Educating a Sport

-By Tyson Michie
Take a trip through the many different hockey related message boards, chat areas, and blogs, and you’re likely to find the purveying attitude that NHL players participating in the Olympics is the best thing since someone first put blade to ice. Sure, there are detractors, but in the end they eventually capitulate to the point that, while they may not like it, the Olympics is for the best so the best should go. It’s a valid point, but it belies the true reason so many want and need the NHL at the Olympics.

The Olympics is the biggest international stage. A competitive American team will whip up excitement among the American people and they will become hockey fans. It’s not a bad theory. It’s worked before, in fact, so it’s easy to see why it’s the conventional wisdom now. While hockey has existed in the US for almost as long as in Canada, it has, until relatively recently, been relegated to the status of “northern” sport and locked away in the American attic spaces of Minnesota, Michigan, and Massachusetts. Sure, most of the NHL’s oldest franchises are American, but their placement fits the bill pretty closely; Detroit, Boston, Chicago, New York. All northern cities, all with winters naturally conducive to winter sport. It wasn’t until the NHL’s first expansion that hockey truly moved anywhere outside the northern states. Suddenly pro teams based in California and Missouri were trying to prove this northern sport was for everyone. Still though, the other expansion teams were based in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, and the majority of Americans continued to ignore hockey as a “northern” sport until the 1980 Miracle on Ice.

In 1980, the American Olympic Men’s hockey team was made up of a bunch of college kids from a few northern states. This rag-tag group went on to win Gold, defeating the hated Russians along the way. It’s a great story, but the part people like to focus on now is the crop of American players who hit the NHL about a decade later; Mike Modano, Mike Richter, Kevin Stevens, Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk, the list goes on. The sport which was used to living and dying in Canada, was finally looking at a getting place a little warmer, a little further south. Today, the NHL is a $3billion a year business across North America. 23 of 30 teams are American based. Teams in cities such as Phoenix, Nashville, Miami, and Los Angeles beg the question, “Is hockey still a winter sport?” It’s sometimes difficult to imagine hockey needing to grow at all in the USA. So why does it need to be grown? Well because $3billion each year is nice, but more would be nicer. If you’re trying to grow national interest in a sport, growing the sport in your country on the international stage is a good way to do it, especially if it has worked before. The thing about stuff that has worked before, though, is that it doesn’t work forever. Regardless of the outcome, the USA iced a team in Sochi that was, on paper, as able to win the Gold as anyone. The USA took silver in men’s hockey in 2002 and 2010. In 30 years, American international hockey has come a long, long way. Can it carry the game any farther into the US collective consciousness, though? Hockey may have hit the southern states, and may be actually accepted in cities like Tampa Bay and Anaheim, but it’s stuck in those cities and it can’t get out.

A funny thing about the United States is they have a huge population that is anything but confined to those major cities. The people of rural American are as spread out as the big, wide country itself, and although they don’t mind watching pro sports, they’d much rather cheer for a local team. A team they can relate to. A college team. It’s no secret that, in football, a player has made tons of money for his school before he ever makes a dime for himself (illegal payment of the athlete by schools aside). Fans line up and buy tickets and merchandise. Alumni will spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to keep a successful program, or replace an unsuccessful one, and college conferences make tons of money from TV contracts. College football isn’t popular because of the future stars the people are watching. College football (and basketball) is as popular as it is because rural Americans have an easier time relating to college sports. Football was born in college, basketball raised there. College sports predates pro sports, and the schools have become as much a part of America as the franchises of Major League Baseball. Whether you attended college or not, if you’re a rural American, there’s likely a college or university you relate to better than any pro sports team or city. And why not? There are an endless number of colleges spread out across the country, so they’re more geographically convenient. There are more former college players than former pros by a long shot, and more people went to college than will ever play pro sports. College sports are simply easier to relate to.

Face it, the American sports fan is almost always a college sports fan. Every Hollywood movie set in college has two groups battling each other, Nerds and Jocks, for a reason. In the US athletics and academics live together on the nation’s college campuses. College sports in the 1800s was the preamble to the professional sports we’ve enjoyed for over 100 years now, and many, many Americans continue the tradition of cheering for a local school, alma mater, or “family” college. American hockey has always been growing. In 1980 it took a leap and the rewards were seen over the next two decades. Those players, in turn, inspired another generation of young kids, who have brought the USA into the “elite” group of hockey nations. The US international game has done all it can to grow the sport within US borders. It can now only grow respect for the American game worldwide. It’s time to now grow the game inside US borders, and the way to do that is not an Olympic tournament in Russia or South Korea. You can’t expect Americans who aren’t already die-hard hockey fans to wake up in the middle of the night to watch hockey. No, the answer is to push the college game. Grow the college game. Sell the college game.

The NCAA has historically been mostly ignored by the NHL in favour of the Canadian Hockey League. One need only look at the list of recognizable Hobey Baker Award winners to find that out. Things have already started to change, though, and college is starting to take up some of those draft picks traditionally scooped up by the CHL and Europe. According to collegehockeyinc.com, at the beginning of the 1990s around 20% of NHL players had gone through the NCAA. That has grown to a little over 30%  continues to grow today. Not only that, players of every caliber are coming to the NHL through school. From tough guys like Jay Rosehill (UMD), George Parros (Princeton) and John Scott (MTU), to slick skating All-Stars like Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, TJ Oshie (all North Dakota), Tomas Vanek (Minnesota), and Max Pacioretty (Michigan) to half the Vancouver Canucks defense core (Kevin Bieksa-BGSU, Jason Garrison-UMD, Chris Tanev-RIT, Andrew Alberts-BC). Even a generous portion of the league’s new crop of hotshot goalies are college grads; Ben Scrivens went to Cornell, Jimmy Howard to Maine, Cory Schneider and Jonathan Quick played against each other a lot for Boston College and UMass respectively. Justin Schultz went the college route, attending the University of Wisconsin and playing for the Badgers, despite already being drafted by the Anaheim Ducks. After three years of development that came with an education to boot, Schultz signed with the Edmonton Oilers and finished the American Hockey League’s 2012-13 season with 18 goals and 48 points, putting him 6th among rookies and 1st among defensemen, despite only playing roughly half the season for the Oklahoma City Barons before spending the rest of the season in the NHL with the Oilers.

At the end of the day, the college sports which are popular are so because people are slow to change, and our likes and dislikes for life are greatly, though not completely, determined around age 20. More Americans who go through the college system and make the NHL will grow fandom of the game through friends and family who, if history is any indication, will continue to cheer that college team long after their son/brother/friend has made the NHL or not. More Canadian kids moving down to play in the US will help to grow the game as well. Players from the best nation in the sport coming to help a team is always welcomed. In the US, football is the sport because that was the college weekend event for so, so long. Hockey in unpopular in the south, not because it was invented in Canada or is played on ice, but because drunken frat boys don’t grow up, and haven’t for generations. It’s not just frat boys, men really, but understanding this gives us the next question we need to answer in order to grow the sport in the US: How do we get drunken frat boys to care about hockey?

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