Why do People Like Hockey?

Dear Sports Fan,

So, the NHL is back from it’s most recent labor issues. My housemate is very excited. I’m not. Hockey leaves me uninterested in a way other sports don’t. What am I missing? Why do people like hockey?


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Dear Mitch,

Thanks for your question. I happen to love hockey more than any sport I never played seriously. Here are seven reasons why I love hockey, why I think most hockey fans like hockey, and why you might like it too if you want to and you stick with it for a few weeks.

  1. You can see the puck — in the old days this was the number one objection for dubious and myopic hockey haters.[1] “You can’t even see the puck!” they would say. And, to give them some credit, it was hard to see the puck on a small standard def television. In fact, this problem was taken so seriously that for one season Fox put a computer chip into the puck so that they could add a glowing halo and a comet trail to their hockey broadcasts in real time! This was pretty terrible. Now, HD TVs have solved this problem — you can see the puck! At least almost all of the time!
  2. The Stanley Cup — the Stanley Cup is the championship trophy for hockey. It is old and enormous and shiny and it has great traditions that go with it. As a matter of principle, no hockey player will touch the trophy unless their team just won it. When a team wins it, one player, usually the captain, will lift the trophy above their head, (no small feat, it’s three feet long and 35 pounds,) kiss it, skate around a bit, and pass it to one of their teammates who will do the same until all have had a turn. During the summer after they win it, each player gets a day with the cup. They can take it to their home town, take it to their favorite vacation spot, to visit a hospital, or a bar… they drink champagne from it or eat cereal. Some have slept with it in their beds.
  3. The Playoff Beard — I’ve written about the playoff beardbefore but suffice it to say that watching a hockey team you root for get hairier and hairier is an oddly satisfying part of a successful playoff run.
  4. 45 seconds — Hockey players generally play between 30 seconds to a minute at a time before they hop over the boards back to their bench and are replaced by a teammate. These short bursts of activity are called shifts and they are the source of many of the elements that make hockey unique and enjoyable. Because players play in such short bursts, they can go all out when they are on the ice. It also contributes to the hockey ethic of playing through injuries. All sports have this to some extent, but hockey players take it to an impressive extreme. I think part of this is that you can grit your way through injuries  for 45 second bursts that you wouldn’t even think about trying to play with if you were playing 90 minutes like in soccer or 35 like in basketball. Watching teams change lines (groups of players who usually play together) is the easiest “advanced” thing to watch in hockey because goals are often scored against a team who is unable to change switch their players out and get stuck with tired guys on the ice or who try to sub at a bad time and are stuck with people not in the right position.
  5. It makes you go “aaaahhH!” — I watch a lot of sports and none make me squeal as much as hockey. It’s so fast, so suddenly desperate, so chaotic that it always finds a way to surprise. Whether it’s the power of a long shot that hits the back of the net at 90+ miles per hour, an open ice body check that sends someone flying, or a scramble of six or more guys in front of the net desperately trying to score/prevent the other guy from scoring, hockey will almost always find a way to surprise and delight.
  6. Grace — This absolutely is hockey playing against type, but it’s nonetheless true. Think a little bit about what’s going on when you watch a hockey game: ten guys wearing armor and holding spears are moving around at 20 miles per hour with razor sharp knives on their boots. The goal is to get a tiny little piece of vulcanized rubber into a net and to do this they pass the puck back and forth, do all sorts of fancy footwork and stick-handling, and shoot with surprising accuracy, all while the other team is taking every opportunity to physically knock them off their feet. There’s an amazing amount of skill, strength, and grace involved in every hockey game.
  7. Blood (and Consent) — Okay, yes. There’s also a lot of violence. There’s no way that I can do this subject justice. The New York Times’ three part story about Derek Boogaard is an amazing and disturbing read. What I can say is this — if we are okay as a society with violent sports (football, MMA, boxing, horse racing,) I think hockey does it about as well as it could be done. There are surprisingly few violent hits to the head. Compared to football, it’s no contest — the fluidity of the sport ensures that most contact is body to body. And fighting, always a controversial topic, is done in as controlled and ritualized way as possible. This is not to say that sometimes fists aren’t thrown in anger, but most of the time it happens more like the way Tanner Glass described his fight from a day or two ago in the New York Times.

“I just said ‘hi’ to him at the face-off,” Glass told Pittsburgh reporters. “I squared off against him. He said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ I said, ‘Sure.’

“He said, ‘Good luck,’ ” Glass said. “I like when a guy does that.”

And believe it or not, when these guys are done with a fight (as soon as one of them looses his footing or is otherwise at a clear disadvantage,) they will often congratulate each other on a job well done. It’s bizarre to outsiders like me but because players are sometimes miked for television, I’ve actually heard it before.

So there you have it Mitch, seven reasons why people like hockey. I hope one or a few of these connect with you enough to give it a shot or at least to understand what your housemates are excited about!

Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. i.e. my Dad

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