Friday, 23 March 2007

Part Of Our Social Fabric

We know the expressions that define our social fabric: "As American as apple pie"; "good Canadian beer", and many others. I'd like to think that we, as Americans and Canadians, are as unique as we are similar. We speak the same first language, with the exception of Quebec, but we all know a second language. However, our choice for sports as entertainment significantly are different. America's pasttime is baseball, and some could argue that the NFL is America's game. Canada has two official sports: hockey in the winter, and lacrosse in the summer. The only sport that crosses the border most frequently is hockey. There is one MLB team in Canada (Toronto Blue Jays), and one NBA team (Toronto Raptors). There are no NFL teams. So why is it that hockey is embraced so passionately in Canada, and not in the United States?

My first thought was that America loves entertainment. Hollywood has always been appealing to people, and the thought of instant stardom, especially in today's Internet-savvy age, can make people do crazy things. In fact, it appears that today's society likes violence. Movies like 300, the Saw franchise, and Gladiator are all heavy on violence in terms of their stories, yet all three have done exceptionally well at the box office. Why is this? Do we crave violence as a society? If so, why do Americans not take to hockey as us Canadians do? Hockey is just as violent as the NFL in terms of hitting, and fighting is legal in the NHL whereas it is not in the NFL.

And you can't tell me that fighting is not appealing to North American societies. UFC, Pride Fights, boxing matches... all have experienced exponential growth in their viewership in the last ten years. People cheer wildly at hockey games when a fight breaks out. Take the Buffalo-Ottawa game where Andrew Peters fought Senators goalie Ray Emery. People stood and cheered the entire time. Is this what hockey should be known for? The next fight venue? It failed miserably in Canada when a pay-per-view event was held to determine who the toughest guy on skates was.

I believe, and this is my own opinion, that the problem lies in the NHL expanding to markets that don't have hockey woven into their social fabric. The state of Texas now has more professional hockey teams than the country of Canada. This was due, in part, to the Dallas Stars' efforts in growing hockey in the major centres in Texas: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Fort Worth. All four centres have some sort of professional hockey team. It didn't start like this, but through the continuing efforts of the Stars organization, the game grew. Having success also helped with the growth of the game, and having marketable stars certainly aided their effort.

Teams like Phoenix, Carolina, Florida, Tampa Bay, Nashville and Atlanta need to capitalize on the business model designed by Dallas. Carolina won the Stanley Cup last season, but they are still fighting sports like NCAA basketball, NASCAR racing, and baseball for fans. Tampa Bay has attracted a fans by winning the Stanley Cup in 2004, and they have started to market their good, young nucleus of Lecavalier, St. Louis and Richards. Hockey in Tampa is no longer an afterthought, but it's not quite the first thing on everyone's mind in TeeBay either. This is the reason why Nashville brought in a couple of stars by the names of Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg. Attendance spiked after the acquisition of those two, and Nashville needs to capitalize on their growing popularity by winning the Stanley Cup this year, or at least going to the Western Conference Finals. Atlanta is in the same boat. They have to go deep into the playoffs if they want the fans to keep coming out.

As for Phoenix and Florida, they need to work backwards. They aren't very good teams at this point, so they had better start working in the community to get their name out there. Hold charity street hockey games. Go to schools. I'm not a parent of a child yet, but I do know that most parents use their hard-earned dollars to entertain their children in some way. Hockey allows for families to go to games together, and spend time with one's child(ren) while watching an entertaining sport.

If you don't understand the game, that's ok too. Real hockey fans are people who appreciate the non-hockey fan's learning of the game, not those who go to games and get hammered off $7 beers. If you're there to learn, ask the guy/girl next to you, and tell him that you're new to the game. If (s)he is a true hockey fan, I'm sure (s)he won't mind explaining the finer points of off-sides, icings, and penalties. You can usually identify these people if you listen to them talk about "the horrific calls" being made, or the "stupid line change" the home team just completed. Or simply look for someone who isn't hammered off expensive, watered-down beer who is genuinely into the game.

