On a Sunday afternoon in mid-April, I fully expected to be watching some prime NBA basketball. I might even throw some baseball into the mix, or maybe golf—neither is as exciting as basketball or football, but I enjoy watching both. The last thing I expected to be watching? Hockey. The last thing I expected to entrance me for two hours this weekend? Hockey.
Back in 2004, one of my friends was legitimately distraught over the NHL lockout that destroyed the entire hockey season.
“Good,” I immaturely replied to him. “This means they’ll focus on basketball coverage.”
The sad part is that my comment was not a reflection of a disdain for hockey, but an infatuation with everything the NFL and NBA had to offer. Hockey, to me, just happened concurrently, and was relegated to the secondary channels because no one cared.
About a year later, I went to Ottawa, Canada and realized very quickly that I had been dead wrong. Hailing from New Jersey, I was well aware that the Rangers had their faithful, as did the Devils, but by and large this was a niche market of people who bizarrely did not want any part of a Knicks or Giants games.
But the Ottawa crowd lives and breathes hockey, a revelation that took me back a step. Arriving in the heat of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Ottawa Senators Red was everywhere. This obsession makes perfect sense—despite being Canada’s capital, Ottawa is one of the smallest major cities in North America. Like other small markets (think Oklahoma City), the city rallied around a singular team, instead of hedging allegiances among 10 professional sports teams like the New York market.
That trip, and a number of trips thereafter, resulted in a closet allegiance to the Senators, right up there with the Devils and Rangers. Still, I remained a passive follower of the sport, quietly hoping for a victory if I saw one of “my” three teams in an intense playoff battle.
Then, I did myself a favor and watched some games. This interest hit an apex with this past weekend’s slugfest between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The game itself was captivating—an 8-4 offensive outburst that would have made Mike D’Antoni blush. And once you’ve been engrossed in a hockey game, you’re going to keep watching—each single goal is an unbelievable momentum turn and can come at any second.
America is taking notice, too. The league struggled out of the gate once games resumed after the lockout, but it finally began to turn things around in 2008, with increases in attendance and television ratings. Perhaps this can be linked to the birth of the league’s Winter Classic, a savvy move to generate interest with an annual outdoor hockey game. The event has sold out every season, and has drawn the league’s highest regular-season ratings. The great majority of seasons since that 2008 campaign have seen similarly steady growth.
I expect continued growth, but for a different reason. The NHL thrives on its physicality, which often leads to absolutely brutal fights. If I decide to sucker-punch someone walking down the street today, you can bet I’ll be indicted on some kind of charge, and rightly so. But in hockey, that’s the norm. America still loves that brutality – for instance, last month’s scripted WrestleMania quickly became the hottest trending topic on Twitter, a title it did not relinquish until the event was over.
Sports consumers’ love for hockey for this reason will remain high, especially with the concurrent scaling down of violent hits in the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell still has the most popular entertainment product on the market, but football’s former luster as the only sport for uninhibited violence is rapidly fading.
When the violence is coupled with the outright parity of hockey, its resurgence is no surprise. Right now, the eight-seeded Los Angeles Kings have a 3-0 series lead over the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks. These upsets are no surprise, though, as no league takes intensity to the next level quite like the NHL.
Hockey has officially returned to its pre-lockout pinnacle. Heck, it’s probably been back for a couple of years, and I’m just late to the party. Either way, I won’t miss it this time around.