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Why Hockey is Beautiful

It is well-known amongst my friends and even casual acquaintances that I am a huge ice hockey fan and one of the San Jose Sharks in particular. Being a hockey fan in the United States can be an often lonely undertaking. For the most part, we are few and far between, particularly here in the sunny Southeast (it is a little different for hockey fans in places like Minnesota and Massachusetts, where the sport has more of a toehold).

Part of my love is genetic, I suspect. I am half-Canadian, my mother a Winnipegger by birth and in Manitoba as elsewhere in Canada, hockey isn’t so much the national sport as it is the national obsession. It is covered as exhaustively in Canada as football is here.

One of the reasons hockey never caught on in the States the way it did in Canada is often attributed to the cost of the equipment in order to play it and the general lack of skating rinks to practice it on (in Canada as in the States I mentioned earlier, cold winter weather allows youngsters to play pick-up games on local ponds, streams and pools without having to drive down to the rink). However, while it’s true all you need is a ball to play touch football, the kind of football that develops most of our NFL stars requires pads, cleats and helmets which can be pricey for those in poor neighborhoods, so I’m not sure I agree with the logic of the cost issue.

It is also said by extremely ignorant commentators that hockey hasn’t had its Michael Jordan figure yet and to that I have two only two words to say: Wayne Gretzky. He was certainly the most dominant figure of his time in the game, maybe of all time. While Jordan was the best player of his era, I’m not so certain that he was the best of all time. For most hockey fans, there’s no doubt who the best player ever in the game is, and his name rhymes with Pain Wetsky.

The plain truth is that hockey doesn’t have the cult of personalities that appear in the big three sports here in the States. There are no entourages, few arrest records and no rap records. The great majority of players in the game are family men. Sure, there are a few single guys who are known to go out and party, but you almost never read about a hockey player pulling a gun in a strip club. When a hockey player gets into a bar fight, as happened to Brett Sutter of Calgary, they get traded…by their own fathers. Yes, that really happened.

Once upon a time, the athletes of the United States took very seriously their position as role models. That simply isn’t the case anymore. Oh, there are a few who make an effort to be sure – Drew Brees comes to mind, but they are few and far between. One remembers Charles Barkley throwing up his hands and exclaiming “I’m not a role model!” all evidence to the contrary. The sad thing is that only a decade ago, it was easy to rattle off the names of athletes that young people could look up to – in addition to Jordan there was Grant Hill, Warwick Dunn and David Robinson, to name just a few.

However, there are still many hockey players who spend a good deal of time with youth programs and making financial contributions (as well as visible contribution as spokespeople) to charitable organizations and local community programs. It certainly seems to me that hockey players in general take their standing in the community and particularly as role models very seriously, certainly much more seriously than in other sports.

Is that because hockey players tend to come from middle class backgrounds more than the other three sports, whose best players tend to come from less affluent upbringings? I have a feeling that may well have something to do with it, but that would be a generalization; there are certainly hockey players who grew up poor as well as basketball, baseball and football athletes who came from middle or even upper class families.

However, even above the athletes themselves, it’s the game I admire. Hockey is a sport that is dynamic and kinetic; it is constant motion. Hockey players don’t run, they glide. Every move has to be graceful almost by necessity; the skating demands it of you. Not to say that everything in hockey is grace – there is certainly violence and fighting, but not as much as the ignorant would lend you to believe. While fighting and bone crunching hits are part of the game, they act as a counterpoint to the game’s more athletic elements.

Hockey is a game that requires enormous stamina; because the game is constant (only basketball can claim the same thing), there aren’t as many stoppages. In that sense, hockey fans get more for their money. Football action, for example, takes a relatively small percentage of actual game time. Football players spend more time in huddles than they do making plays, and let’s not even talk about baseball, which while having no time limit (the game ends when all nine innings are completed and/or a winner is decided) proceeds at a languid pace, with pitchers taking several minutes in between each pitch.