As for Canadians and the northern markets like Detroit, Denver, and Minneapolis, we grow up with cold, long winters. Hockey is something to do in the winter when it's cold because there are rinks everywhere. The Original Six teams were bred into us, almost telling us genetically who to cheer for. If your father was a Bruins fan, you were usually a Bruins fan. If you were French-Canadian, it was obligatory to cheer for the Canadiens. If you were born outside of Quebec in Canada, you were bred to cheer for anyone but the Canadiens.

Because we grew up with hockey, the passion runs deeper in these markets than it does in the southern United States. However, the Blue Jays caught on in Toronto in the summer, so there is no reason why hockey can't find solid footing in the south.

Like the movies, it is entertainment, and it has to be packaged right for people to notice. This is where Dallas capitalized, and should be sharing their experiences with their southern-based brethren. If you live in the southern US, go to the games. Support your team. If you do, they'll do the same.
NHL general managers agreed to a policy change last month at the GM meetings in Florida and this week a memo has been distributed league-wide, outlining the new initiative to enforce teams be more forthcoming.

Teams are now being told to identify the approximate location, nature and severity of the injury.

A charley horse in the arm is no longer an "upper body injury". A bruised shin is no longer a "lower body injury". The team has to report the problem as it happens, and not be as vague as they currently are.

It's this grey area that may provide the traditionalists in this group a loophole to resume business as usual.

As one NHL manager puts it, "exception swallows the rule." With the playoffs on the way, no GM or coach likes to show his hand regarding an injured star.

The league warns any false or misleading information won't be tolerated, going as far as to threaten discipline for the clubs who violate or abuse this newly implemented policy.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Part Three of the Patch It Up series is almost done. I will post it tonight. Until then, keep your sticks on the ice!


Brad said...

"The Original Six teams were bred into us, almost telling us genetically who to cheer for."

I must say that is a profound quote.

Spent the first 18 years of my life watching the old IHL in both Toledo and Ft. Wayne. Spend my time now watching ECHL hockey and the Toledo Storm. But I have to say, hockey was always a part of our family growing up.

Teebz said...

It is a profound comment, but the majority of people over the age of 40 (not me), cheer for an Original 6 team today. They're the ones with kids, and some are grandparents.

The IHL was good hockey. And the ECHL is solid too. You have the Lake Erie Monsters next season in Cleveland too.

However, as a point, you did grow up in a northern state.And northern states are hockey states. :o)

Sage Confucius said...

I am a complete abberation to the 'northern state' rule. I spent the first 13 years of my life in Houston, TX. Granted, the Aeros were playing some good hockey in the IHL, but Texas wasn't exactly a hotbed of hockey talent in the 80's.

No one in my family is either from a northern state or Canada, and no one is a hockey fan. There is not one good reason why I am such a rabid fan. I don't even know why I started watching hockey. I collected hockey cards at one point, but again I don't know why. It wasn't on TV and I didn't attend a live game until just a few years ago. That was a Columbia Inferno game in South Carolina. I will attend my first NHL game on March 31st - Predators v. Stars.

Why then am I such a fan? I can only point to the game itself. The speed, the skill, the traditions the sportsmanship - all of it plays a part. I would pay a lot of money to get up close and personal to the Stanley Cup. Hockey is still the only sport that I can watch when two crappy teams that I don't have any interest in are playing just because it's on TV. It's simply the best sport around. I don't understand why everyone isn't a fan.

Sage Confucius said...

Wow. I should stop typing in the wee hours of the morning. The Aeros played in the WHA and it was in the 70's. I'm going to bed now.

See you on Uni Watch!

Teebz said...

Sage, I am not denying that there were not hockey fans in the southern states before the arrival of the Stars or Wayne Gretzky to the Kings. In fact, quite the opposite. I applaud you that you found a sport you love that wasn't very common in the deep southern US.

But you said it yourself that your love of the game was something you discovered. And it makes me smile to know that your love of the game comes from all it's good points: speed, skill, tradition, sportsmanship. That's a true hockey fan talking, and we're happy to have you as one of our brethren. :o)