Embrace the niche, Part Two: On being an American Hockey Fan

This actually wasn’t what I’d intended to write about in the second part of my “embrace the niche?” thread, but then I saw this post at Kukla’s Korner which links to a National Post article giving some of the behind-the-scenes blow-by-blow of the Balsillie/Preds deal. It’s an interesting enough article, but then I came to this line:

Others say he is determined to use his fortune, of which millions has been poured into philanthropic endeavours, to relocate a team to Canada where the game’s most loyal and knowledgeable fans are based.

(Emphasis mine)

And I needed to jump up on my soapbox. This is one of my biggest pet peeves about what passes for discourse about the state of hockey: the easy slippage from the fact that more Canadians than Americans like hockey to the opinion (presented as fact) that therefore the interest and knowledge of any fan or group of fans is automatically deeper and more authentic by virtue of being Canadian.

I can guarantee that if you were to pick any random 100 people off the streets in Ottawa and Columbus, a much higher percentage in Ottawa would describe themselves as at least hockey fans. If you were to give a quiz about hockey rules and trivia to the same random people, I think it’s a pretty safe bet which city would come out on top. As I noted in the first post in this series, hockey holds a prominent enough place in Canadian culture that even people who don’t particularly seek it out will pick up some knowledge of it. I would never deny that interest in hockey is higher in Canada both as a percentage of the population and probably still in terms of absolute numbers of fans.

I’d agree further that hockey’s more privileged place in Canadian culture means that, say, winning Olympic Gold in 2002 meant more to more people than it would have if the final score of the gold medal game had gone the other way (although Americans have been known in the past to get pretty worked up over Olympic hockey gold). And certainly, the fact that the US lost in 2002 didn’t set off a national wave of soul-searching and lamentations about how American hockey had lost its way, commissions to study how it could be improved, in-depth investigative reporting about what went wrong. All of which we saw in Canada after the men’s team crashed out in Nagano.

I’ll concede all of those points and still find that throwaway line in that National Post article inaccurate and offensive. Because it doesn’t say that there are more hockey fans in Canada, or that you’ll find more knowledge about the game generally in Canada. It says that Canadian hockey fans are “the most loyal and knowledgeable.” Which means that American hockey fans (as opposed to Americans generally) are necessarily less loyal and less knowledgeable.

Perhaps the author didn’t intend it to mean that, and it is just one sentence in one article in the National Post. But I’d argue that it’s symptomatic of a broader thread in hockey fan and media discourse in the Bettman era. One in which both the insecurities about Canadian hockey post-Quebec/Winnipeg/World Cup 96/Nagano and the post-2002 triumphalism and noisy nationalism, get projected into any discussion about the state of the NHL. The former set of issues give rise to fears of losing control of hockey, with a convenient (American) boogeyman in the form of Gary Bettman. The latter gives rise to chest-thumping declarations of “We’re #1.” Mixed together, it can be an ugly brew, given to arrogance, parochialism, and dismissiveness towards others (all those traits that Americans in general frequently get thumped for). Which lends itself to lists of which fan bases “deserve” or “don’t deserve” NHL hockey, as if a league in which teams reportedly get 65% of their revenues from corporations buying luxury boxes and glass seats doles out franchises on the basis of the purity of heart of their fans.

Of course, the sick irony of this sort of discourse is that the only Americans who pay any attention to it are precisely the ones who do love hockey. So the people who are feeling so angry and hurt about the prospect of losing their NHL team that they start a website devoted to finding ways to prevent that eventuality wind up getting these sorts of feces flung in their faces. Talk about insult being piled upon injury. The people who care the most keep being told that “no one will care if the Preds move.” Meanwhile, the corporations and individuals and media types who ignored or disdained the Predators all along, well, they’re not sitting on savethepredators.com reading that. It’s no skin off their noses.

