockey is hockey on any level and like no other sport in the world.