The National Hockey League has a poor reputation, to say the least.
Most who dislike the sport, in all honesty, mock it.
ESPN, The "Worldwide Leader in Sports," chooses to show two or three hockey highlights per SportsCenter during the regular season. If your name does not start with Sidney or end with Ovechkin, then you will not see much time on the network.
This gives the casual fan reason to believe the sport should be put on the backburner.
Those viewers who are also fans of the National Basketball Association are quick to believe that the NBA is superior to the NHL. They may be right, they may be wrong.
Yet, because of the lack of airtime on ESPN for the NHL, the sport becomes the butt of numerous jokes.
It is possible that it could all be a thing of the past in the near future.
Recently, I feel like the NHL is becoming "popular" again. People genuinely enjoy the sport now more than in recent years, and the respect for the game is creeping back up.
Most of us can admit that besides pick-up street hockey games from time to time, hockey is not a sport many of us partake in as children.
Football, baseball, soccer, tennis, golf, and especially basketball, were all typical games to be played in the neighborhood. They were easy to prepare for and easy to understand.
In football, you need a ball; basketball, a ball; baseball, a ball and bat. We all have a football, a basketball, and a baseball and bat. Even the least athletic of us have these typical sports items.
In hockey, you need a goalie, some pads for said goalie, sticks, pucks/balls, and possibly skates, all of which are expensive.
Because of this, hockey has never been the sport of choice for many children.
And yes, that has harmed hockey from its very beginning to this very moment in becoming America's sport of choice. But for some reason, people keep coming back.
Viewership is up, as well as ticket sales, and stadiums are filling to capacity more than most NBA arenas.
Jerseys are selling, sponsorships are growing, and stars are being born.
Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are the best that could ever happen to the NHL. In the league's darkest times, these two perennial stars shine.
Their memorable seven-game dogfight in round two will stick in the minds of many for years to come. Even non-hockey fans sat around to watch as the series unfolded.
Players are more likeable now more than ever.
The NHL revamped their website for the 2008-2009 season, which was a huge hit. Traffic on the site increased, and their program to watch out-of-market games is considered to be the best throughout the four major sports.
Just watching the sport is fun.
The passion from the crowd during the playoffs surpasses that of any other sport. The excitement after every goal reminds us of European soccer teams and their fanatical followers, except that with hockey, loud buzzers and songs ring after every time the puck crosses the line.
And hey, who doesn't love loud noises from time to time?
With high-definition, complaints of the inability to see the puck on the screen is no longer understandable. You can see the silver lining on the face of the puck when watching in HD five blocks away.
Just watching the sport on television is a beautiful thing.
The sounds are incredible, far superior to any other sport.
The physical game gives every man, woman, and child (fine, maybe not the second one) at least the slightest bit of interest. Fights are especially entertaining to watch.
Things are looking up for the NHL and the game of hockey.
And in the midst of all this is the slow, apparent downfall of the NBA.
College basketball entertains me, especially the NCAA Tournament. Basketball as a sport is interesting to watch and fun to play.
But the NBA is not basketball anymore.
The difference between the heart and soul poured into every second of every college basketball game and the lack of such attitudes in the NBA is enormous. I can't get enthused about a sport in which half of the players couldn't care less about what they were doing.
And even if they do care, they play like it is a pick-up game in the neighborhood.
Don't even get me started on player likeability.
LeBron James will be one of the greatest to ever play the game, not just because of his talent, but also because of his passion.
But look beyond him, and what's left?
A bunch of dispassionate, uncaring, and just dumb players. Don't agree with me?
The NHL has none of that.
The sport is filled with intellectual and genuine players. You do not find any tattoos in hockey, or crazy piercings, either.
No, you find a group of tightly knit players who don't take their aggressive style of play from the ice to the streets.
How many NHL players are convicted of criminal charges? How many are found to have taken sports-enhancing drugs?
This has nothing to do with race or heritage. All I am getting at is that the atmosphere among hockey players is miles ahead of that in among basketball players. It is a genuine game.
The fights and grudges on the ice are exactly that—on the ice.
Players in the NHL decide problems on their own. If near the end of a game a cheap hit is made on a player, the opposing team will stick up for their teammate on the next shift or in the next meeting between the two.
Issues are always left on the ice.
In the NBA, everything is a foul nowadays. Because of that, players expect those calls. If a foul is not called, you will hear it from that player after the game.
Not in hockey. There is a general respect among players and referees that the NBA cannot compare to.
Just take the handshakes at the end of every playoff series in the NHL. No other sport does this. Only the NHL chooses to show sportsmanship and respect among players in such a manor.
You will rarely see such a sportsmanlike action in the NBA. There is excessive pushing and shoving under the basket, elbows being thrown left and right, and nose-to-nose confrontations in basketball than any other sport.
You might say that hockey is guilty in the area of the pushing and shoving, but that is part of hockey. You have to play tough to win, and that is how you gain respect.
Then once the game is over and the outcome is clear, the opponents generally show their respect for one another.
The likeability and attraction to hockey and its players is far ahead that of the NBA. There is an attraction to the celebrations after each goal. Every team is a family.
The sport is just genuine.
It is fast-paced, energetic, eye-opening. While what really goes on in a hockey game may be difficult for the casual fan to understand, as I mildly touched on earlier, hockey is attractive because of its geniality.
Who knows? Maybe it's just me.
It is possible hockey is not making a comeback. Maybe I just want to believe that it is.
But I doubt it. I am sane enough to realize that when ESPN shows an NHL playoff highlight before an NBA playoff highlight, something has to be up.
The sport of basketball will never die. In fact, basketball is probably the second-most popular sport in the United States of America, behind football, of course.
But when it comes to the NBA, their stock is falling while the NHL's just keeps rising.
The common belief among non-hockey fans is still that the NHL is a joke, that hockey itself is a joke. To them, if ESPN doesn't regularly endorse something, it must be uninteresting.
But all it takes is a little common sense.
Why would ESPN show support and endorse a sport from which they would receive zero benefit from doing so? In actuality, regularly showing hockey highlights could hurt the network, as it would draw fans away from watching ESPN to watching hockey games on Versus and NBC.
In 2011, when the NHL's contract with Versus is up, we very well may see ESPN make a push to sign with the NHL.
All I know is, my love for hockey has grown over the past year, just as it has for millions of others out there. The game of hockey is back, better than ever.
Oh, and how sweet it is.
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