I didn't grow up with hockey, and if you didn't grow up with a sport, it can be difficult to catch up as an adult. I've essentially known every Major League Baseball and NBA player since I was seven years old, so staying abreast of everyone every year is easy. With hockey, by the time I realized I sort of liked the sport, I was too far behind to catch up. My favorite team is the St. Louis Blues, but I can make no claim to being a true fan: I check their scores every morning after they play, but I couldn't name more than five players on the team. I like to pretend, but I'm not a real fan.
Of course, "not being a real fan," in most sports, makes you the target demographic. ESPN is the best example of a sports corporation maxing out the diehard market and thus selling itself to the sports tourists who just casually watch sports -- but they're hardly the only one. The entire sports industrial complex is based around assuming you have the most avid fans no matter what, that they're not going anywhere. Your profits are made from people only slightly paying attention.
But hockey is not like this at all. I think hockey exists only for the diehards. This leaves me often on the outside looking in when it comes to hockey. But it makes me freaking love hockey fans.
Tuesday night, I went to the Montreal Canadiens-New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden with Sports On Earth hockey writer Joe DeLessio and I was reminded once again how hockey fans are the greatest fans in the world. There is no such thing as a casual hockey fan. When you go to a baseball game, or a football game, or (especially) an NBA game, you will always find people only sort of keeping one eye on the game, checking their phones, there for conversation or social engagement rather than the game itself. There's nothing wrong with this, of course: Everybody who pays to get in can pass the time at the game however they'd like.
But you don't see this at hockey games. Hockey fans are into it, across the board, screaming and chanting ("Potvin sucks," still!) and stomping and going nuts, essentially for 2 ½ hours straight. Everyone's wearing a hockey sweater -- and it was a little crazy how many different names I saw on the back of Rangers fans' jerseys. Everybody at a Knicks game has Carmelo on their back, but I counted at least 35 different names on the back of jerseys in my section alone -- everyone's intense and everyone knows everything about everyone on the ice. It's like a massive family of people glaring in one direction.
Hockey fans are just so dorky, and I say that with nothing but respect: As a sports fan, I consider it the ultimate compliment. There is no posing, no ulterior motive, no nothing other than obsession with the game itself. There's a manic look in the eye of a hockey fan that doesn't compare to anything you see in the other three major North American sports; I might be a lunatic during Cardinals playoff games, but you can still tell, no matter how much I'm jumping around and biting the shoulders of everyone in my vicinity, that I'm aware the world will not, in fact, end if the Cardinals lose. The planet outside of the game exists, and I plan on returning to it. You don't get this from hockey fans. Hockey is all there is, and hockey is all that matters.
You can tell a hockey fan immediately upon meeting them, whether it's from that glint in their eyes, the ever-slightly-jutting-forward body language momentum, the jersey sweater sticking out from under their suit jacket, or the hair. (It's actually the hair. It's the hair. Has to be the hair.) They love their sport in a way few people love anything.
This is why discussions of whether hockey can "break through," whether it's a "mainstream" sport, are completely beside the point. Hockey fans could care less whether or not you accept their sport, whether you think it worthy of coverage, whether it won its time slot in the Nielsen ratings. You are a mere visitor to their lands. If you enjoy the game, that's great, but if not, they don't need you. This will always be their game.
The Canadiens and Rangers are both Original Six teams, and much fuss was made out of that, but not in the faux-nostalgia way we do it in other sports. There is a sense that the game itself is all that matters, that the Original Six is less a hazy look at a "better" time and more a reminder of what the game is at its core: A regional game for obsessives. The National Hockey League has had its problems, to say the least, but none of that has ever affected The Game. Hockey isn't something you pick and choose based on frustration over labor strife; it simply is, and forever is, and we can only hope more fallible humans just do their best to stay out of its way.
I'm never going to make it all the way as a hockey fan; it's not in my bones the way it is for true fans. (Baseball is always going to have that place for me.) But this is my problem, not hockey's. Honestly: I wish every sports fan loved their sports, their team, their fandom, as much as hockey fans love theirs. I wish every person loved anything as much as hockey fans love hockey. Game on.
Also: "Slap Shot." Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you're yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you're pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I'll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.