Hey! Yeah, you, over there, Average NHL Fan, with the drooping flag and the mournful shuffle. Hold on a sec. We need to talk.
How’ve you been doing? How’s the family? Your grandmother, really? I thought she was more of a knitter. Oh, that was the other one. Well, good for her. And the house? Still living on that street over by that other street? Yeah, that’s a nice place you’ve got, I wouldn’t move either.
So yeah, this lockout, eh? Fucking lockout. Sucks, doesn’t it? I know, I know. I’m staring down the barrel of all these Movie Nights in Canada, man, what the fuck am I going to do on Saturday nights? Goddamn Toronto in the winter, a girl can only handle so many hipster clubs and sushi restaurants. Not that average fans like you and I can afford sushi like those millionaire players. Fuck, man. I know how it is.
Anyway, so, you know, me and some of the other hockey writers have been talking about you. Not in a bad way, I swear. I mean, we love you. All those awesome YouTube videos, wow. I would never have thought to set a Eric Karlsson highlight reel to Slowdive. That was brilliant. And the frankenjerseys! I know Wyshynski gives you shit about it, but really, so creative. You’re a clever motherfucker, you are.
But we’ve been having this debate about you, and the crux of it is this: do you only care about the NHL, or do you care about hockey as a whole? Sure, you’re an NHL fan- we all are, amirite?- but since there’s no NHL now (awww, don’t cry), do you think you could get into other kinds of hockey? Because let me tell you there are like a thousand other kinds of hockey in the world, and me and some of my bros were kind of thinking that if you got into one or two of them it might make this whole lockout a little bit easier to take. But then we talk to these other guys, and they’re all like, no man, there’s no substitute for the NHL, average fans don’t give a crap about any of those other levels. So I thought I’d just ask you directly and see if you could settle this for me.
Oh, really? Just the NHL?
Fuck, man, I’m not going to lie, that’s a little bit of a downer.
Okay, listen, I need to tell you something, and it’s not going to sound nice. It’s going to sound like I’m lecturing you, and you’re gonna be like, fuck, there goes Ellen being a pretentious twat and telling me what to think again. But it ain’t like that. I’m not trying to lecture you or talk down to you, I’m not issuing a command or a mandate. This isn’t a seminar. This is a plea. If it helps, as you read this, imagine me down on my knees, hands clasped, looking up at you with big blue plaintive eyes like I’m begging you to please please please dogsit my incontinent Pomeranian while I go backpacking in Peru for a month. I know I can’t make you do anything and I would never dream of trying. I’m just hoping I can persuade you to carefully consider the following statement:
You do not need as high a level of hockey as you think you do.
Yes, the NHL, when it chooses to exist, is the highest level of hockey in the world. Yes, that means something, but it really doesn’t have that much to do with your experience as a fan. In fact, most of the things that separate NHL hockey from it’s near rivals are small and ephemeral. It’s true there are glorious highlight moments in the NHL that no other league could possibly offer, but if you’re an ordinary fan of an ordinary team watching any ordinary game, you don’t see all that many of those. Hell, if you’re a Canadian fan, there’s a pretty good chance your team is shitty and barely gives you twenty mind-bending highlights in the 5000ish minutes they play in a regular season. The moments of offensive brilliance that the NHL sells itself on are authentic miracles, but they’re pretty goddamn rare. In an average game, most of the signposts that let you know you’re watching the NHL and not some lesser league are tiny, and mostly defensive, details- the precision of the positioning, the efficient execution of the systems.
Here’s the thing: you and I (unless you’re like a scoring chance counter or something, but in that case you’re no ordinary fan and why are you even reading this?) don’t watch most games closely enough to see all these little things. We don’t sit there, eyes glued to the TV, tracking the line matches, evaluating positional play, and noting zone entry patterns. We go out to noisy bars or watch at home with groups of friends. We drink while we’re watching, and carry on half-assed conversations about Miriam’s crazy ex and the fucking douchebag in accounting and can you believe I have to get the muffler repaired again? We watch with one eye on the iPhone, texting or tweeting or facebooking or pinteresting or whatever the hell you kids are up to these days. The hockey we see is not the ultrarefined, sophisticated game of milliseconds and millimeters that they’re playing. The hockey we see is a sludge of guys exchanging possession until OH MY GOD WHAT WOW WOWOWOW OH CRAP well what was I talking about again?
This is the dirty little secret of all NHL fans: we don’t watch for the perfect execution of precision skill. The perfect execution of precision skill in hockey is boring. Unless you’re a Devils fan (you’re not a Devil’s fan, are you?), you’re just not that into disciplined gap control and tight defensive play. You and me, we’re watching for the breakdowns. We’re watching for the mistakes, the misplays and the miscalculations, the bad turnovers and unclogged lanes, for the moment when the system breaks down and the game degenerates into scramble and chaos. The best offense in hockey is a shitty opposing defense, and we love the NHL most in the games when it falls far short of being ‘the best hockey in the world’. I know it’s hard to hear, buddy, but you and me, we love bad hockey. And oh man, there’s a lot of bad hockey in this world.
