Recently there has been a lot of momentum building around hockey due to the fantastic playoffs. When Matthew Stewart and I debated the whether Buffalo was a hockey or football town, it really started to make me wonder why I thought Buffalo was clearly a football town. Then I started to read Bill Simmons’ site Grantland (don’t judge), and his article about people labeling him a NHL front runner. It all became so obvious to me why football has grown in ridiculous fashion while hockey has stayed where they are.
1. The new NBC/Versus deal. Don’t get me wrong: I think this is a great deal for the NHL and if NBC actually plays this right could, it really help build the brand. What I thought was a problem was a lot of fan’s reaction to the notion that ESPN would merely offer one game a week or whatever the case may be. The reaction of anger and spite towards ESPN was comical – that the NHL didn’t NEED ESPN. Sure they didn’t need ESPN, but wouldn’t it be a lot easier to build awareness for the sport if it were involved, if it were on Sportscenter a little more often? Wouldn’t it be a little better if they nudged a ridiculous Sidney Crosby goal to #1 on Top 10 plays as opposed to some run-of-the-mill fast break dunk?
I get the reaction, hell I had the reaction. The problem with that reaction is that it is the attitude that non-fans see and as a result may be turned off from.
2. Acceptance of new fans is tough for die-hard hockey fans. I read somewhere about the Sabres blogger summit how someone was trying to justify their fandom over someone else’s because they grew up playing and watching the sport while the other was simply a post-lockout band wagoner. I don’t completely disregard this theory, but hockey more than any other sport I watch has this notion that your love for the team is measured by the length of service. It’s like saying the best teachers are only the ones who have been there the longest.
I get this way all the time. I won’t watch TV shows unless I watched it from the first season because I feel sleazy or unfit to be a fan of the show. Thank god for syndication or else I would have missed shows like Two and a Half Men, Everybody Loves Raymond, Criminal Minds and countless others. As fans of the Sabres and/or hockey we should welcome anyone and everyone that shows an interest in learning the game. I look at it as a responsibility to help people learn hockey and MAKE them fans. It’s not that hard to show people how great a game it is.
3. Hockey is a tough sport to get into. It’s expensive to play, it’s not built to watch on TV and it’s in a half dozen markets where it has no business being. For my argument though, how many times have you heard someone say how hard it is to watch hockey and follow the puck? The only time I had a tough time following the puck was during the Fox blue trail fiasco. I can’t remember a time in my life I didn’t watch hockey. I, like probably many of you, have taught numerous people how to watch hockey. I teach them to try and not follow the puck, but rather start to anticipate where it may go. I have taken salt and pepper shakers on kitchen tables and explained offsides and icing. Hockey isn’t a complicated sport, but it is confusing at times. People have a hard time understanding offsides is based on a line that is permanent, more people associate offsides with soccer.
The point in this is that fans can easily teach people these game nuances and with the introduction of HDTV hockey fans are born.
4. Bill Simmons is right. The fact of the matter is that hockey lost its luster after that 1994 Stanley Cup until after the lockout. As Sabres fans, most of us are immune to it because we had the greatest player in the world for a majority of that time, but in other NHL cities fans didn’t seem to care as much. With that being said, the NHL has done a tremendous job of marketing itself in the post-lockout era with the Winter Classic and allowing their players to take a break in the season to participate in the Olympics (don’t screw that one up Bettman). The NHL is in prime position with the Stanley Cup going to a game 7 and the NBA on the verge of a catastrophic lockout to capitalize. So, like Bill Simmons, why wouldn’t more fans come back to the game now? And like new fans, why shouldn’t we welcome them back? If more people buying tickets and watching these games are good for the NHL and good for our hometown team, then shouldn’t we do anything as fans to help that along?
The problem with fans is we are not rational most of the time. What remains is that part of being a fan that allows us to demand your team trade its top two prospects and Derek Roy for Danny Briere or trade Ryan Miller for Paul Stastny. As fans, we follow our hearts and not our heads. When people outside of the sport dip their toes in the water, our response is to say ‘screw you this is ours’. What I love about hockey and hockey fans more than other sports is how easily people can befriend one another over their love of a team. This past season on Twitter is a testament to that. I would just argue that being a fan isn’t a contest about being the best fan. It’s about caring about a team and loving a sport.
This doesn’t paint a clear picture of every fan, but I think it probably paints a picture how a lot of fans feel at least some of the time. That’s what makes us fans. I would just ask that we do a better job helping people open the door into our club rather than slamming it back in their face.
Brian Bund is an Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills fan currently residing with his family in Syracuse, New York. He is a contributing writer at Hockey Heaven, Buffalo Wins and the author of the The Buffalo Sports Fan blog. You can reach him on Twitter at: @brianbund