Once Upon an NHL Fan

An NHL Fan Is Born

I remember it like it was yesterday. #12 evading defenders, skating over the line, and just as the big hit was about to be delivered, sending a pin point perfect pass to #16 who then blasted a screaming slap-shot past the helpless goaltender. It was 1991 and I was playing EA Sports “NHL Hockey” for the first time. I had chosen the St. Louis Blues because they were the closest team to my hometown of Kansas City and they had a cool logo, the

classic musical note with the wing attached. I didn’t know who #12 or #16 were at the time, but I could tell from the very beginning that they must be stars, whoever they were. I was killing it with these guys! As it would turn out, #12 and #16 were Adam Oates and Brett Hull, two of the games biggest stars. I was instantly hooked and started watching hockey on ESPN whenever I could. I’d buy hockey cards and started reading sports almanacs to learn more about the history of the game and its players. I became a St. Louis Blues fan and would attend games in St. Louis a few times a year. In short, I was the guy the NHL was trying to find in the 90’s and they found me. I bought jerseys, went to games, and followed the standings and stats daily. I sat on the edge of my couch through every dramatic playoff game. I’m 41 years old now. I make a good living and I now live in an NHL city…..and I don’t care anymore.

The Glory Days

The NHL of the 90’s, that was so exciting, so full of drama, and stars and personalities, started to die once the 2000 New Jersey Devils won their 2nd Stanley Cup. Their leading scorer had 72 points. The whole roster was full of guys like that. It had no star power other than their outstanding goalie. Their brand of hockey was about suffocating defense played by players who were gritty and tough and not graceful and skilled. One was as good as the next and it was devastatingly effective, both on the ice and on the books. Tough and gritty costs way less than graceful and skilled. Goaltenders started using equipment that was more bulky, meaning even fewer goals. At the same time, the NHL was working to eliminate fighting as part of the game. Yet another blow to the appeal of the game and the culture of the sport I had once loved so dearly. The “heavyweight” fighters were just as popular as the skilled scorers when I became a fan. Tie Domi and Bob Probert were almost as big a draw as Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. The combination of finding cost effective ways to win, cutting down on the fighting, and making goal-tending less of an art form and more about knowing where to be as you stacked your brick wall of pads, led to an NHL with few real stars.

Where The NHL Went Wrong

You MIGHT have heard about Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, if you follow the game closely. They aren’t on ESPN anymore, and lose all the benefits of that networks promotion and marketing. They are on NBC once a week, and on NBCSN a couple times a week. The die-hards still watch, but they aren’t drawing any new blood to the sport. When they got me to bite back in 1990, they had me, hook, line and sinker and I’m the one that got away. So have many others. I’d come right back again if the NHL of today was a lot more like the NHL of the 80’s and 90’s. Back then, I could read a stat sheet and identify who the stars of the game were. I could play a video game and wreak havoc on my opponents with #12 and #16 on the Blues, and know that #66 or #99 were forces to be feared. I’d watch on TV as special players like Steve Yzerman, or Jeremy Roenick made incredible, logic defying plays. I was able to take my kids to a game and easily point out that they should pay special attention to Joe Sakic, because he was special. Now I just look at it and see a bunch of guys jostling in front of the net, jostling in the corner, grinding and grinding to get the puck on net and fight it out rugby style to see if they can get the puck pushed into the net.

An NHL Fan Is Dead

Today’s NHL is not compelling, it isn’t thrilling, it doesn’t provoke any thoughtful analysis on strategy and most of all it has no star power. I can’t watch an NHL game and distinguish the difference between the first line center or the 4th line center. They are nearly the same guy. I suspect that there is another #12 and #16 out there on the ice, but the rules, the play style, the brick wall goaltenders, and the pay-scale have all conspired to turn the game into a contest of whose squad of grinders can out grind the others. When the powers that be wake up and make the changes to feature and reward high skills, I will come back too. Until then, I will crank up the old Sega Genesis and let #12 and #16 remind me of what a wonderful game hockey used to be…and could be again.

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Author: Gary Hamilton

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