The three components that make a hockey game exciting to watch- not evaluate, mind you, just watch in a casual, hey-let’s-go-out-and-watch-a-game-kinda-way- are speed, violence, and drama, and the NHL ain’t got a lock on any of these things. Other levels of hockey are very capable of providing all the elements of a good game-watching experience, if you give them a chance.
You interested in speed? Go watch major junior. Why, those healthy young men have only had two or three serious joint surgeries so far! They’re basically just little human-shaped clumps of pure stamina! Barreling around out there, desperately hoping to impress everyone with their enthusiasm and moxie! The defensive play of these eager kids leaves much to be desired, but for rapid exchange of chances and raw jump, the average elite teenager game beats the hell out of the elite adult game.
You interested in violence? No? Oh, yeah, of course, you’re not that kind of person. Neither am I, *WINK*. Well, if you were the kind of hockey fan who was into fighting and hitting and that kind of thing, you know, you should check out the minor leagues. AHL, ECHL, CHL- LNAH if you’re really hardcore- if you want to see large mammals thwacking each other, they’ve got plenty of it. You know those third and fourth line grinders you love so much? The fan favorites who may not have slick hands but will do whatever it takes to help their team win? The guys who aren’t afraid to go into the corners, drop the mitts, or level a guy who’s looking the wrong way, if that’s what Coach wants? The lunchpail, salt-of-the-earth, passion-for-the-game Good Canadian Boys? Man, there are whole leagues made out of just those guys. Sick of your fan dollars going to spoiled millionaires and billionaires? Spend ‘em on the guys who make $30K a year for taking punches in the head and spend half the season in the back of a bus. And if the lack of eliteness bugs you, if the grimy concrete arenas and lack of beer selection get you down, just imagine you’re in Slapshot. It’s not shitty hockey, my friend. It’s old-school hockey.
And drama, kitten? Drama is universal. It can’t be predicted in advance and it can’t be forced, but it’s everywhere, because its roots aren’t in skill level but in the narrative of a game. The moments that make a great watching experience come from mounting tension and the tides of emotion, and those are everywhere. I mean, I’ve seen some great NHL games, no doubt, but a surprising number of the games I remember best had nothing to do with this ‘best league in the world’. The best blowout I’ve ever seen was in Oshawa, where John Tavares scored four goals in a 10-0 victory. The worst violence I’ve ever seen was in a beer league game in Taipei, when a player leaped off the bench and brought his stick down across the back of an opponent’s neck like a headsman attempting a fiberglass decapitation. The most insane non-call? A zero-zero goaltending duel in Ottawa, when the puck creeped over the opposing goalie’s line in OT and he snatched it back and everyone in my section could see and rose up screaming at the ref, who nevertheless swept the game-winner away with his arms. The most emotional game I’ve ever seen live was the final of the 2010 Challenge Cup of Asia. The most emotional game I’ve ever seen on TV was the final of the 2010 Olympics. There’s a lot to see in the NHL, yes, but there’s a lot to see beyond it as well.
The truth is this: the only really important thing the NHL gives you that no other hockey can is your own love. When you’ve cared about a team for decades, the team that’s been in your city and on your TV your entire life, the team of your father and maybe your grandfather, you are bound up with that team’s story in a way you cannot be with any other. Every time you watch them, you’re not just watching the game in front of you, but a whole storyline that stretches back to heroes long retired and forward to prospects still to come. If you tracked the erratic path of my thoughts while I watch a Habs game, in between the complaints and hopes for the match at hand you’d find fragments of Ken Dryden quotes mingling with images of P.K. Subban in his draft year, memories of Montreal snow drifts piled up against restaurant windows and red flags tangled in iron balconies, a melange of the whole history of the team and the whole history of my life as a hockey fan flickering between the whistles. That experience of watching, that mix of self and team, past and present and future that you have with you favorite franchise… nothing will ever replace it. I know that.
But it’s not really about replacing it. It’s about learning something new. These lesser teams and lesser leagues, they have their storylines too, they have their ghosts, their rivalries, their aspirations. It takes a little bit of work at the beginning to learn them, of course, you have to do a bit of reading or a bit of chatting to get the context. But it is there, and once you get some of it, you might find that it can provide some semblance of the narrative satisfaction you usually get from the NHL. Not as deep, maybe, not as strong, but enough. Enough to keep you entertained. Enough to have a good time while you’re waiting. And when the NHL comes back, hey, you’ll know a little more about it than you did before- a little bit more about the prospects and the grinders, a little bit more about the game.
Just give it a try, okay?
It’s not like you have anything better to do.