Hockey is one of the toughest games to analyze. When fans, analysts, and players talk about the sport, you hear a bunch of cliches and generalities. “We gotta just keep movin’ our legs. Gotta keep crashin’ the net and get to the loose puck” say the players while fans harp on silly things like “they weren’t making good passes” or “Just hit the net!” You hear talk like this because it’s difficult to explain a game that is based so much on moving parts and instinct. I’d argue it’s the one of the most instinctual major sports there is and this is part of the reason why hockey players sound so dumb when they’re being interviewed. The WHOLE game is like this. Listen to a baseball reporter ask a hitter to “take them through the at-bat” after he hits a home run. They sound idiotic too because it’s tough to explain everything that happened in a split second. Yeah.. you were looking for a pitch to drive. That’s not telling us much.
What makes hockey so different than other sports?
In a game like baseball, you have a single player (the pitcher) contribute considerably to the outcome of each play and each game. A pitcher who is really pin-pointing his two-seamed fastball directly correlates to the success of his team. All sports have players who score, but the impact of a “scorer” in baseball is far more direct. When a player hits a home run, it’s an isolated accomplishment against one other player (the pitcher). Because of this, the value of that player is higher because he can directly (if his skill-set is one of power) produce runs. You don’t see that in hockey. The most offensively gifted player (say, Alex Ovechkin) hardly ever skates through an entire team to score. His success, in great part, is relative to all the other moving parts on the ice. He may be faster and more skilled than the others, but in a game like hockey, it’s not enough. You also see differences in hockey when you look at the best few players in the league and if it directly relates to winning. This isn’t the case. None of the top players in the league (points wise, or however you want to argue “best”) were on the Stanley Cup team last year. This isn’t the case in a sport like basketball where you need to have a Lebron to win. A hockey team’s success is predicated on depth and it’s ability to play cohesively together.
Why isn’t hockey more popular?
If you grant me that hockey is more of a team game where players must play cohesively than it leads to a point I’ll make about it’s popularity. Part of the NHL’s inferior status can be tied to marketing and other components like these but I’d argue for something greater for it’s lack of super-popularity. Hockey has struggled to have a “face” of the sport. They thought they had one in Sidney Crosby but then the nation found out he was an antagonistic pussy. But I see the problem to be far greater than just a lack of candidates. Fans root for teams but they especially root for PLAYERS. And it’s easy to root for a player that you can properly identify. Example: Sarah likes to see homeruns so it follows that her favorite player may be David Ortiz. Or Dave likes play-making ability so he likes Rajon Rondo for his passing ability. This is much, much harder to do in hockey. Players are rarely known for “one” thing. They can’t stand out in odd aspects like “stealing bases” or even great defense. Patrice Bergeron, who plays great defense for a forward, is in a funny category because most people don’t have a clue what “good defense” looks like for a forward in hockey. In baseball, it’s easy! The guy runs fast to catch the ball….and catches it often. He’s a good defensive center-fielder. The end.
It’s hard for casual fans to even characterize the game they are watching or why their team is losing. Fans spout generalities like “they weren’t making good passes” or “they weren’t being physical” that hardly suffice for a game, nevermind a given shift. You can have 10 passes and 5 changes of possession in a minute. All of those passes could have been perfect except for the one that sent the other team in on a 2-1 for a goal. Everything changes so quickly and players capitalize or don’t on narrow opportunities. The margin for error is so small as Pacino once said.
Most fans of sports want to know as much as they can about a sport as possible so they can identify the intricacies of the team they are cheering for. Football is so confusing to watch (as it was for me when I was little) when you don’t know all the rules. Hockey is not that confusing in terms of rules, but what is confusing is why one team is better than another. People love to debate if Brady is better than Manning but you never hear debates about Patrice Bergeron versus Jonathan Toews. Why not? Probably for a lot of reasons but one is that everyone is confused by the criteria to debate with. With quarterbacks, you have clutch-play, throwing the long-ball, accuracy, intelligence, and on and on. What do people talk about in hockey? Usually nothing. “Hes’ a smart player away from the play” an analyst will say and the average fan doesn’t give a shit or know what that even means. This lack of identity with players and the subsequent inability to talk about the game on a deeper level, is a huge reason why it’s not a more popular sport.
Despite the fast pace of the game, there is strategy and system-play involved. You see this in penalty kill situations (the box, diamond formation-and-run for example) and fore-checking styles (first man in chases, defense pinches, etc.). That being said, I’ve always thought coaching in hockey has the least to do with a team’s success than in any other sport besides the NBA where the best talent always wins. Hockey is great because it comes down to opportunity. Usually, the team that generates the most opportunities for scoring, and limits the other team’s high probability chances–wins. This sounds obvious and it is. But the way it manifests itself is entirely unpredictable and incredibly entertaining. You know it’s unpredictable because you’d never bet on a single player being a game’s MVP beforehand, when you know in football, there’s a great chance it’s going to be one of the quarterbacks.
That concludes part 1 of hockey talk but I’ll leave you with what I believe are the three best NHL jerseys of all-time.
Comment with your favorite jersey. Bruins are in the top 6 I’d say but not in the top 3. Oh, and if you didn’t know:
Quebec Nordiques, Chicago Blackhawks, and the Minnesota North Stars.