Forget Shaq and Becks - hockey's where the action is

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 June, 2004, 12:00am

They huddle in the catacombs of this city like some kind of secret society. They drink lots of beer. They scream and they shout and scratch their heads because most of the world chooses to ignore their passion. They are the hockey fans of Hong Kong, a subterranean species gathering in the basement of the Charterhouse Hotel at Champs sports bar where they are currently indulging in that most sublime pleasure known as the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Now if I have to tell you how enjoyable and riveting playoff hockey is, then you are beyond help.

You're probably hopelessly adrift on some sort of silly tangent like watching Kobe Bryant and his dysfunctional Los Angeles Lakers or that hideous new tattoo David Beckham got on the back of his neck in time for next week's European Championship.

Well, to each his own I say. However, I would be totally remiss were I not to at least try to enlighten you somewhat to the joys of playoff hockey. I said enlighten, not convert.

There is a marked difference between the two and because the powers that be at the National Hockey League have failed to recognise this difference, the game is on the precipice of disaster.

You can't teach a rock to swim and you can't force someone to like hockey. Forcing hockey into places where it clearly does not belong is a fool's work and the name of that fool is NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

Like any sport, you need an indigenous base preferably with a snowy clime. Hockey has little chance of thriving in Ethiopia or Sri Lanka. It's a cold weather sport, plain and simple. It's also a very expensive sport to play.

By the time you finish paying for all your equipment the bill will come to around US$1,000. Unless you live in the Arctic Circle, you have to pay for ice time as well. It's not quite as easy as playing soccer barefoot in a nearby field.

Of course, there is no rule that says you need to have played the game in order to enjoy it, but it certainly helps. So when you add it all up its little surprise that hockey is not the game of the masses and its also not surprising that hockey fans in Hong Kong have been forced underground.

Since ESPN in Asia decided to take hockey off the air, Hong Kong Cable stepped up with a pay-per-view package just in time to save puckish connoisseurs, which brings us back to enlightening the laymen on the joys of playoff hockey.

Yeah, I know you think hockey is a beastly and savage sport played by stick-swinging hooligans. But if you could get past the superficial hype and watch a game or two, man oh man, what a treat.

The Stanley Cup finals being played by the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Calgary Flames has been an end-to-end, non-stop plethora of action.

Sometimes they go 10 minutes without a whistle. Compare that to the NBA playoffs where the last two minutes take an hour and a half to play and features Shaquille O'Neal shooting one ugly free throw after another.

The Flames and Lightning are playing pond hockey, the action is brisk.

It's the way hockey was meant to be played and like a bottle blonde the game desperately needed to get back to its roots.

It's just kind of ironic that it took teams from Tampa Bay and Calgary to do it.

Both these teams are low budget squads who skate hard and hit hard. Neither has much pedigree. Tampa Bay Florida? Little chance of the Hockey Hall of Fame relocating there.

And the Calgary Flames are actually named after that seminal event in hockey history, the burning of Atlanta by General Sherman's troops.

The Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary in 1980 and over the last 24 years have had mixed results.

Currently, they feature perhaps the best player in the game in Jarome Iginla, the Canadian-born son of a Nigerian academic whom the NHL would love to market in a multi-ethnic Tiger Woods way.

But the classy Iginla plays in Calgary, not New York, and on a fairly anonymous team. In fact both teams are very anonymous, which helps to explain why the series has the lowest ratings ever for a Stanley Cup final on US network TV.

Hockey just signed a paltry US TV deal for a fraction of the multi-billion dollar pacts the NBA and NFL have.

Bettman and his crew have expanded the league to an absurd 30 teams in places like Nashville, Tennessee and Columbus, Ohio.

But revenue hardly meets expenses and because of that the league will likely shut down for a year or two in order to get a new labour deal.

The simple truth is that hockey is not a major sport in the US or a lot of other places for that matter.

But hockey is a wildly entertaining game and this is particularly highlighted during the playoffs.

Hopefully you already know this. If not, don't say I didn't tell you.