There are certain sports in America that have never really reached the frenzied popularity of the Big 3–basketball, baseball, and the pinnacle, football. Hockey and soccer are the two that come to mind, because frankly even I can’t fault someone for not watching cricket or curling. And with the Stanley Cup finals recently wrapping up while the NBA Finals were just being set, I can’t help but realize just how badly the strike hurt hockey and I doubt the sport will ever recover.
I admittedly haven’t followed hockey all that much since about 2000. The Stars have been fairly bad up until this year and really I just had other sports to watch and didn’t miss it. This year, however, things changed. Being born and raised in Michigan, I was naturally rooting for the Red Wings to re-claim the Cup. But even with them in the finals, I didn’t start watching until game 4. But boy did I get sucked in at that point! Game 4 was nearly wrapped up with about 60 seconds to go and Pittsburgh had pulled their goalie. Somehow they managed to score with about 30 second remaining and forced the game into overtime. Which lead to double-overtime, which lead to triple overtime…where, sadly, the Penguins won the game. Now, I can stay up late if a game is holding my interest but even I have limits. So when the second over-time ended and my clock was nearing midnight, I thought “I’ll have to read about the end of this game tomorrow on-line”. But lo and behold, the eyelids only fluttered a few times during the intermission between double-and triple-overtime. The rest of the time I was literally on the edge of my seat and my heart was racing as I gritted my teeth, willing the puck not to cross the goal line on the Red Wings side. Every time Osgood got a save, I let a little breath out, but never completely relaxed. The time in each period seemed to fly by and I was genuinely excited watching the skill required to score a goal.
Now, that’s one of the reasons people cite for why people in America don’t follow hockey more closely. Frankly, that argument just doesn’t hold water with me. Baseball is supposedly America’s Past Time, and one of the most amazing feats to witness in a baseball game is a no-hitter. We cheer the concentration and cool that it takes to record a no-hitter or even a just a scoreless game from a pitcher. And yet that type of low scoring performance is not appreciated when it comes to hockey, and really soccer too, for that matter. So it seems hypocritical.
You really don’t need to know all the rules to follow a hockey game. About the only requirement is good vision because it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the whereabouts of that little round puck gliding back and forth on the ice! And the action is as fast-paced as it comes. In terms of physicality, it rivals football. Every other time someone’s vying for the puck they’re getting checked into the glass and that doesn’t hold a candle to the glove-dropping, all-out fights that break out in every match!
You can tell that the NHL is desperately trying to show that their sport should be included in the sports that even a casual fan watches. I got a good laugh out of the “Wired” feature that they had going on during the games. It’s the same concept as when the have players wired for sound in football. They put a mic on someone and try to capture the sounds of the game, but it loses it’s effectiveness in hockey. They would cut to the “Wired” segment during time outs in the game and the idea is that you’d feel closer to the action. It fell flat because all you really heard was the sound of someone’s stick moving around on the ice and some heavy breathing. I guess they don’t trash talk in hockey like they do in football. So they may want to dial that back next season because it’s really not adding anything to the viewing experience.
It helps too that I was able to watch the playoffs in HD. Hockey is a sport that is best viewed in person. More so than maybe any of other the other sports. And not just for the hotdogs and nachos. The level of action in a hockey game is so intense and you do lose something just watching that on tv. But the HD experience helps you see the game clearly and that helps in terms of following the puck.
I contrast that viewing experience with Game 1 of the NBA Finals because Game 1 just felt like a regular-season game. It felt like, “oh yeah, the Lakers are playing the Celtics this week”. Now, Game 2 just wrapped up as I write this, and that game had a little more drama built in, but it’s not as though the basketball vibe blows away the excitement level of hockey. So I fail to see why more people don’t watch hockey, and if they’re not watching now, I’m not sure when they’ll tune in again. Sidney Crosby is pretty darn amazing to watch and he’s only 20, so there’s your young phenom with the hype. The level of play in the finals was as good or better than any hockey I’ve seen. And the Red Wings are the marquee team and they just won the Cup. So I doubt it’s ever going to cross into another plane. And that means that most of the casual fans will continue to choose something like “The Mole” to watch when they could easily tune in a hockey game.
One random, final thought, speaking of programming on ABC. Supposedly ABC will begin airing a show called “Wipeout” this summer. The concept, given the commercial I saw, appears to be people competing in an obstacle course where the object is to see them wipe out in dramatic, kick-in-the-crotch type fashion. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this show is called MXC and they’ve shown it on Spike for years. MXC has been the source of many a tear-filled belly laugh late at night for me. The main difference I see so far is that MXC is a Japanese show where they dub in American voices, which adds to the sheer joy of viewing. The ABC version appears to be filmed in America, so I’m guessing it will be in English, and that will kill some of the entertainment. I shake my head at the whole thing. If we haven’t learned by now that our sense of humor in this country is very different than the rest of the collective world, I don’t know when we will. The Office is the only show that originated in another country that really works with American humor. Yet another source of tears-of-joy laughter in my day. Needless to say, I’ll be checking my TV Guide to see if Spike still shows MXC, just as a back-up plan in case this Wipeout lives up to it’s title…