Perhaps more than any other season in its history, the NHL playoffs are being celebrated all across North America. From the tundra of Winnipeg to the beaches of Tampa Bay, from Music City Nashville to the slot machines of Las Vegas, from the political headquarters of Washington, DC to the Boston shoreline, fans of all ilk have shown their passion and dynamism for hockey.
For so long, hockey was the domain of Original Six franchises. Large, metropolitan cities in Canada and the Midwest and Northeast United States, the game was restricted by geography and economy. Even as expansion began in the 1960s, franchises had trouble attracting fans and relocation (or folding) was common. Just ask any Oakland Seal, Hartford Whaler, Atlanta Thrasher or Cleveland Baron fans.
In the 1980s, the game’s greatest star brought hockey to the masses in a way never seen before. Wayne Gretzky became the face of hockey and his trade to Los Angeles made the NHL one of the biggest attractions around. His star power and influence were instrumental in expanding the game, bringing franchises to Miami, Phoenix and Dallas. But with Gretzky’s retirement, the NHL lost its strongeest ambassador and the lockout in 2005 nearly shuttered the sport for good. The southern franchises in particular were hit hard. Hockey didn’t belong in the Sun Belt, the critics claimed. Return it back north. Keep it for the “real fans.”
But here we are, a little over ten years later, and hockey seems to be thriving in non-traditional markets. Why now?
It involves two elements: community tie-in and winning. Winning is self-explanatory. The more a team succeeds, the more fans will want to partake in the jubilation. Nobody can win forever though. As teams such as Carolina and the New York Islanders can attest, when the winning stops, fans can disappear.
It’s the connection a town has to the team that will ultimately create long-lasting, sustainable franchises. The most recent case in point are the Vegas Golden Knights. Sure, they’ve done a whole lot of winning in their first season and the novelty of being a new team remains strong, but it’s how the team has woven itself into the city that has generated such strong connection and good will. After the shooting tragedy just weeks before their home opener, the Knights embraced their fans in a touching way, becoming one with the city. Suddenly, Vegas had a sports team and a conduit to channel their emotions. That has driven the team this season.
The same can be said for any number of NHL franchises. Visiting hospitals, being soldiers of goodwill in the community, setting up youth training camps and sponsoring human causes can create lifelong fans.
As a Detroit Red Wings fan, it’s not just my proximity or the team’s former winning ways the made me a fan. It’s the commitment the players and owners have for the community such as Henrik Zetterberg’s foundation and Illitch Charities. It’s the respect management has for its fans and towards their personnel (the so-called Red Wings way). It’s the history and regard that the team shows to past players and even their opponents. These intrinsic qualities endear me beyond simple wins and losses as the Wings are an example of class and sportsmanship, an inspiration in an age of cynicism.
Now, having said that, the NHL, like all sports in general, still has a way to go. Plenty has been made about the inclusion of LGBT athletes, but no player, past or present, has come out as gay. In a league spanning 100 years and thousands of players, it’s near-impossible that there is not a single gay player in the sport. And as with all professional and cultural atmospheres, more needs to be done to ensure fairness and equal opportunity for all, regardless of sexual orientation.
In addition, hockey continues to be the whitest sport of the majors, and this is a direct result of poor opportunity. Hockey is expensive for families, more so than baseball or basketball or football. You need skates, equipment, sticks, an ice rink, etc. For those already financially disadvantaged, it’s near impossible to break through. Several black athletes are being celebrated in today’s game as PK Subban, Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane. They have established themselves as stars, but it’s important to generate greater outreach in all communities.
And there are still issues in regards to funding and taxpayer finances. Ticket prices continue to rise (across all sports) and public funds are heavily utilized to build stadiums for owners who are worth billions of dollars. And if some owners don’t get their way, they simply move the team to another city (ie the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas) that will give them more money. It’s a reflection of a corrupt monetary system that will continue to stain all sports until proper changes are installed.
But in terms of enthusiasm and public perception, hockey is on the up and up. There is now finally a National Women’s Hockey League, and the players have fought and won greater compensation for their skills. The US women’s team’s win in the Winter Olympics has also generated more appreciation for female players. Amanda Kessel and Hillary Knight are becoming household names and that is breaking the “old boys” mantle further. Other leagues such as the AHL, ECHL, KHL and burgeoning markets in China point towards a bright future for the sport, a bright future for men, women, gays, blacks, everyone who can appreciate the sport and break it from its self-inflicted bonds against change. It’s a great time for hockey.