In fact, the fluidity of the game of hockey is only approached by soccer as a sport, and even that is much less fluid. Because hockey players play in shifts, they are more or less fresh all the time. Soccer players have to go sixty grueling minutes, often in withering heat. There are very long periods of soccer games in which very little happens other than kicking the ball back and forth and occasional runs down the field. In soccer, twenty or thirty minutes can go by without a single offensive opportunity for a goal and in a 0-0 tie there can conceivably be none at all. Sorry, that’s just not my cup of tea.

Even in scoreless ties in hockey there are still plenty of offensive opportunities and spectacular plays, often by the goalies. Even defensive struggles can be enormously exciting. Anyone who has seen Martin Brodeur make an acrobatic, impossible save will tell you that sometimes not scoring can be as exciting as scoring.

Hockey has in my view the best elements of every sport, from the importance of team play that football provides to the grace that is part of basketball to the intensity of individual duels that baseball is known for. Perhaps the sport doesn’t appeal as much because the guys have to wear such heavy clothes and padding that women can’t get a good view of the athlete’s behinds. Never underestimate the value of fine asses to the popularity of a sport.

Unfortunately, it is the speed of the game that can be its own worst enemy. Because the puck moves so fast, it can be difficult to follow, especially on television. One of the biggest complaints of non-fans is that they can’t follow the puck. I admit that for the more casual observer, hockey on television can be confusing. Some even have trouble with the rules – what the heck is icing the puck anyway – and get frustrated because they don’t understand the game.

Even if you’re watching a hockey game for the first time, the rules are no more difficult to understand than pro football and when you have great announcers (as the Sharks announce team of Randy Hahn and Drew Remenda, in my humble opinion the two best in the game bar none) calling the game, it becomes less confusing and more enjoyable. Hahn and Remenda don’t use as much jargon as other announcers and Remenda often uses the telestrator to explain to fans why a play developed as it did – what the offense did right, what the defense did wrong or vice versa. Part of the reason they’re so good is that they came into a non-traditional market and understood that their viewers didn’t grow up with the game as many in Canada and the northern United States did; they make the game accessible for those who don’t know it well.

Whatever the reasons that hockey has not reached the kind of popularity the big three American sports have is immaterial to me. I will continue to thrill to the play of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle and all the great players on other teams. Hockey is simply more exciting, more athletic and more graceful than any other sport. The players in it are much better role models and tend to be much more accessible. I have pretty much accepted that my beloved Sharks will probably never be as popular as the 49ers or the Raiders in the Bay Area sports hierarchy, and that’s fine by me. I know that while I may be unusual among American sports fans, I am also not alone. American hockey fans have to be a little bit more passionate because we are so few but also because we know what so many Americans have yet to discover – that hockey is the best game on Earth. Don’t believe me? I challenge you to go see an NHL game live and in person. You’ll never look at the sport quite the same until you do.