Further, American hockey fans, even those of us who aren’t living with the imminent threat of our team leaving us, get it from both sides. From our fellow hockey fans and the hockey media we hear about how “Americanization” is ruining the game, how we don’t deserve our teams, how we don’t really understand or care about the sport. From our fellow American sports fans and media we hear about how hockey sucks, how no one cares about hockey, how it’s downright laughable to expect decent coverage of hockey in the media.

Which makes the original argument that set me off on this rant all the more ironic. If anything, I’d argue that the put-upon American hockey fan is often more loyal, loves the game more intensely, and yes, is often more knowledgeable than the Canadian fan. It comes back to the distinction I drew in the first post between hockey being a niche and hockey being part of the dominant culture. American fans tend to have to seek out hockey, to work to follow it, and to do so in a climate where they’re either being laughed at or dismissed out of hand. I’d say you damn well have to be pretty loyal to put up with that, when it would be a lot easier to just stop worrying and watch the NFL.

Saying that you’re a hockey fan in Canada is somewhat like saying that you like the music of the Beatles. Yeah, the occasional contrarian will jump up to say that the Beatles suck and their music is overrated, but for the most part, it’s kind of a self-evident proposition. Everyone likes the Beatles. Saying that you’re a hockey fan in the United States is a bit more like declaring your love of the music of John Zorn. People will be a bit confused and perplexed and wonder why, and probably not even know who John Zorn is to start with.

To put it another way, with far less tortured music metaphors, to be an American hockey fan is generally to be an obsessive American hockey fan. In Canada, where hockey is always sort of there, I knew some people who were obsessive fans, following every twist and turn of their team and the league, but I knew far more who, if asked, could name a favorite NHL team and who might watch a game in the bar during the playoffs, but generally devoted not a whole lot of their time to following the game. Here in the US, most every hockey fan I know falls into the former category, while very few fall into the latter. This being an NHL city, I do meet the occasional person who goes to one or two Jackets games a season, thinks the beer is too expensive, and likes it when Jody Shelley fights. But they’re far and few between. It’s much more often an all-or-nothing proposition — either they’re the intense, obsessive kind of hockey fan (or at least the family member or partner of one), or they know nothing and care nothing about the sport.

And I realize that it’s precisely the presence of the know nothing, care nothing people that so irks Canadian hockey fans when they look at an NHL with 24 American teams, and “innovations” like the FoxTrac puck or the shootout being put in place to appeal to those people. Who still don’t notice or care.

But again, it’s crucial to distinguish between the average American, whom the marketers hope to reach through such changes in the game, and the American hockey fan, who probably doesn’t like it any more than Canadians. Just because most Americans don’t care about hockey doesn’t mean that those who do care necessarily care less or know less than Canadians. The history of hockey in this country goes back nearly as long as that in Canada. And once you dig beneath the surface to look more closely at the various niches that make up hockey in the United States, the love of the game shines through — the folks who plan their yearly vacation around attending the Frozen Four, whether or not their team made it; the big crowds showing up to watch high school hockey in Minnesota; the 50+ year history of pro hockey in Fort Wayne, Indiana; my buddy Tim, playing in an adult league, coaching his son’s team, building a rink in his backyard, holding season tickets to the CBJ, and still finding time to ring up tens of thousands of posts about hockey on various messageboards. Yeah, those people and places may be part of a niche amidst 300 million Americans, but the thrill of a big glove save, a thundering hip check, a clever deke, or an OT goal is no less for being part of a niche.

I recognize that in the context of a limited number of NHL franchises, there’s going to be a zero sum game element to the placement of those franchises. So some of the Phoenix vs Winnipeg or Nashville vs Hamilton talk is going to be unavoidable. But love of hockey in and of itself is not a zero sum game, so let’s stop treating it as such. We all love the game, or else we wouldn’t be here on a hockey blog in mid-June.


One response to “Embrace the niche, Part Two: On being an American Hockey Fan

  1. Jeffrey Wincell

    I feel that the problem with hockey and soccer is that Americans tend to reject anything that’s foreign to them except food.

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