Has Hockey Lost its Mind?

by Tony Shea on December 27, 2012


nhl black and whiteThe NHL cancelled all games through Jan 21, 2012 as the labor dispute continues. If games resume at that time, each team would still be able to play 48 games, slightly less than 50% of the season. I could live with that because the normal 82 game season is too long, really. The season goes from the end of September into the beginning of June. That’s nine months. I think a sport season should last about as long as a good television series, four or five months tops. I don’t really get into hockey until Christmas. That’s when it finally gets cold out here in Los Angeles, and I need the cold to really feel it. The game is played on ice, after all, 32 degrees and below necessary.

That first dash of cold gets the hockey back into my blood, makes me remember the many Washington Capitols games that me and my old man attended when I was a kid, reminds me of the glory of last year when the Kings finally went all the way and took the Stanley Cup.

The temperature finally just dropped out here – after a summer that saw days of 104 until the very end of October. I am ready for hockey. Now. But I will wait until January 22, if I have to. 48 games will be fine. They will be plenty. By the time the playoffs roll around, no one will even remember that the first half of the season was clipped. But if  the owners and the player’s union can’t come to terms, and they cancel the entire season for the second time in eight years, then hockey will have irreparably harmed itself, slashing its own wrists with its skate blades, and it’s never going to recover.

Is Hockey afraid to succeed, I wonder? Does it have a psychological inclination to self sabotage? Hockey had it’s biggest year last year, earning close to $3 billion dollars in tickets, concessions, merchandise and sponsorships. From a television rating standpoint, the Winter Classic was the most watched game in regular season history, and for the Stanley Cup the NHL had the two top tier markets going head to head in the LA Kings and the New Jersey Devils, and a bi-coastal rivalry that was outstanding for ratings.

Hockey is rising. Hockey has made tremendous efforts in the last few years to reach up and catch the other major sports in this country, namely: football, baseball and basketball. The marketing has been working. Hockey has been selling the speed and the quickness and the hard hitting action, and hockey is all action. Hockey is the sport most loved by people with attention deficit disorder.

Basketball has those excruciating minutes spent at the free throw line. In baseball and football, of course, every single action is preceded by a long pause, waiting for the team to walk back from the huddle and line up in formation, or waiting as the pitcher shakes off the catcher for the tenth time and throws to first to hold the runner on the bag. But in hockey, the puck is going here and there along the boards, back around to the blue line, before a 90 mile an hour slap shot ricochets off the goalie’s face mask,  as the players leap over the boards, dead tired after a minute on the ice. Hockey does have stoppages for penalties and face offs, but I make allowances for these infrequent delays because hockey is the only sport where you can actually just punch someone in the face if you feel like it. Just punch them in the face, pull their shirt over their head and literally just bare fist punch them until your hand breaks.
Hockey Fight

However, it should be mentioned the NHL has worked to limit the fighting within games, banning bench clearing brawls, instituting the “third man” rule and generally encouraging a faster more high scoring type of hockey. It’s still violent. But bumps and bruises aside, no one is really harmed.

Hockey has become more responsible, creating a better family environment through the years, which ties in directly to the increased revenues. In the old days it seemed everyone was drunk out of their minds, screaming obscenities, the angry mob, the barroom brawl waiting to happen. There were periodic riots in the stands. I remember once when I was a kid, during a game against the New York Islanders, that the players all just stopped and  started watching the crowd. Hockey has changed since then.

These days hockey feels more high end, a sport that is playing if not in the same league as football, baseball and basketball,  then at least in the strata of approximate experience, which is to say higher end food and libations, more corporate box seating, and redesigned stadiums. Gone are the days of the home spun organ lady who played three notes at a time, dun dun dun, dun dun dun, change key, dun dun dun , dun dun dun. Now it’s a spectacle of flashing lights and booming sound, state of the art video monitors, branded mascots, intermission contests and car giveaways.

The NHL also now has more legitimate superstars to personify the sport. Football, baseball and basketball have always generated more interest because they produced bigger stars that could crossover on the national level. Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, Reggie Jackson (sound familiar?) and a hundred more besides. The average person on the street could name dozens athletes from these sports but not from Hockey. Gretzky, of course, but then who? Gordy Howe or Bobby Orr? Maybe if you were a historian. Mario Lemieux? These days hockey has a bevy of bankable stars, including Sydney Crosby from the Penguins, Alexander Ovechkin from the Caps and god on ice, Jonathan Quick, from my beloved Kings.

All these improvements in the game have added to increased revenue and popularity. But now the league is on the verge of shutting the whole thing down again for the second time in eight years. Can you imagine if any other business enterprise went on vacation for a year and a half , say McDonalds, or ATT? People would move on and find new fast food restaurants and new wireless carriers. Come Jan 22nd, there better be hockey or the NHL can expect that many of its fans will be moving on, too. To let them go, hockey would have to be crazy.

Tony Shea ( Editor-in-Chief, New York)

Tony Shea is based in New York, having recently moved from Los Angeles after more than a decade on the sunny coast. His short films have won numerous awards and screened at major festivals around the world including Comic-Con. As a musician, he is the lead singer for Los Angeles rock n’ roll band Candygram For Mongo (C4M) candygramformongo.com who has been a featured artist on Clear Channel Radio’s Discover New Music Program and whose songs have been heard on Battlestar Gallactica (Syfy Channel) and Unhitched (Fox) among other shows and films.

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