Sunday, 11 November 2007

Hockey's Manifesto

My last article generated some good discussion, and I want to say thank you for those who commented. I am still not convinced that NHL expansion is a good idea, and I believe that the NHL has made some critical errors in its marketing ideas. Granted, some non-traditional hockey markets are doing well. Dallas has become a successful franchise, and Carolina is experiencing some success this year in terms of attracting fans. The problem is that markets like Atlanta, Florida, Nashville, and Phoenix are still struggling at the gate. How does one fix this problem? How does the NHL attract fans, and TV networks in turn, to a sport that features some of the greatest athletes on Earth?

First and foremost, the NHL needs to stop pushing itself into non-traditional markets. There are easy reasons for hockey failing in places like Phoenix and Atlanta: it's hot there. The number of outdoor hockey rinks in those cities is a whopping zero. Hockey isn't an option there, and so it isn't an option when it comes to entertainment dollars in those cities either.

In cities like Minneapolis, Toronto, and Denver, you can find a number of kids playing hockey on any night of the week in the fall, winter, and spring. Where the snow falls, hockey is played. Granted, Dallas has done a wonderful job in cultivating the sport in that city and area, but, outside of Dallas, all of the sunbelt teams have posted massive losses in their existance.

If you aren't born into a culture, you'll never understand it. George Bernard Shaw, an Irish-born British dramatist and playwright, once said, "What we call education and culture is for the most part nothing but the substitution of reading for experience, of literature for life, of the obsolete fictitious for the contemporary real".

Mr. Shaw has summed up the entire question of why hockey in the United States is failing. People all have opinions on hockey, no matter where they are born or what path they walk in life. They have read and heard what has been said on ESPN about hockey. They skip by the six-line article in their local newspaper about hockey because the NFL and MLB dominate the headlines. They have heard pundits who cover law and justice speak about the violent brutality found in hockey when someone in the NHL gets hurt. They talk about the Neanderthal-like qualities hockey players show, especially when a fight breaks out.

I guarantee you that all those who criticize hockey have never gone to a game, be it a professional game, a junior game, a women's game, or a college game. Once you're there, the atmosphere of the game becomes infectuous. The back-and-forth artistry displayed by the players, dazzling the crowd with moves that should be physically impossible, mesmerize the crowd. The sheer flexibility of the goaltenders when making a game-saving stop makes people rise out of their seats. It is this atmosphere that begins to take hold of the most-critical hockey hater, and move them away from their once-held opinions.

Hockey won't sway every hater out there. I realize that some people just don't like hockey, and that's ok. I am not a fan of NFL football, but I respect the athleticism of the players, and try to educate myself in the rules of the game to understand it better. However, I just don't get hyped up on Sunday to see the Miami Dolphins play the Carolina Panthers.

I do get hyped up, though, on Saturday nights in Canada thanks to CBC. Hockey Night In Canada is an institution on Canadian television, and, despite them showing Toronto every week, I love the presentation of the game. TSN has done an excellent job on their weekly show as well, and I salute them for having some of the best analysts in the hockey world on their show.

I think the reason I love Saturday night so much is because it is part of that culture I grew up in. I was born into a hockey-loving family. My dad worships the Boston Bruins. My younger brother is a die-hard Colorado Avalanche fan, thanks to the Patrick Roy trade. Before that, he was a Montreal Canadiens fan. And the majority of my friends all have an allegiance to some NHL team because that's how we grew up. We were at the rinks playing shinny in the winter. We watched hockey on TV on Saturday nights. We talked hockey at school and work.

If the NHL ever wants to break down the walls it has been stumbling over for the last decade in the sunbelt, it needs to start developing a culture of hockey in those cities. The problem, though, is that you can't teach a man to fish if there is no water. Since there is no snow in Phoenix and Atlanta, it's hard to encourage little boys and girls to head out to their local rink to emulate their hockey heroes like Ilya Kovalchuk, Sidney Crosby, Cammi Granato, and Dominik Hasek.

I'm not saying that hockey in the sunbelt will never work. What I am saying, though, is that these teams in the sunbelt thought they could set up shop, and people would come to see hockey. Following that, they relied on the "if you build it, they will come" theory, and chalked up more red ink by building bigger state-of-the-art arenas. Following that, they tried to sign aging veteran stars and using their star appeal to bring people out.

