Why the Gold Medal Game Won't Help Hockey Grow in the United States
I’m sure this will make a lot of people happy to read, but it’s got to be said.
Sunday’s gold medal game will not do a single thing to make the sport of hockey any more relevant in the United States.
First of all, let me preface this entire diatribe by saying that I’m an American and I love hockey. I’m nuts about it. Can’t get enough of it.
That’s why I love living in Minnesota. At any given point, I can flip on the TV or head out to my local rink and see a good game—hell, even the former NHLers that live in Minnesota now go out for some beer league games now and then.
But, like Canada, the game is engrained into our culture. For most people in Minnesota, we eat, sleep and breathe hockey.
But one thing that is blatantly obvious is that the mindset of Minnesotans when it comes to the sport of hockey is much different than that of just about anywhere else in the United States.
Now, I’m sure you’re asking yourself: “But why?” Well, there are a few reasons.
First, the gold medal game was a rivalry game, plain and simple. The inflated ratings were not because it was going to be a great game and did not indicate a growth in the interest of the sport in the U.S. National pride was on the line, plain and simple.
The same principle holds true for the Vikings-Packers, Yankees-Mets, Cubs-White Sox rivalries. It’s simple geography that precipitates it.
The last time an event like this caused a re-awakening of the sport was in Lake Placid 30 years ago, but that was so much more than national pride. It was a rivalry that transcended geography. It was a rivalry of ideology as much as national pride.
With the Canadians? It’s simply that they’re “America’s Hat,” as I heard one U.S. hockey fan put it.
Does the fact that they’re a world powerhouse and we were lowly upstarts have anything to do with it? Sure.
Or the fact that Canadians scoff at U.S. expansion in the NHL, claiming hockey as “their game?” To American hockey fans, yeah.
But to your casual observer, Sunday’s game was nothing more than a sense of nationalism surrounding the game that happened to be helped by the United States’ upset of their northern brethren just a few nights earlier.
Second, the game of hockey is going to continue to fall on deaf ears in the United States, so long as the major networks continue to not take it seriously.
The Worldwide Leader, ESPN? Their coverage of the NHL is a joke. Rarely do you see any extended coverage of hockey unless it is a) unprovoked violence in the sport—read: a terrible injury—or b) a highlight that they deem worthy of being in their Top 10.
You can hardly blame ESPN either.
When they ditched the NHL, let’s be honest, it wasn’t hockey. It was a glorified wrestling match on ice, punctuated by the sporadic goal.
There was so much clutching and grabbing going on in the game that the tempo of hockey had almost been slowed to a stop.
So, Czar Bettman did what he thought was best for the league and went with a television contract that might, you know, give the NHL a chance to turn a profit. The only problem is that this contract just so happened to be on a channel that about 75% of people didn’t even know existed.
The only true, national coverage that the sport receives now is in the form of a once-a-year spectacle that, truth be told, makes for a fairly awful hockey game.
The game has evolved to a point where I feel that it could catch hold in the United States. With the clutching and grabbing gone, even the most boring of hockey games can be exciting at its core.
What’s more is that the highlights of the NHL nowadays truly are highlights.
I could watch 1,000 slam dunk or home run highlights and only a handful of them would compare in the jawdroppingness —that’s right, I just made up a word—to the majority of hockey highlights. Be it a spectacular goal, a groin-tearingly good save or a hit that sees the hittee’s brain cells land in the upper deck.
My point here is that I truly think that the NHL could catch on. But not with its current media arrangement. Not on a channel that deems that the pre-race festivities of the Kentucky Derby outweigh a Stanley Cup playoff game heading into overtime.
Finally, there’s the stark reality that one game simply is not going to change the preconceived notions that the United States has about the game of hockey.
One great game is not going to change people’s minds about the sport.
For example, I detest pro football. I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve just never had a taste for it. Truthfully, I find it to be quite boring—but that’s not the point.
Because I live in Minnesota and am a Minnesota sports fan—for the most part—I tuned into the Vikings-Saints game for the NFC Championship. It was a fantastic game. It was one of the better games that I’ve seen.
But it didn’t make me care enough about the game to tune into a full season’s worth of football games because it was just that—one game.
Blame Bettman (which, let’s be honest, will happen anyway), blame the IIHF, blame the IOC, blame NBC, blame Mike Milbury, blame Pierre Maguire.
Blame whoever you like, but the bottom line is that the coverage of these Olympics could have easily turned the page on the popularity of the sport in the United States.
There were some absolutely spectacular games. I’m talking about absolutely beautiful hockey being played.
But instead, the lion’s share of the games were relegated to MSNBC, USA and CNBC in exchange for…Ice Dancing?
One of the most highly anticipated games of the tournament, Canada vs. Russia, was nowhere to be found on NBC in primetime—not even in truncated highlights.
Even the gold medal game, the triumphant centerpiece of Vancouver’s Olympics, didn’t even rate a primetime game.
This is a shame, because of how competitive these Olympics were. 19 of the 30 Olympic hockey games were decided by two-or-less goals. Of these 19, nine were one-goal games.
If you’re a fan of solid goaltending? Seven shutouts.
For the fan of high-scoring affairs? 18 of the 30 games had more than six total goals scored in them.
It was a spectacular tournament to sell the game with.
But instead, we get ice dancing. And that, my friends, is exactly why the sad truth of it is that, as fantastic as Sunday’s game was, it ultimately will have no bearing on whether or not the non-hockey fans among the millions that tuned in will tune in again.
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