Why isn’t the NHL a big deal in the United States?
One of the game’s biggest stars is stationed in the nation’s capital. Another is in a great sports town built on steel. The greatest goalie the game has known hasn’t known any NHL franchise other than the one just outside of New York, NY.
Mike Modano, one of if not the greatest American player ever, has ingrained himself in the Deep South, while the next one, Patrick Kane, is on one of the most exciting up-and-coming teams in one of the country’s biggest markets. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were loved by all and Mark Messier won a Stanley Cup in the Big Apple – that should have created unrelenting momentum.
They said the old, slow NHL killed the game and lost fans, but the new one isn’t generating any up-front highlight packages either.
So what gives?
The easiest, worst, most lazy excuses I’ve heard are the ones revolving around poor officials and nonsensical supplementary discipline practices. Ya, that’s it. Because your team got ripped-off by a last-minute-of-play penalty, that newcomer in Georgia is turning off his set. Or because Evgeni Malkin wasn’t suspended for his instigator in the Cup final last year (and, come on folks, that’s not the intention of the rule and was the right call, so get over it) Jim John in Nebraska decided to watch the Colorado Rockies.
It’s not that hockey can’t grow in the Unites States – and a proper television deal would go a long way in that department – but it’s constantly climbing an uphill battle the league can’t do anything about, because it’s bound by natural barriers.
Let’s face it: hockey is an expensive sport to play. The reason soccer is so universally beloved is because all you need is a ball and it’s game on. Anyone can play at any time.
The same goes for football, baseball (plus a stick to hit the ball with) and basketball (plus a hoop, or basket of any sort) – America’s Big Three. A game of pickup can occur on any playground and no one is immediately excluded. Plus, in a country where the winters aren’t as tough throughout, these are year-round activities in many parts.
Now let’s look at hockey. First, hockey is the only one of these sports that requires you to learn a whole new mode of transporting yourself before you can even think of playing. Instead of being able to run around in bare feet at the bare minimum, you have to own some blades and know how to use them before you can play this game.
While a puck and stick don’t have to be expensive to get a pickup game going, you still have to either rent some ice or be lucky enough to live somewhere where ice forms naturally. This is something nearly all Canadians have access to, but most Americans don’t.
Every time you add in one of these variables, you lose a group of sporting fans.
Now, of course you don’t have to play hockey to become a fan of it, but it makes it so much easier.
I never played basketball and I can’t stand the stupid game. I’m sure there’s more to it than the fact you can’t touch anybody (something I can’t get past), but I don’t play it, so I don’t understand it and therefore I couldn’t care less if LeBron James signs with the Knicks this summer. I’ll tell you one thing, the Malice at the Palace didn’t turn me off of basketball.
For sports fans, though, winning goes a long way. The Coyotes started selling out their arena towards the end of the season when everyone started realizing this team was for real.
In Canada, baseball will never touch hockey when it comes to popularity, but it wasn’t that long ago the Blue Jays were attracting record-setting crowds, selling out every night and winning championships. Back then, in the house-league baseball league I played in, each year was packed with kids and teams, but by the time I left at the end of the ‘90s, those same age groups struggled to get enough registration for three or four teams.
Was it because of the steroids saga? Possibly, but this was just after the epic Sosa-McGwire showdown of ’98 – before steroids had really blown up – and absolutely had more to do with the fact the Blue Jays were no longer contenders.
But at least we get baseball, basketball and football coverage. ESPN severely lacks coverage and whenever it’s mentioned on a respectable show like PTI, you can tell by the subject matter and how it’s discussed (and the fact Tony Kornheiser has mentioned this fact before) that the two hosts don’t understand hockey as well as their other topics.
(Example: The other night the two decided biting – biting! – was fair and not foul; and a while ago they couldn’t comprehend how Aaron Ward and Scott Walker could play on the same team after this incident.)
Hockey will always ebb and flow in the United States and will never overtake the great pastimes of baseball or football (though it has rivaled basketball before).
But the point is, the fact it hasn’t entered the mainstream isn’t because of poor officiating, bad discipline or a perceived conspiracy that magically pops up after (enter team here) loses. What an uppity point of view that is.
It’s just not as natural a fit as the other options – and it never will be.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com’s web editor. His blog appears regularly and his column, The Boylen Point, also appears regularly on THN.com.