I’m a little worried about the ongoing non-negotiations of the NHLPA and a league of extraordinarily wealthy gentlemen. Not because talks have been put on hold, or that the Winter Classic has been canceled, or that a foreseeable agreement is about as readily available as a pair of Nike Mags from the Michael J. Fox collection. My worry runs much deeper.
I didn’t become a hockey fan by default. As a matter of fact I was raised on a steady stream of collegiate and professional football. I loved football because it was readily available in mass quantities in my home from the earliest moment I can remember. And to this day, Saturday feels the most right when I’m with my family watching the Big Ten, and Sunday when it’s church and the Packers. It was written in stone, I was immersed in it, and it became the mainstay sport in my life. And that continues to this day.
For most Canadians, not all, they could weave a similar tale. Albeit not about the NCAA or the NFL, but instead for various tiers of hockey. The “national” sport is a part of every day life. If you live in Toronto and hate the Maple Leafs you likely still know their home schedule. Whether you’re planning a business dinner or a trip out with the family, you know that doing things on a hockey night might greatly impede your plans.
As an Oklahoman, I never should have fallen in love with hockey. It was completely foreign to me. Weird rules. Weirdly named players. No team near my zip code. It just didn’t make sense. That all changed when Joe Nieuwendyk scored a game four, three overtime, questionable goal. Oilers fans, no doubt, will groan as they read this. It’s a highlight they know all to well.
What it was about that moment that sold me on the game I’ll never really know. Maybe it was the curiosity of a team in Texas. Maybe it was a casual emotional investment. Maybe it was dumb luck. But that goal, and the subsequent Cup win Dallas made, changed my hockey persuasions forever.
In an article by Jesse Spector from a late-October edition of the online Sporting News, the reporter finds himself in Northern Oklahoma for some unknown reason. Blackwell, Oklahoma to be exact. There, in middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma he points out just how deeply buried and unimportant the National Hockey League is within hyper-non-markets.
“I saw when the Sacramento Kings won the Stanley Cup,” said Barek Street, who noted that he only likes professional sports, a key distinction in an area where college football is supreme. But even for Street, the NHL makes so little of an impression, he named the wrong city as home of the league champions.
It’s easy, being wrapped up in following the NHL’s labor negotiations, day in and day out, to get the idea that what is happening in hockey is earth-shattering stuff that could forever alter the sports landscape of North America. It’s not. What’s actually happening is that a league of marginal importance to the general population is pushing itself further to the fringe.
“I don’t think around here people care about the lockout,” Taylor Rutledge said while gassing up her car. “I don’t know many people that actually watch hockey.”
I empathize with Mr. Street. The NHL is a vacant wasteland in the psyche of most in the United States. This isn’t the fault of ESPN for not making a more palpable effort to broadcast rights, or necessarily the greedy parties on both sides of a labor dispute. Instead, it’s the whole thing.
You and I, as ardent fans of the game, can look past the indiscretions. We can look pass the unglamorous, often subtle nature of hockey players. We can wade through the endless need for the league to insist it’s still a viable product when it really isn’t even close for most of the population in North America.
The root of league failure is also the key, and it’s found in Blackwell, Oklahoma.
Spector, in that same article, continues:
New York is a long way from Blackwell, but the palpable apathy for hockey is the same in the city and country. Instead of working together to grow a game that should sell itself, the NHL and NHLPA have spent months trying to win the hearts and minds of exiting hockey fans in a public relations war that has only served to alienate everyone. Fans might have an opinion on who’s right and wrong in the labor dispute, but the bottom line is that they just want to see world-class hockey.
I’ll take that sentiment one step further. The league and its players have alienated everyone for a very long time. They can’t help themselves. Instead of growing a ground swell through the player and the plays that they make, they give us a gimmick in the Winter Classic which quickly becomes irrelevant faster than it caught fire. Or a glowing puck. Or a lockout. Or a Sid vs. Ovi rivalry. ______ (enter complaint here).
The focus for the league should be Blackwell, Oklahoma where good people would attach themselves to any sport if it inspired and entertained. If it were a sport about players instead of paychecks. Magical goals instead of marginal gimmicks.
In 1999, I fell in love with the game in another Northern Oklahoma town where no rink existed, and I could get a poor pair of hockey skates two hours away. How’d it happen? I really don’t know. But what I do know is the NHL we see now is not the NHL I loved. It’s now one I tolerate. The key is Blackwell, and demanding the attention of the other uninterested masses by simply giving us the game.