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Could hockey ever become cool again in America?

April 22, 2019
NHL: APR 20 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round - Hurricanes at Capitals

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I've been thinking about hockey more in the last month than I have in years, but it's by accident—the Carolina Hurricanes are in the playoffs, and a few people on Twitter in North Carolina's research triangle, where I live, are excited. The team just got absolutely skunked by the Capitals on Saturday, but the series is still in play, and at the very least Canes fans will get to see one more home game on Monday night, where a win would force a winner-take-all game seven in Washington.

Now, don't get me wrong—I'm not a Carolina Hurricanes fan, and I don't even know very many Carolina Hurricanes fans. If I had to bet, I'd say the excitement I'm seeing on social media is probably driven by bandwagon types. The attendance figures for the team have been abysmal almost since they moved to Raleigh from Hartford, and even in a playoff year like 2018-19, the Canes had the second-lowest attendance (percentage of seats filled) in the NHL (the year they won the Stanley Cup, in 2006, they managed to rise to 21st). I wrote a feature about the team in 2015, and though it was a pleasure to report, finding a "positive" angle was fairly difficult, particularly because the franchise had won a Stanley Cup and still failed to secure a thriving fan base. The most I could summon, in the end, was, "hopefully they won't move!"

This is the American Southeast, and even as the only major professional sports franchise in the Triangle, the Canes—and hockey itself—will never really catch on. Personally, I will not watch a single playoff game this year, unless there's a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals, and even then it might take overtime to force my hand.

That said, I am not a southerner—I grew up in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, and there was a time when I adored hockey. I lived and died with the New York Rangers in the early '90s, and the magical year of 1994—with the dramatic Stanley Cup win over the Canucks, not to mention the blood feud that was the Eastern Conference finals win over the New Jersey Devils—was one of the highlights of my young sports life. I'd lay awake at night listening to games on WFAN (which only came in clearly at night), or I'd sneak into my parents' bedroom to watch a particularly important game and pray that they stayed downstairs until it was over.

There was nothing boring or mundane about hockey to me then, and though I never played the sport—I loved basketball and hated the cold too much—my town was a hotbed, and I found it thrilling to watch. I would draw up the playoff brackets each year, fold them into thick rectangles, seal them with tape, and store them in a locked wooden box. I'd listen in fascination to old stories about the Montreal Canadiens from my stepfather (I still believe "Rocket Richard" is the coolest sports name). I even enjoyed how the NHL used to re-seed the brackets, which struck me as quaint and a little bit arcane. I loved it all.

And I stuck with it for two more years after that championship season. I distinctly remember the gnawing frustration of watching the Rangers lose badly to Pittsburgh in the 1996 playoffs, and hating Jaromir Jagr and his long, flowing hair the way old men with buzzcuts must have hated the hippies back in the Vietnam era. (For the record, I now think Jagr—who still plays at the second-highest professional level in the Czech Republic at age 47—is extremely cool.)

And then I was done. Hockey was over for me.

I can't explain why. Maybe turning 14 signaled a kind of transition where I didn't have the time to follow every major sport religiously, and hockey was the obvious sacrifice. Maybe it was the decline of the Rangers, even though they still went to the Eastern Conference finals in '97 before entering the abyss. Maybe Gary Bettman and his marketing team were to blame, though I won't pretend to know exactly what they did wrong. Maybe it was the style of play, although I still watched the NBA religiously, and let me tell you, to be a Knicks fan in the mid-to-late '90s was to bear witness to some of the ugliest basketball ever played.

I'll say this, though—an incredible number of sports fans my age tell the same exact story of losing interest sometime in the mid-'90s, and never really getting it back.

Regarding the headline of this piece, I'm not arguing that rabid NHL fans don't exist in America—of course they do. Nor would I disparage the quality of game play, which I have heard (but can't confirm) keeps getting better. And youth participation in America seems to be growing by the year, and that growth is being reflected on NHL rosters. There is passion in hockey, and some of that passion exists in this country.

But can it be a cool American sport again? Viewership for the NBA Finals has hovered between an average of 15 and 20 million for the last decade, while the World Series, in its own slight decline, has settled in between 12 and 16 million, with peaks close to 20 million and sometimes in above when major cities like Chicago and Los Angeles are involved. In 2018, 16 million Americans watched the World Cup final between France and Croatia in a year when the U.S. didn't even make the tournament. The Stanley Cup Finals, meanwhile, have not averaged six million viewers at least since 1995, though the last decade has seen a slight upward trend. And that's just comparing the marquee events. On an anecdotal level, as someone who has written about sports for the last decade, hockey simply doesn't register on the American cultural-conversational scale, even during the playoffs. It takes Alex Ovechkin doing hilarious things with the Stanley Cup to get people like me to notice—in 2019, only the oddities raise an eyebrow.

It may be that with the increasing globalization of sports, hockey faces too steep a challenge for the simple fact that it's played on ice, and it's hard to find the money or the will to build facilities in areas where people don't already skate. Inevitably, American exports like basketball and baseball will have an easier time catching on, and as our demographics change, other sports like soccer will find traction domestically and continue to nudge hockey aside. Already, it's tough to speak about the "big four" sports in American and place hockey above soccer, even when you consider that America's domestic soccer league doesn't feature the world's best talent and is only now beginning to draw decent ratings. From a cultural angle, soccer just feels more relevant, even for someone like me who doesn't enjoy watching it.

And of course, there's nothing wrong with hockey entering a new stage as a strong niche sport that remains popular in the Northeast and Midwest, and is still a huge deal in Canada and Russia and other cold-weather nations. The NHL is in no danger of folding, and hockey fans will probably react to this story with annoyance. They don't need to be "cool." But for those outsiders who don't already love the sport—particularly for those who, like me, loved it once and lost our way—it's hard to imagine what could reignite that flame and win us back. For the broader American sports zeitgeist, hockey looks like a sport that is doomed to recede in perpetuity.