3 Responses

  1. You are correct, most Americans DO NOT understand or know much about ICE HOCKEY, and only a few more that have daughters know about Field Hockey. This is how I found out first hand about Ice Hockey, by having a daughter age 9 that played Field Hockey and was fed up with ‘rain outs’ of her games. She Saw boys playing hockey when at a B-day party at local ice rink. Immediately saw the advantage-NO RAIN OUTS!! She said “I WANT TO DO THAT!” I signed her up, got equipment, and the next moment i realized I needed to get her lessons to learn how to SKATE, LOL!! Just a minor detail!! She was the only girl, but she learned quickly (she took private figure skating lessons but they are not required becz the kids learn in the beginning teams-but she also wanted to learn how to ice skate) ice hockey team, and her skills from skiing were invaluable.. She loved the sport– loved goalie, and field positions and especially ckg–girls have natural advantage with low center of gravity and she is not shy at sports or with boys. Also it gave her the opportunity to do a form of hockey all year long–school league, neighborhood, ice hockey both seasons and extended season, and if she wanted to do camp on ice to keep cool or to do field to sweat- her choice was there or to do both… but… BOTH sports are not for those without pockets.. but ICE HOCKEY is for those WITH FINANCIAL $$$$ resources because of the cost of ice time.. it is expensive..Unless you are in an area where there is a lot of community support for ice sports traditionally. I am not, but it is building in the last five years with great youth, HS, and Collegiate programs that also include both sexes and positive marketing in the community to both sexes by having a female player base “Chicks with Stix”..exposure.. This is also how we expanded soccer here 15 yrs before….you build female players, then you get the moms involved, also you are building future moms that have had a positive experience with the sport…Also, have parent/mom dad team fun night so that encourages involvement same with ice hockey but you will find less on the ice with sticks but have a fun broom hockey or learn to skate parent kid party with a big bouncy ball no stick no broom depends on the rules of the rink.. Also if HS girls teams have team go to the middle schools elementary and invite the girls to come for party to watch or to come and skate with them after watching them a few and have an announcer
    ( female) to explain their demo have beginning with HS players or collegiate players as assistants to teach as clinic that gives positive experience learning skate, hockey, and fun of game in a clinic setting without competitive setting of league until learn basics. I believe that to increase the support of Ice Hockey, is to broaden the base of support by increasing the percentage of young female players. By doing this, we broaden the base of players now and in turn get more moms involved now to support their daughters in a sport. But most girls must see it as ‘social’ opportunity as well as a sport- not like my daughter! Make sure to address that need.. By making sure that you have good coaches that train skill, provide positive experiences, some social opportunity, and we build future adults that will support and understand the sport….. The parents had parties watching games and the kids had a blast, they may not have watched but played together, but that helped their teamwork. But the socialization among the adults helped the ones that did not understand. But it helped to connect FUN with hockey, and even more support and understanding for the play of the sport, and the Olympic teams…

    Ice Hockey is skill, speed, team work and a lot of fun…. my daughter was the first one in the penalty box the first game of the season, and the second one was the only other girl in the league also on her team 3 mins after Bec was out- all with in 5 mins of the start of the game! A parent from the other team commented that they were girls and she didn’t believe it… I told her the first one was mine, and it was probably because they said something about them being girls so they “checked” (made them fall down) them and that is not allowed at their level.

    My daughter loves the sport but is no longer physically able to play. What she enjoyed was the constant play, no standing around like- Field Hockey, softball, soccer, basketball, and all of the other team sports, except ice skating…. She loved not getting too hot and “sweaty”– this may not sound like much, but some kids just run ‘hot’ and do not perform well when they are “too hot”, so they choose ‘cool’ sports, and lose interest in sports that make them “sweat”.. Also, adults do the same thing and most rinks do have a learn how clinic for adults which includes all- or rentals or used gear to see if it is for you… it is fun. and i can tell you by personal experience–you can fall but YOU DO NOT GET HURT— and I AM A KLUTZ…. I wish they had that gear for skiing, lol… maybe even for walking in high heels,lol but I wont give those up!!!

    I lived in San Jose but moved before I heard about Ice Hockey back then. Other than the big 3, the only off-beat sport was Roller Derby .

  2. The sharks are a fairly recent team as teams go and you were right there at their beginning in San Jose, reporting on them. Good Luck to them.

  3. Hey Carlos. I love hockey, too. I’m from Pennsylvania and my team is the Penguins. Sidney Crosby is a model of integrity and Eugeni Malkin is great, too, along with others. My daughter played field hockey and that’s what got me into it (she went on to Division One and a turf game is almost as fast as ice — at least for the ball, not the players). I hadn’t been to a live game in years when I attended a Sharks vs. Penguins game in San Jose. On TV, the fights always seem an undesirable but tolerable and small affair, in the corner of my screen, amid the hum of activity that is TV sports. I was so surprised that the crowd was cheering during the fights! I was horrified that people would actually cheer. I felt like an alien visiting the planet…

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