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Pride and Prejudice: Hockey in the US

Shiny objects, rapid movement punctuated with big, thudding crashes and blaring horns… really, what could possibly be more amusing to modern American audiences?

In his latest blog, Brodie Brazil bemoans the fact that hockey is not as popular as it might be in the US.  He explains why hockey ought to be as popular as football or basketball:

Hockey players are modern-age gladiators; fully padded in armor, but not completely protected from the dangers of lost teeth, separated shoulders, and mangled joints.  They are some of the strongest yet agile athletes in sport …-Brazil: Hockey Gets the Shaft

I’m not sure that the violence of the game is the easiest sell.  It feeds the stereotype of the sport as brutal and even savage.  I’m not saying hitting should be cut out of the game, I’m just saying that I don’t know anyone who thinks hockey is a sport for softies. 

I could blame fighting.  That is by far the most common issue people cite when saying hockey is violent in “the wrong way.”  But I don’t believe people are so merciful in their pursuit of entertainment as to really care that much about fighting.

That hockey would be maligned as violent is absurdly ironic.  Football players maim each other regularly.  They are lionized for playing injured all the time.  Their sport also requires a degree of reckless abandon you simply don’t see in the more gentile sports of basketball or baseball. Yet football is by far the most popular sport in the US.

Brazil suggests that the lack of viewership may have to do with scoring and personal experience with the sport:

…we Americans just can’t get over the fact that “they don’t score enough in hockey”.  Or that most Californians don’t skate, or didn’t play the game growing up.  It’s a shame if those are the reasons the majority can’t relate.. -ibid

There are certainly those who feel this way.  My uncle voiced the scoring complaint.  (The Kings and the Flyers obliged him by scoring more than usual.)  A couple of sports fans I talked to voiced the “I don’t know how to do it, so I don’t care to watch it”  argument.  Maybe they need to play to learn the rules?  Whatever.  Forget about those guys.  Most of them are old anyway.

When I took a young friend to a game this year, she did not know what to expect.  She hardly ever attends sports events.  She is a peaceful, non-confrontational young woman, but being a starving student and I suppose trusting me not to traumatize her, she took the free ticket and came with me.

Of all the people I took to games this year, she was by far the most swept up.  It took only a few minutes for her to begin holding her breath as the puck came closer to where the Sharks wanted it, or where they didn’t.  She even bounced in her seat and let out the occasional “Get it!  Get it!”  during scrambles for the puck.  She clearly enjoyed the game.  I don’t know if she’s watching hockey on tv now but I am sure she would go again if invited.

Another friend explained why he enjoys hockey more than other sports.  He said he has played most sports and therefore he is not very impressed by seeing others do it.  But hockey, he explained, is completely beyond him.  He is all the more impressed because he believes there is no way in the world that he could do it.

It really isn’t very hard to appreciate the difficulty of moving that puck around on ice with a stick.  Add to this the speed of the game, the continuous (by sports standards) movement and action, and scoring becomes irrelevant.  The suspense is there, and in a culture rapidly embracing an ADD world view, hockey satisfies far better than any other sport.

I don’t think hockey is short on viewers because of anything inherent to the sport.  Rather, there is a prejudice against it in the US.  Is it because it’s foreign?  Are Americans too proud to accept a game they didn’t invent?  Is it because the players are still fairly… for lack of a better word… white?  Is it because people love the farcical Slap Shot mystique, love to hate it so much they can’t let it go?  I can’t dismiss any of those.

I don’t know what the most powerful prejudice against the game is.  I do know it has nothing to do with not being able to see the puck or follow the game.   See everything from pinball to modern video games.  People can follow a fast-moving object.  It isn’t because people hate head injuries or don’t like seeing men run into each other.  You get all that in football too.  The problem seems to have nothing to do with the game itself, merely the perception of it from long ago.

Maybe too many people are too proud to enjoy watching someone do something they believe they cannot do themselves.  Pride is frequently considered a virtue but really it is merely a blind sense of being better.  Prejudice, an important prop for pride, is hardly ever mistaken for a virtue.  It is merely stubborn opinion based on nothing.

Let the long process of education continue.

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