hockey in the heartland
Last Monday dozens braved the cold at Millennium Park’s outdoor rink. I was one of them. And what did I see but a man, middle-aged, in a Phoenix Coyotes jersey. A Martin Hanzal jersey to be precise, which I approved of greatly. What greater testament to the expansion of hockey in America by Commissioner Gary Bettman does one need? I am of two minds when it comes to hockey in the Sunbelt. For one, I think its growth in so-called non-traditional markets is essential to the overall viability of the sport and of the league, as well as its presence internationally. To make hockey truly North American—not “northern American + Canadian.” On the other hand, it’s easy to see how arenas that are barely a third filled, ownership in scrambled situations and the welfare-case Coyotes depreciate the overall quality of the league and its financial situation. One needn’t look further than the current broadcasting rights fiascoes in the States and the fact ESPN doesn’t touch the sport. It’s not easy when hockey is seen as a laughing stock. “How silly of them, to think people in the desert would like hockey!” But the Sunbelt expansion into California, Florida, Georgia and so forth is probably best viewed in two waves. Hockey in California arrived in the 1980s and grew with Wayne Gretzky’s timely arrival in Los Angeles. It has since established itself in San Jose and Anaheim. And despite ownership troubles and sometimes lagging attendance, these are stable franchises. Looking at Phoenix and Atlanta in particular, these are young franchises. All this goes to say—wait. Just wait. A little longer. Franchises are not made overnight. Hockey was not made overnight. Two waves, two standards. The NHL admittedly (and with nearly universal agreement) aired one of its most compelling products in the 2009-2010 season. Claims that competition has been watered down by the existence of 30 teams or the fact wealthier franchises support those whose revenue will simply never be on par with that of Toronto or Montreal don’t quite ring true in light of this. Hockey is an odd sport, an acquired taste. The fighting, the icing, the silly pads—all these are things folks have mentioned to me while watching hockey as being things they can’t quite understand. But with time, they will. And cultivating such tastes in wildly new places, well, it probably isn’t easy. But man, if you’ve got a guy wearing a ‘Yotes jersey in downtown Chicago in late November, hobbling about on ice-skates like a small child, well, something’s gone right.