With the Portland Winterhawks two weeks away from their 10th consecutive year in the Western Hockey League playoffs, NHL franchises slogging through the last month of their 82-game season, and the March 4th passing of Ted Lindsay (one of the most important hockey professionals to ever lace up the skates), I’ve been thinking a lot about—among other things—ice hockey’s perennial status as the fourth most popular major professional sport (south of Canada and north of Mexico, that is).
Despite its absolutely rabid following among its diehards, ice hockey continually takes a back seat regarding mainstream American sports watching. Why?
Moreover, why does ice hockey, from an outside perspective anyway, seem to not mind this fact?
I never get a sense that the NHL is worried about itself (whereas the NBA, NFL and MLB regularly demonstrate anxiety over perception of their respective games – the pitcher’s clock being baseball’s latest example).
Reading about Ted Lindsay this week was fascinating. You can read about him here.
From unintentionally pioneering the tradition of skating around the ice with the Stanley Cup, to very intentionally helping form the first NHL players’ union, Lindsay was a dominant force on the vaunted Red Wings teams of the 1950s that won four Stanley Cups. Of course, Gordie Howe (“Mr. Hockey”) was Lindsay’s linemate on those teams, and it’s worth noting that while Howe is a household name outside of hockey circles, Lindsay is not.
Again, why would that be, especially given Lindsay’s long-standing service to hockey for five decades after he retired?
Well, Howe had a lot more goals, is one simple answer. But I think it runs deeper than that.
Growing up in the Bay Area, I was an impressionable 13-year-old when the San Jose Sharks became a franchise. The fervor was palpable. This sport I had rarely seen and knew nothing about was coming to roost, and long-time Bay Area transplants from colder climates were fired up to have a team to (again) call their own. And hey, anything goes in the Bay Area, right? (especially in the ‘90s.) So a lot of people who didn’t know what a hockey puck was, or that it was even called a puck, were suddenly flying Sharks flags on the side view mirrors of their Wagoneers.
Nevertheless—and I remember this distinctly when I started following the sport—a lot of the hockey world was laughing at us. Hockey in the Bay Area? Where it’s sunny and 70 degrees most of the year? Pshaw.
What’s funny is I remember feeling the same way when, six years later, the Atlanta Thrashers (R.I.P.) were granted a franchise. Hockey in Atlanta? No way. And don’t get me started on the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
So hockey has always suffered, perchance, from a feeling that it belongs in certain places and not others. And the rabid fans of their respective teams couldn’t really care less about what other teams are doing (unlike the Laker and Yankee “fans” that grow up in Iowa).
Not to generalize, but I actually love this about ice hockey. It feels so Canadian to me, in all the right ways (who gives a s–t what’s happening down in the U.S. of A.?)
And yet, only seven of the 31 NHL franchises reside north of the border, with the 32nd set to appear in Seattle in 2021 (hooray Pacific Northwest!). Clearly hockey is not suffering from a lack of interest, as it continues to expand. Yet that interest somehow never buts up against the other three major sports, in terms of the coverage you see on a national level.
Take ESPN. If that were your only outlet for sports information, you would think Barry Melrose is the only person on Earth who knew anything about ice hockey. And I love Barry Melrose, especially his mullet and mismatched checkered and pinstripe suits. But how can ESPN justify allotting one voice (however knowledgeable and charismatic) to cover the entire NHL, while bestowing the other leagues with an abundance of specialists, experts, panelists, and in-depth, multifaceted commentary?
In 2012, Vince Doria, then ESPN’s Senior VP, famously claimed hockey “doesn’t transfer to television” nor to a “national discussion.” A lot of this sentiment, of course, is financial – ESPN owns no rights to air hockey games, so there’s no incentive to promote it. Nevertheless, the transparent bias relayed by Doria reflects a prejudice still in play today.
It will be interesting to see what happens, in fact, when NBC/NBCSN’s hockey television rights expire in 2021. ESPN has owned rights and aired NHL games in the past (though not since 2004), and, of course, airing on ESPN is a huge deal (it was the second most watched network in 2018 (sports or otherwise), only trailing Fox News).
NBCSN does a great job with ice hockey, and the NHL seems comfortable there. But would the NHL pass up an opportunity to expand to multi-network coverage (as the other three sports enjoy) should various offers arise? Hmm.
Whether there is a lack of respect for ice hockey, or whether the sport simply does lend itself to hardcore regional allegiances that aren’t lucrative on the national level (ask yourself, when is the last time you watched an ice hockey game that didn’t involve your favorite team?) there’s one thing you should always remember: Ice hockey was born in Canada! You can feel good about becoming a hockey fan, should you choose to, because you will be celebrating another country’s favorite pastime right here at home, thereby increasing your cross-cultural cred.
So to do just that, joyously, I picked up one of the most well-respected hockey books of all time: The Game, by Ken Dryden, powerhouse goalie of the Montreal Canadiens’ Stanley Cup teams of the 1970’s (the Canadiens won the Cup in ’71, ’73, ’76, ’77, ’78 and ’79, with Dryden in goal each time).
The book is broken into a week (“Monday” to “Sunday”), and takes place two-thirds of the way through the ’78-’79 season; a season in which, having won three consecutive Cups, the desire and struggle to win a fourth manifests as a different beast. Dryden writes:
“It is not fun to feel a team break down, to find weakness where I always found strength; to discover that discipline and desire can go soft and complacent; to discover that we are not so different as we once thought; to realize that winning is the central card in a house of cards, and that without it, or with less of it, motivations that seemed pure and clear go cloudy, and personal qualities once noble and abundant turn on end; to realize that I am a part of that breakdown” (4).
From the outset, then, this is not your average sports book, and Dryden is not your average athlete, writing the athlete’s average autobiography. On the contrary, The Game is exceptional.
Its exceptional nature lies in the fact that Dryden uses this somewhat arbitrary structure of a late-season week in the NHL to expound on not only hockey, but a plethora of topics: the nature of time; the difficulty of ageing; the concept of pace; the idea of a “game”; the remove athletes inevitably feel from life; how to account for individual greatness; how individual greatness relates to team success; what the notion of “team” even means; anxiety, in various forms; the future; the past; how hockey was born. The list goes on and on.
And because Dryden is wonderfully articulate and thoughtful, and likewise offers a brutally honest and, in turn, provocative account of the life of a professional athlete, you learn not only a great deal about hockey, but are left with a sports book like no other. You are left with a book like no other.
Given Dryden’s education and professional success following* his NHL career, it stands to reason that The Game would hold a unique place in the pantheon of sports literature. In 2002, Sports Illustrated ranked The Game as the ninth best sports book of all time, and some have hinted that The Game is simply the best sports book of all time, period (Bill Simmons being one of these; he was blessed with the task of writing the foreword for the 30th anniversary edition).
*Not to mention during his career as well: upset with his contract offer from the Canadiens, Dryden sat out the ‘73-‘74 season and completed his law degree at McGill by clerking at a firm in Toronto! Post-NHL, Dryden has published (and continues to publish) books on a variety of subjects, and was elected to federal Parliament, serving for seven years.
The important point is that The Game has clearly stood the test of time, and is no less engaging to read now than when it first appeared in 1983. It is remarkable, quite frankly, that one of the game’s greatest competitors (six Stanley Cups in an eight-season career), could also be its greatest author.
So if you need a pathway, or an avenue, or a reason to get pumped for the NHL stretch run (while the NBA dominates the airwaves), you can find it in The Game. Bring it to the Rose Quarter, in fact, and read it between periods, cheering on the Winterhawks during their Canadian Hockey League (!) playoff run.