Jesse Bennett, an American physician, once said, "The acquiring of culture is the development of an avid hunger for knowledge and beauty". That avid hunger of hockey doesn't exist in the sunbelt, so there is no effort to acquire the culture of hockey. And by missing out on hockey, the beauty of a simple game, with all its complexities and drama, will be viewed as nothing more than arena filler by those who find hockey to be nothing more than three minutes of filler on SportsCenter.

Until the franchises in Miami, Tampa Bay, Nashville, Atlanta, and Phoenix begin to develop that unquenchable thirst for hockey in their fans, hockey in those cities will remain an afterthought. And nothing will change that unless that seed is planted now, and allowed to germinate and develop into a forest. If it takes a seed decades to turn into a forest, building a hockey culture in a market where hockey isn't played will certainly take just as long, if not longer.

The more time that is spent wasted in not cultivating this growing culture will only mean more time for those sunbelt franchises to become mainstream. This will not happen overnight. But for every child today who falls in love with the sport of hockey, there will be an exponential growth in the number of kids who take to hockey. Those kids will eventually become adults with kids of their own. And that is how a hockey culture is born.

As an aside from hockey, "Lest We Forget" those who gave their lives for us to live in Canada and the United States. From this writer, and Hockey Blog In Canada, I want to thank the veterans for their sacrifice and hard work. Happy Remembrance Day in Canada, and Happy Veterans Day in the US!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Eighty-Two said...

I've been living in Northern California for nearly eight years. As much of an anti-non-traditional-market-expansion guy I've been, it's been hard to resist the influence the San Jose Sharks have held over this region.

There are still several rinks out here that were built when the Seals were still in the NHL, but I imagine hockey in NorCal really took off when the Sharks made their (excuse me) splash in the early 1990s. There are 14 clubs in the Northern California Junior Hockey Association in the 13 rinks in Northern California.

Attendance has not dipped below the 16,000 mark since the arena in San Jose opened.

And despite the fact that the Sharks have been "a contender" for several years, I cannot figure out why hockey has taken such hold of this area.

When I play pickup hockey at the decrepid Stockton rink, many of the folks in my age bracket (25-35) are transplants. The younger guys are mostly native Californians. I can only imagine the transplants raised their kids to appreciate the game.

And yet, there is not the Canadian-level of hockey coverage out here. The level of youth hockey participation almost has an underground vibe, which I can tenuously compare to punkrock. It's almost cool for these kids to be playing a game no one else is familar with, outside of the FSN Sharks broadcasts.

I tell ya, it's a strange atmosphere out here.

Anonymous said...

Hey Teebz, I love American football (and of course hockey) and the NFL, but I wouldn't get up on a Sunday morning to watch Carolina play Miami either. ;-)

Connie said...

Hey Teebz,

Fantastic post. This has actually made me think a lot about the various topics you've covered. Maybe I'll write my own post soon...

What about the insurgence of roller hockey? I know that it’s very big in the southern California areas and that’s what I grew up watching mostly. I can think of three roller hockey rinks off the top of my head where I spent a lot of time when I was younger. And I can quickly think of a couple more as well. The demand for the game might be the same in other sunny cities but because of the sheer number of people living in this area, the demand seems greater to me. I just know that when I was growing up, hockey was not a foreign sport, but when talking to people now, they are truly amazed at my love for the game.

Note that might amuse you: I never actually saw snow fall from the sky until I went to college up in northern California and went to Lake Tahoe. It was a pretty awesome experience, as corny as that sounds. But coldness and snow are not my forte since I grew up in LA during the 90’s Gretzky-era and I wouldn’t have changed that for anything.

they tried to sign aging veteran stars and using their star appeal to bring people out.

A French-Canadian friend did mention going to a game at Columbus one year. The Montreal Canadians were in town and my friend couldn’t believe that the arena was barely half full. I couldn’t imagine that and am sad when I see the Staples Center with more than a few empty seats. And I was unaware until recently that Sergei Fedorov signed with the Blue Jackets... I see your point there.

Teebz said...

82 - I find California to be an anomoly of sorts. There are enough people to make hockey popular, and it seems it is. However, there isn't enough of a culture for it to beat out the Raiders, 49ers, and Lakers yet. San Jose is a great market, and they've done the legwork to get hockey noticed. The Sharks should be commended for their efforts, and I think they deserve their popularity.

Jeff - well, I kind of picked two bads teams, yet both of those crappy teams play to packed houses every Sunday. Why? It's a culture. And that's what hockey needs to develop.

CKim - Roller hockey is my next article. ;o)

As for snow, we get lots up here. I'll try to send some your way this year. Hahaha!

Connie said...

ha... snow in LA... you're funny.