NHL fans are being well served by a great play-offs
So what if ice hockey is just a niche sport? These games are serving up great action from some of the game's legends right now
It almost seems like a Faustian pact for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. If he had been asked one month ago what he would sacrifice to have the three biggest US markets plus the most decorated and storied franchise in the game's history in the final four of this year's play-off, Bettman would probably have offered anything and everything. But luckily for Bettman there is no need to sign a deal with the devil.
This year's Eastern Conference final featuring the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens and the Western Conference final with the Chicago Blackhawks taking on the Los Angeles Kings is borderline orgasmic for the NHL, particularly when you compare it with the final four of the NBA: Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Miami. Take Miami out of the equation and this looks more like a gathering of the leading chapters of the John Deere appreciation society than the crowning of champions in the great hip-hop, urban game.
But while it's hardly Broadway or Hollywood, the NBA play-offs are still absolutely destroying the NHL in TV ratings in the US. Of course, this is far from a shock. Basketball is infinitely more popular than ice hockey in the US and the NBA has long been a star-driven league. Viewers love watching superstars like Kevin Durant and care little that he plays in Oklahoma City, the 82nd largest metropolitan area in North America.
Team is often the secondary focus in the NBA, but in the NHL the team is everything and it's something of a source of perverse pride among hockey fans. In their hearts they know their passion is at best a niche sport in the US. And while many are not happy with that, I'm not sure why.
Real hockey fans rail at franchises in places like Nashville, Phoenix and North Carolina. Despite the best efforts by the league and local teams, these are simply not hockey towns and everyone knows it. When the Thrashers left Atlanta, the continent's 10th largest metropolitan area, for Winnipeg, the 90th largest, in 2011, it was actually a step forward. They were leaving a place where high school football practices garner more ink then hockey to a place where the game is revered. It makes perfect sense. I am all for growing the game but not at the expense of its roots, and this was also the second time a team from Atlanta left for Canada.
For many of you hockey nuts living out here in Asia who have routinely complained about the spotty coverage both on regional TV and in the media, we need a dose of perspective. Personally, I love the game. But I also realise its significance in the sporting firmament and I can enjoy it just as much regardless of the fact that most people in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur hardly care.
It's tough to grow a game globally when it costs a minimum of US$1,000 to outfit a kid to play it and that's before paying the exorbitant fees for renting arenas. Through no fault of its own, hockey has become almost as elitist as golf. You want to play basketball or soccer, all you need is a ball. Hockey, you have to get kitted out like RoboCop just to step on the ice.
Here in Hong Kong they have done a remarkable job of creating the semblance of a hockey culture from scratch. But this is also a very affluent locale with high levels of disposable income. You simply cannot sell this game in places like Indonesia or Thailand, let alone Alabama or Mississippi. I have a few American friends who are conversant, passionate and knowledgeable about the game. But really it's only a few. Most will see this is a hockey column and take a pass on reading it.
I don't really like it but I get it. And I know that two million people came out for the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup victory parade in Chicago last year. But in a town where the most popular baseball team has gone over 100 years without a World Series championship and the football team almost 30 years without a Super Bowl, it's understandable they would embrace an exciting young team on the verge of a dynasty. Despite all that, the hockey fans I know in Chicago freely admit the Hawks are still, at best, the number four team on the town's sporting totem pole.
Regardless, this is as good as it gets for the NHL. Three of the league's Original Six teams are left in the mix as well as a powerful club in Los Angeles and it has been great hockey to boot.
I'm digging it big time and I don't really care who isn't.