Changing Hockey Culture
Saturday evening, inside Levi's Stadium in beautiful Santa Clara (Not San Francisco) California, featured the NHL Stadium Series. In this instance, the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks did battle. Even though both teams are considered talented and good, both teams are fighting for a playoff spot. This was a good defensive hockey game (in other words, just okay) that had hits and grit. Marian Gaborik scored the game winner early third period, as the Los Angeles Kings beat the San Jose Sharks 2-1.
I really do not know how this game did television rating wise but to me this game lacked a bit of pre-game excitement and I have a theory as to why. No it's not because there were "80 million" outdoor (I hope you feel the exaggeration) games last year, but it was because of the unwillingness for fans to be excited about an outdoor game in warm weather. This sentence might seem confusing, but in typical Fan-I Sports fashion, I will explain.
I love watching hockey, I even love studying it but because I never played organized hockey, the concept of a "hockey culture" and a specific hockey way of doing things are lost on me. In fact, hockey culture and I have a love-hate relationship. I am sometimes irritated by hockey culture, not because I do not understand it, but because despite the idea of hockey culture in the NHL being the best out of the four sports leagues in teaching ideals like unselfishness, toughness and unity, some of the hockey culture ideologies give the NHL business department an impossible task of growing the game.
Nevermind things like keeping fighting in the game to police itself, but simple things like the concept of a outdoor game is unable to be marketed because of a hockey culture. Being a Canadian hockey fan, it is no question that the purest form of hockey like most sports is when it is played outdoors. Whether it was on the road or on the frozen pond, the outdoor hockey game in freezing cold weather is a Canadian tradition. It hits so close to Canadians hearts that the NHL thought they can take that outdoor hockey game concept and make it marketable during the season.
For the most part, this works but 30 percent of the time this falls flat on its face. The latter will happen for two reasons, one, when the NHL business department ruins it with having 20 thousand in one year, or two, when the NHL decides to have an outdoor game in warm weather. This could also be a business blunder because the prevailing theme in the hockey world is that the southern United States do not care about hockey and that is true. but why is that?
To me, and it is just my opinion, hockey has been marketed to the south with something that the south do not care about and/or do not want. That thing is Canadian traditions of what hockey should be. This is often done with cold weather, the "small town Canadian boy living his dream" and Canadian traditions of toughness. This obviously does not cater to Americans, thus it should only make sense that if the NHL wanted to grow the game they need to make hockey less about tradition as much as they can and market the game itself. However this is easier said than done because of the Canadian idea of hockey culture.
Since I was young, hockey players were marketed as the small town, humble, good ole Canadian boys who played out in his neighbourhood frozen pond because that is the traditional Canadian sports athlete. As a result, anyone who did not fit this mold was not a fan favourite. Sometimes this marketing strategy of players borders on racism and idiocy, but to keep things simple, this marketing strategy crosses over to teams.
The clue to see this angle, is when a TV network will fall on tradition to market matchups, especially with the winter classic (I.e. Original 6 matchup between Toronto vs. Montreal or Sid The Kid, the small town Canadian boy, face the cocky Alex Ovechkin). What ends up happening is that Canadian traditions are marketed with the games' hockey culture and the two separate ideas are marketed as one.
This is not a problem to most hockey fans because they have bought in to this idea of hockey culture. The problem is when the NHL attempts to grow the game by separating the two. Most of their fan bases get upset and say the game is getting soft or that hockey is being ruined. If you do not believe me go watch a coach's corner segment and Don Cherry's opinion on keeping fighting.
One is probably asking, what does this have to do with an outdoor game in Los Angeles. The NHL can not market a country's culture with a game and expect another country who doesn't experience the same things to buy in to the same culture. In this difficult case, half of the U.S who do not understand Canada's culture because of the season, that is winter, being so very different for both halves. Thus when a outdoor game goes on in California or Tennessee, the result, PR wise, will be a failure every single time because ice is not supposed to be in sunny California and it doesn't look authentic to Canadians.
However, if fans are willing to accept outdoor ice hockey in warm weather locations, than the game can grow but negativity from fans who want to see a Canadian experience will not help. In other words the case could be made that if the NHL wants to grow the game they should take a risk and step away from marketing "hockey culture" with Canadian traditions of hockey.
The thing is that every sport should have a culture and Canadian traditions of hockey are great. Sidney Crosby is a great talent and deserves to be marketed as the "good ol Canadian boy". Last but not least Don Cherry is a legend and a smart man who knows way more than I most likely ever will. Those things are not up for debate, the thing that is up for debate is whether or not Hockey Culture is shooting the game in the foot because of its close association with Canadian tradition.