Sometimes we all get caught up in the business of trying to copy our competitors. Being "the same" as other, more celebrated sports may not be the route to a deeper popularity in the North American sporting community. As hockey lovers, we should emphasize the unique aspects of our sport's culture and use them to broaden hockey's appeal.
Why not start with the celebration of the NHL’s greatest accomplishment, winning the Stanley Cup? Think for a moment how different our award ceremony is: The Cup is brought to center ice by its formal "guardians." Commissioner Gary Bettman makes a short speech and then presents the trophy to the captain of the winning team. The captain takes a victory lap with the Cup aloft and then passes it off until each member of the winning team does a lap. The players, coaches and training staff then gather on the ice, usually accompanied by the GM, for an informal group photo.
We have all witnessed this scenario so many times that we have lost focus as to how different it is from the award ceremonies in other sports. Recall, if you will, the presentation of baseball's World Series Trophy (a.k.a. the Commissioner’s Trophy). In a clubhouse room far from the center of the playing field, commissioner Bud Selig appears with the trophy. After a brief speech, he awards it to the owner of championship team, who then makes an acceptance speech on behalf of the team and brings the GM on stage. The coaching staff and players are not center stage.
Think for a moment. The award presentations in the NFL and NBA mirror those of Major League Baseball. Hockey stands alone. What does this say about the difference in the hockey culture? What makes our sport unique?
The most obvious conclusion is that hockey is definitely considered to be more of a "players game" than the other major team sports. Team chemistry and mutual reliance on each other is crucial in hockey. Players must find solutions by dealing with their teammates. Above all, they are accountable to each other. This is not a paramilitary culture with inflexible directions ordered by a hierarchy. The players have to sort things out.
In hockey, the dominance of an individual player is not as great. Other than goalies, who are clearly apart from the action for periods of time, the greatest players cannot play more than half of the game. Having the best team is far more crucial than having the most dominant individual player.
Consider the championship trophies of the four major team sports. Even rabid fans of the other three sports may have trouble identifying the shapes of their respective trophies, let alone their names. I venture to say every hockey fan, regardless of age, can identify the Stanley Cup. Hockey is the only major team sport where the name of the trophy itself identifies the championship tournament.
Hockey players probably adapt to the family atmosphere on a team because of the role their own families play in their development. Young hockey players need ice time to develop their skills. Having a young hockey player or players often means a total family commitment. Early-morning and late-night trips, family members sacrificing for each other and grandparents, uncles and aunts chipping in are all key parts of the minor hockey culture.
For these reasons, the annual NHL draft is often the culmination of the family commitment. It is different than the other sports. Entire families travel to the site of the draft and experience the thrill of the player's selection (or grieve a non-selection) as a family unit.
Hockey players and hockey families have a unique image in North American sports. I have had conversations with two well-known North American sports media figures, neither of whom seem to appreciate hockey. When I bluntly told one of them he appeared to be dismissive of hockey, he replied he did not understand the game, but loved "hockey people." I heard the other gentleman state on a public podium that hockey had the classiest people of any sport.
Let's not lose our uniqueness in the mad rush for popularity. It may be our most endearing trait.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He will be blogging for THN.com this season.