By: Jon Gonzalez
“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
Al Michaels uttered those famous words during the final seconds of the 1980 Winter Olympics men’s hockey game between the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S. defeated the seemingly unbeatable Soviet team and the game instantly became America’s proudest hockey moment. The game, often mistaken for the gold medal game, put American hockey on a pedestal it had never stood on before.
However, the charm wore off after a while. The NFL continued its dominance during the 1980’s and the NBA’s popularity exploded, taking off on an international level. The NHL, well they just kept on skating along.
In the days following the Olympic men’s hockey game between the U.S. and Canada, I heard plenty of talk about whether hockey will finally become popular here in the states.
“The game was so thrilling, so intense,” says my cousin Bryant Solorzano, a self-proclaimed hockey nut.
“So many people are going to fall in love with the sport after watching it.”
It was an incredible event, no doubt, but maybe viewers just fell in love with one game. Even I can be caught watching women’s basketball or PBA bowling if it’s a nail biter down the stretch.
Of the four major sports in America, it’s no secret that hockey sits at the bottom of the list – but why is that? I mean, it’s relatively easier to learn than football and baseball. It’s like soccer on ice! Wait, bad analogy. But in all seriousness, why is it that hockey, like soccer, has failed to bring out even a wince of enthusiasm from the average American sports fan?
I have two reasons:
1. The Soccer Effect
We Americans love our sports, when they’re high scoring at least. It’s very likely you’ll tell me I caught a good football game if I tell you the final score was 45-42. What about a 10-7 defensive struggle or a 9-3 field goal game? Well, that’s just plain boring!
Mistake number one, is that people often use the “soccer on ice” comparison when explaining hockey to a newbie. I believe most Americans can’t stand soccer because the teams and players don’t score enough. Same with hockey, you rarely get your 10-9 thrillers. It’s a good thing that the NHL added shootouts after overtime, for the sake of grabbing more fans at least, but it still hasn’t helped. The only thing Americans hate more than low scores are ties.
However, most average sports fans don’t realize how hard it really is to score a goal in hockey. NHL goalies are incredibly talented and have laser-like vision. It’s a mini-victory in itself when a player can score against any of the top goalies in the league. That’s where my reason number two comes into play.
2. The best defense is a good offense
America doesn’t appreciate defense! This goes for any sport. Unless were talking about our military budget, defense is something average sports fans don’t like hearing about. To them, stopping someone from scoring will never be as exciting as scoring itself. They want to see Drew Brees throw 6 touchdowns, not Ray Lewis shut down the running back at the line. They want to see Kobe Bryant score 50 points instead of the Spurs winning a game 85-79. I guess America really does like things bigger, including their stats.
I’ll be honest: the hockey fan in me isn’t on the same level as it is for football and basketball, but it’s getting there. I used to be one of those people that didn’t want to hear about the difficulty of scoring a goal in hockey. I didn’t understand how special it is when a team does score a goal. I’m growing to love hockey more every time I watch it, but I’m not getting any better at pronouncing the players names.
Luckily for us Angelenos, we have an NHL playoff contender currently sitting at 4th place in the Western Conference. The L.A. Kings sent 5 players to the Olympics, 4 that medaled. Their goalie, Jonathan Quick, is leading the league with the most wins in his first year as a full-time starter. However, even a 4th place playoff spot isn’t enough to make people change the channel from Lakers basketball to tune into L.A. Kings hockey. When the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007, all was fabulous until the Angels were swept by the Red Sox four months later, when everyone forgot about that “lame ‘ol” Stanley Cup.
What the NHL needs to do is play to their strengths. American hockey fans may not be strong in numbers, but they’re strong in passion. The NHL needs to move teams away from cities that have no place having a hockey team: Tampa Bay, Phoenix, and Nashville. Those teams can’t possibly compete with their local NFL, NBA, and MLB franchises.
I’m sorry to sound like such a pessimist. I know that the Olympic tournament ended with one of the greatest and most important hockey games ever played. Unfortunately, the NHL will never be as big as the NFL, NBA, or MLB, but it might just be the most exciting sport to watch of the four. Hockey fans will just have to continue going strong. I just wish the popularity would rise to help a league that is struggling financially. I want my hockey to stay, but who really cares if it does? It’s Canada’s sport after all, right?