Commentary

Please, just give hockey a chance

Originally Published: March 2, 2010
By Toby Mergler | Page 2

Sidney Crosby and Ryan KeslerAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarWill the Olympic classic between the U.S. and Canada ignite interest in hockey? We'll see.

Late on Sunday afternoon, the same scene unfolded all across America. The nation looked on breathlessly as one of its own scored in the waning seconds, topping off a frantic sequence in which our fellow countrymen desperately fought to even the game. After Zach Parise broke free in the mad scramble to poke the puck home, an explosive wave of screams rolled across the country and, for a scant second, the spirit of the New Orleans Saints' recent Bourbon Street celebration spread from sea to shining sea.

It was a magnificent moment, both powerful and unexpected. In fact, the only thing more surprising than that last-second goal was that so many Americans were watching.

An astounding 27.6 million Americans watched the Olympic gold-medal hockey game between Canada and the United States, exceeding the number of people who have tuned into any NBA Finals contest since Michael Jordan retired in 1998, or any World Series game since the Red Sox made their magical run in 2004. Hockey-related items also dominated the trending topics on Twitter, with everyone shouting from the virtual rooftops about this incredible event.

With the NHL season back in gear, the question now is: Will this momentum carry forward? Or will hockey join curling, swimming and James Cameron as things we only care about every four years?

History suggests the buzz will die down quickly and the NHL won't experience a significant increase in interest as a result of the Olympics. But I'm here to make the case for hockey, and to encourage the mass of Americans who watched the gold-medal game to stick around for a little bit. Here are several arguments in support of the sport:

Endless action: Unlike the NFL, which features less than 12 minutes of actual play per game, hockey provides nonstop action for 60 minutes. Even better, there are far fewer stoppages than in basketball and limited commercial breaks. Also, the NHL changed its rules recently to encourage a more wide-open, end-to-end style of play. The speed of the game now resembles an NBA contest in which the shot clock has been cut in half.

[+] EnlargeSidney Crosby and Ryan Miller
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaThe Olympics are over, but you can still watch Sid the Kid work his magic in the NHL.

It's relatively simple: Hockey is a fairly easy game to pick up if you haven't watched it before. The objective is straightforward, the lines on the ice give you an easy visual guide for rules like icing and offsides, and fouls are rare enough to not be distracting. Compare this to pigskin, in which "Football for Dummies" is complicated enough to require crib notes; or baseball, in which the choice between throwing a two-strike slider or a fastball inspires 10,000-word essays.

Scoring means something: While haters might place this in the negative column, the relative scarcity of scoring makes each goal an event worthy of celebration. It also keeps games close, and since goals can come extremely quickly given the speed of play and the frequency with which the puck turns over, the tension builds up in the final moments of a game to the point that fans feel like Jodie Foster in the night-vision scene from "Silence of the Lambs." Plus, all the hits and fighting between goals should do more than enough to keep your attention.

Accessible players: While talking to fans at the ESPN Zone in Washington, D.C., recently, it was surprising how often they described hockey players as more "relatable" than those in the other major sports. Joe Donahue from Buffalo, N.Y., explained it by saying that most of the players grow up outside the United States and come from very humble backgrounds, which leads them to be embraced by the working-class fans that dominate the hockey demographic. It also helps that the NHL has done a great job of encouraging the players to interact with their communities. For example, in D.C. all the Capitals' practices are held at a local mall and are free and open to the public. You can talk to the players, get an autograph and then pick up a cinnamon-covered pretzel at the food court. It's like having the atmosphere of spring training year-round.

Females love it: Studies have shown that hockey has the highest percentage of female fans out of the four major American sports. So if you're a guy who is constantly arguing about the amount of sports you watch with your significant other, it's worth trying to get into hockey together before you end up getting Kelly Ripa'd on "The Marriage Ref" -- or, even worse, you are forced to watch "The Marriage Ref."

HDTV: Thanks to cheap big-screens and crystal-clear signals, the days in which it was difficult to follow the puck are long gone. No longer are hokey gimmicks like the glowing puck -- which blazed a trail of failure across the TV screen -- necessary. So if "NHL '94" piqued your interest in hockey, but you gave up on the real thing because finding the puck was more difficult than actually finding everlasting love via a staged reality-TV competition, it's time to tune back in.

Live games: Even if the game has become substantially more television-friendly, seeing games in person is still probably the best reason to get into hockey. There seems to be a greater percentage of hardcore fans in hockey than in the other major sports, and their passion translates to boisterous crowds and an electric atmosphere. There are few bad seats in most arenas; being close to the ice leaves you in awe of the speed and power on display, while being higher up actually makes the puck and the run of play easier to follow. Plus, the league has survived financially largely through ticket sales, so they have to make the live experience as enjoyable as possible.

Well, there you go. The NHL playoffs begin next month, and the quality of play during the quest for the Stanley Cup certainly rivals that of the Olympics. So if you found yourself caught up in the beauty of the game during the Olympics, pick a team, give yourself a month to catch up and then dive into the playoffs.

Sunday's gold-medal game did not end magically for the U.S. team, but America's new love affair with hockey doesn't need to end just as suddenly.

Toby Mergler is a regular contributor to Page 2, and a fairly recent convert to hockey himself. After suffering through the past few Redskins, Nationals and Wizards seasons, please don't begrudge him his Capitals fandom. He can be reached at tobymergler@gmail.com.

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