Gruber: “Convince Me That a Sport Played With a Puck Instead of a Ball is Really a Sport.”
Asking me to explain why hockey is a real sport is a good way to get hazed when you consider my stellar credentials.
I’m originally from California, which is currently home to three teams:
The Los Angeles Kings, who haven’t managed to win a Cup for the 43 seasons of their existence, including 8 years when they had the best player in the history of the game scoring an average of 114.75 points per season for them.
The Anaheim Ducks, who will forever be known as the Mighty Ducks, who, yes, were originally owned by the Walt Disney Corporation. Who are, yes, named after that ice hockey-based Bad News Bears Disney movie. And, finally, yes, Emilio Estevez was in that movie, and yes, he played a hockey coach who clearly didn’t know how to skate. The Ducks have managed to win a Cup, and are no longer owned by Disney, but remain a hockey team named after cartoonish waterfowl.
The San Jose Sharks, who have statistically been playing “good” hockey, placing 1st or 2nd in the Pacific Division every year since 2004, but until this last year have brilliantly and consistently choked during the playoffs against teams they’ve habitually beaten during the regular season as if they suddenly and inconveniently remember that they still hold the record for most losses in a single season.
Further eroding my hockey credibility is the fact that I am a product of the NHL’s 1990s expansion years, which brought hockey to the Sun Belt, stripped Canada of two franchises, and is the decade that brought us FoxTrax - technology designed to make hockey watchable on TV:
The arrival of FoxTrax coincided with a ratings slump that that NHL wouldn’t recover from until the NHL Winter Classic debuted in 2008. It sounds like the 90s were rough until you look at who was winning the Cup: Edmonton; Pittsburgh (twice); Montreal (their 24th); my beloved New York Rangers (their 4th after 54 long years); and the New Jersey Devils’ dynasty began, followed by the transplanted Nordiques’ win in Colorado. The Red Wings (who suck) got it twice in row, and Dallas finished off the decade, establishing the Sun Belt as a legit home for the Stanley Cup.
It was a good decade for the sport, but mostly because it was the decade I understood why it was my sport.
Of the big four American sports leagues, the NHL has the smallest total fan base, the smallest revenue from television, and the least sponsorship. Big Three American sports fans like to look down at hockey fans because of these stats. They ask, “Is there even a medal for fourth place?”
Fact is, hockey sucks on television. The game moves fast and the center of the action, a small black puck, is easily lost visually as it zips around at speeds exceeding 80mph. This was the problem Fox was attempting to solve when they developed FoxTrax: they thought highlighting the puck would allow folks to keep up, but it just made it look like a video game.
In hockey you watch the whole game, and you must go to the arena to actually see and appreciate the whole game. You can’t be a phone-it-in couch-based fan because you won’t appreciate a game where you can only see 1/3rd of the action at any given time. HD and big screens have helped the visibility situation a lot, but more than any other sport, you need to be at a game to understand and completely appreciate it.
Hockey requires constant and precise attention. It’s 60 minutes broken into three periods of singularly fluid motion. They don’t stop after each play to assess field position. They don’t pause after each pitch to pose for the camera. Hockey is a sport on the clock and that clock is relentless. Look away and you might miss the second that changes the course of the entire game.
All sports require commitment, but because full appreciation of hockey requires physical presence to grok it, I think hockey is better at drawing you in. The NHL estimates that fully half of its fan base roots for teams in outside markets. I’m guessing because folks continue to rabidly root for their home team once they’ve been transplanted from traditional hockey markets where it’s a) cold, and b) fucking cold.
If you let it in, hockey gets under your skin. It’s not a sport for the short attention span generation; it’s a commitment. And that’s how I judge my sports: not by the size or shape of the ball, but by the quality and the commitment of the fan.