There are times when, as a puckhead, I'm honored by that annual rite of the Stanley Cup playoffs: When a mainstream sports columnist proclaims his or her renewed devotion to hockey, and/or when they lend advice on how to make the game more palatable to their tastes.
Never mind that the advice rarely ascends to logical heights beyond "have you tried not being, ya know, hockey?"; just like it never gets beyond "be more like the Olympics!" every four years. Hey, it's flattering to have their attention, if only for a moment.
Like Bill Simmons, whose ESPN The Magazine piece on rediscovering his hockey fandom has sparked much adulation among hockey fans with Disney-influenced inferiority complexes. And like Gene Wojciechowski of ESPN.com, whose column we referenced in the previous post about Michael Jordan; a writer who believes the NHL needs to bottle this amazing playoff elixir and mass produce it for curious basketball fans:
The problem is the league itself. How do you bottle what they're serving now at the United Center, and at The Joe in Detroit, and in Pittsburgh, Boston, etc., and make me -- the know-nothing borderline hockey follower -- into a full-fledged NHL fan, TV viewer and occasional paying customer? Because if you can't get me -- and there are lots of hockey tire-kickers just like me -- then the league is never going to be more than a boutique sport in this country.
Until Friday night's 4-3 Hawks win, the last hockey game I watched from start to finish was the 1980 USA-USSR "Miracle on Ice." I've covered a handful of NHL playoff games since then, but that's work. I love the idea of hockey, but I didn't grow up with the sport.
Gene Wojciechowski is a senior national columnist for ESPN.com and a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. As you can see in his archives, "that's work" covers everything from the NFL to the NBA playoffs, on which he's spilled enough digital ink for a four-volume set covering Bulls/Celtics.
It's all "work" for sportswriters, with varying degrees of passion for the subject matter by the writer. But time after time, it's hockey that's treated like the flawed alien artifact. It's hockey that needs fixing, that needs to remake itself so casual fans who haven't cared to watch a full game for nearly 30 years can enjoy themselves. It's hockey that's treated less as a sport than as an ongoing demographic experiment in the United States; in which it bounces back and forth between being a niche sport with stunted growth and a sport on the verge of captivating new generations of fans.
Some writers go the extra mile and attempt to reveal something about the sport through game coverage. Others take the lazy way out and are transfixed on the sports' off-ice challenges. So the question becomes: Can the NHL ever truly cross over until the general media treat it as a sport rather than, in Wojciechowski's words, an idea?
Bill Simmons is just as guilty of this, although he appears more cognizant of hockey's strides in getting back to the primal basics of its appeal. (And he obviously can be excused for not approaching the NHL from a nuts-and-bolts, game-play perspective -- no one's reading him for that.) From ESPN The Magazine:
A few savvy rules changes opened up the ice, unleashing riveting talents -- Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin(notes), among others -- who resonate more than they would have 20 years ago, thanks to YouTube. As for the physicality, little has changed other than the league's deciding that maybe it's not so bad. Fighting majors are up 11% from last season. It's true.
Know what else helped? Our country swung back toward the traits that make hockey hum. In the 1990s, we made great strides in the areas of racial equality, gender discrimination, gay rights, animal abuse, domestic violence, recycling, safe sex, drunken driving, name it. Americans grew more sophisticated and socially engaged. But we became undeniably uptight in the process. Something as innocent as a hockey fight suddenly became a bad example for the children. And no handshake line could undo the "damage."
Mercifully, we have swung the other way in the new millennium. The UFC made fighting profitable and acceptable. The Internet made it seem okay to attack anyone with words and hide behind the cloak of anonymity. Anyone could steal content -- songs, jokes, highlights -- and post it online, and everything was fine. Female celebs used sexuality to advance careers; soon teens were grinding on shows like Gossip Girl and nobody cared. Reality TV had no rules at all -- you couldn't do anything they wouldn't show.
Call it a lawlessness of sorts. I'm not defending it, just pointing it out. It's been great for hockey -- and terrible for basketball.
As someone who isn't exactly a Simmons acolyte, that's damn shrewd insight right there -- telling us why something is working instead of why so much of it doesn't. But he's always been a big-picture, cultural zeitgeist commentator.
The trouble comes when his peers who are paid to cover the big game are more concerned with the big picture. Few can balance it like Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times did in his coverage of the Chicago Blackhawks. And that's the problem.
Hockey isn't breaking through until Sidney Crosby's(notes) playoff exploits can be described with the fluency and relevance of LeBron James's or any other NBA star. Again, not to pick on Wojo with ESPN, but read this excerpt from his coverage of Bulls/Celtics:
With the game tied 123-123, and 38.9 seconds remaining in the third OT, Noah stole a pass by Paul Pierce. (That's one.) He drove about three-quarters of the court ahead of everyone and flushed the jam. (That's two.) He got Pierce to commit his sixth and final foul on the play. (That's three.) And then Noah sank the free throw. (That's four.) The Bulls never trailed again.
How rare, to the point of non-existence, is that level of specificity in a hockey column by a mainstream writer? Basketball fans get the above, and hockey fans get the ump-teenth round of "HDTV will save our sport!" obviousness. And that disparity exists throughout the general sports landscape, and has for decades.
Why? Because too many people in positions of power in the U.S. sports media establishment either don't give a damn about hockey or outright loathe it. That's a concept we explained in a previous piece about hockey coverage by U.S. newspapers, or lack thereof. It holds true for many writers and digital media that are off the hockey beat, too.
How does hockey overcome this? The good news is that the tide could be turning.
There's a reason the Simmons piece resonated with hockey fans, including our Canadian brothers at the Kurtenblog. It "gets" hockey in a way even the NHL hasn't "gotten" hockey for the last 15 years. From the Kurtenblog:
[Simmons's column is] a tad on the Don Cherry side for my liking, but I don't doubt that many sports fans feel the same way, particularly Americans who never had the fundamentals drilled into them because they never played the game. I accept that there are only a limited number of dorks like Pierre McGuire and I who get off on gaining the red line and getting the puck deep in order to facilitate a line change.
The entry point for a fan like Simmons is the primal brutality of the Game. The entry point for another casual fan might be the wizardry of Alexander Ovechkin(notes) or Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin or a generation of young players whose games have flourished under new rules.
Or, much like the World Cup is for millions of soccer fans who may not know their Arsenal from their elbow, the Stanley Cup playoffs are another entry point for a fan who thinks like Wojciechowski, despite that writer's lament that the rest of the season doesn't match its postseason's charms. (What sport has a more exciting regular season than postseason, by the way?)
It's the oldest adage for both drug pushers and NHL executives: Give'em a taste, and they'll hunger for more. The NHL has more accessibility -- ironic, considering the television deal -- than ever before. With casual interest comes basic understanding of the sport; with basic understanding comes broad appreciation; and with that, you might just have a sports journalist who makes the transition from "here's how to fix the NHL" to "holy smokes, did you see what Malkin did against Carolina?"
Because as clever as this is from the Onion ... aren't these jokes getting stale by now?
As fans and consumers of media, it falls on us, too. For too long, we've been like the NHL: happy with the mainstream attention, never demanding it meets our standards.
If you're a U.S. hockey fan that doesn't appreciate the lack or depth of coverage in your publication or on your network of choice, make your voice be heard. Write a letter. Make a phone call. Publish a critical blog. Sometimes, that's the only way they'll know you exist beyond what they read in the attendance report and the Nielsen ratings.
And with market shares shrinking as they are for all media, guess what? They'll probably take it to heart. Even if that moment is as fleeting as a mainstream columnist's love of hockey.