On The Contrary: It Is NOT a Great Day for Hockey.
A crisp autumn wind blows sweeps across the land, supermarkets bulge with pumpkins, and seasonal “Halloween Headquarters” stores magically appear in malls across the country. Nothing like the start of fall to put you in the mood for an indoor sport played on an artificial ice surface.
Wait…hockey season is starting this week?
Indeed it is. Ridiculous as it may sound, the regular season for the NHL kicks off this Thursday with my beloved Pittsburgh Penguins facing the evil (no other word for them) Philadelphia Flyers in the inaugural game of Pittsburgh’s new Consol Energy Center arena. Unfortunately, it’s hard to feel very energetic about watching hockey when we are a little more than a month removed from public pools being open.
I love hockey. Growing up it was the only sport I cared about (and the only one I played for more than a year). I played on the same ice that the movie SLAPSHOT was shot on, and Steve Hanson himself was my coach at hockey camp. I even cut school (with full parental support) to go with my big brother Chris (also one of my hockey coaches) to the rally the Pittsburgh Penguins put on the day after they won their first Stanley Cup. Hockey was a central part of my life throughout grade school. My favorite quote at age 11 was the late coach Bob Johnson’s mantra, “It’s a great day for hockey.” I left the sport for a number of years to come to terms with my inner nerd, but I returned like the prodigal son in my mid-20s and never plan on wavering again. My love of puck being thus established, my case against the regular season starting this week should not be seen as an attack on the sport ala my annoyance with soccer. It’s because I care that I think a winter sport should wait until winter.
The fact that hockey has always started in October is no excuse. Right now it has to go up against a football season that is just getting its legs and the start of the baseball playoffs. The NBA starts in another few weeks. Meanwhile, outside of Northern Canada, it’s not yet cold enough for ice to form naturally outside. All of this makes hockey the last thing on most people’s minds (unless they’re shopping for a hockey mask to go as Jason Voorhees for Halloween).
The fact is that people don’t need to pay attention right now. The hockey season is ridiculously long, spanning from early October through early April before launching into playoffs that usually take the sport well into June. The first few months end up being meaningless. Teams don’t have an incentive to play too hard, since they don’t want to get any of their key players injured. Since over half of the teams in the league make the playoffs, it is possible (and probably wise) for teams to dog it through the first half of the season and step up their game later so that they can peak in the playoffs. Basically hockey launches its season with three months of sub-par games before things really get going with the Winter Classic in January.
Why not start the season then? The Winter Classic outdoor game has been played on January 1 for the last three years, and already it has become an event that eclipses the college football bowl games on that day. This year promises the biggest ratings yet with a game between the premier franchises in the NHL—the Washington Capitals and my aforementioned Pittsburgh Penguins. In January people want to watch hockey. They have winter on their minds, and hockey becomes a perfect fit. Plus, starting then would reduce the length of the season, making the games more meaningful and thus more exciting to watch.
It’s not going to happen, of course, just like hockey will never be more than the fourth most popular sport in the U.S. (and some would say that is giving it too much credit, putting it above NASCAR and golf). But it would make the games a better experience for the fans, and increase the value of the game play. Personally, I will try to watch a few games here and there, but I won’t dive in whole hog until Christmas. Life is just too short for an 82 game hockey season.
featured image credit: mandaloo