Since the mid-90s I have been a die-hard hockey fan. Although baseball was the first major sporting event I ever attended, my passion and dedication went into cheering for the Washington Capitals at USAir Arena in Landover, Maryland. It might just be because I was young and naïve back then (with a mild obsession with the Mighty Ducks movies), but it seemed hockey was everywhere. You could watch it on TV. You could find fans all over the country rocking their team’s swag. People would know players by name (at the very least the great Wayne Gretzky). But now it seems to be a struggle for me just to find the games on TV, much less the fans that watch them. I realize that the National Hockey League never really gathered the popularity in America that the MLB, NFL, and NBA has assembled but one has to ask, why? It’s a fast-paced game with more goals than soccer, offers hard-hits (for now) and fighting as a strategic part of the game, and a culture of drinking and toughness. What’s not to like? Why can’t fans and media just get with the program and accept hockey as a mainstream American sport? The Canadian’s get it, why can’t you?
The problem definitely originates with the NHL’s lack of presence in the media. The sport barely gets any television exposure. Back in the early 2000s, hockey was seeing a surge of popularity throughout the country because network sports channels such as ESPN were broadcasting most big games every week. The NHL lockout of the 2004-05 season was tremendously destructive to the game. When play resumed, ESPN didn’t renew their contract and the league took a larger sum of money from the smaller network Versus. Versus was only offered as a premium channel in sports packages for prices many viewers were unwilling to pay and therefore had a considerably smaller viewership. Sports fans were no longer being exposed to the sports and even ESPN was covering less of the hockey highlights. Well like many things in life, out of sight, out of mind. Hockey’s lack of exposure made it hard for fans to follow the sports and keep up with the league.
But it has been a few years since 2005 and hockey is back on the way up. Versus is now the NBC Sports Network and, although still difficult to find, is reaching more audiences on television, which is increasing fan bases in some areas. The game itself is has changed since the NHL made some significant rule changes to speed up the flow and increase scoring. Because of the faster pace and higher level of competition, big hits and frequent fights are common. Fans have responded well to this as they expect there to be some action when they flip on the TV. The NHL also is getting some responses on their experimentation with franchises in the South in order to expand their fan base. Cities such as Dallas and Carolina have fan populations that boomed with their success while teams in Miami, Phoenix, and Tampa Bay all struggle to give away their tickets. But the NHL is beginning to respond by moving struggling teams to colder locations with stronger fan bases as exemplified by the Atlanta Thrashers move to Winnipeg, Canada. The Winnipeg Jets sold out their entire season this year.
Hopefully the NHL can make a full recovery by renegotiating their television contract with ESPN and moving their teams to colder climates. The game of hockey sells itself, really. It’s just that people need to get exposure to this awesome sport in order to realize its awesomeness. It better happens soon too because its NHL Playoff time and I’m sick of not being able to watch my favorite teams battle it out on the ice. Make sure to tune in Wednesday to watch the Caps light the lamp in Boston for Game 7.