Two mirror clichés, bandied about for so long now that we say them in automatic drone tones that really don’t have any truth behind them any more. The two clichés? Americans hate hockey.
And….Americans hate soccer.
Well, we’re into the NHL playoffs and, just as the Stanley Cup is hoisted above the ice mid-June, soccer’s much-anticipated World Cup will kick off in South Africa.
I have been as guilty as any of the millions of ardent American sports fans in knocking both hockey and soccer over the years, lamenting the up-and-down, up-and-down skating and running with rare goal production. And I won’t now claim to be a born-again rabid fan of either game. But I will readily admit that it has been my ignorance of the nuances of each of these sports, not any defect in either’s intrinsic artistry or athleticism, that has kept me from high appreciation.
27 million of us thrilled to that final Olympic hockey game in Vancouver. You didn’t have to know anything at all about blades on edges, backhanding with a stick, or setting up an assist to thrill to that game. We Americans are also criticized for enjoying only games we win, especially at the Olympics, but we immersed ourselves in and applauded that gold medal game, even though the Canadians took it.
The cynics among us, the ones who just can’t give up that “Americans Hate Hockey” refrain said “Just wait and see. This thriller of a hockey game will fade as fast as a Sydney Crosby slap shot and the NHL will immediately return to anonymity. Well, it’s undeniable that a drawn-out 82-game season with a playoff schedule that takes a winter’s game into a summer season where it overstays its welcome can’t command our rapt attention like a one-game Olympic gold medal final. Still, the naysayers chimed in. They predicted the NHL usual doldrums would ensue as soon as the Olympic flame waned. They reminded us that the Miracle on Ice that electrified us back in 1980 at the Lake Placid Olympics had such little positive translation to the NHL that it was a mere couple of months after the Games that the Atlanta Flames slipped in fan base to the point that they were forced to relocate to Calgary.
This time around, the Stanley Cup playoffs aren’t rivaling the NFL in popularity but the first round did leap in viewership by a huge 24% over 2009. NBC and Versus combined over the first round to draw 742,000 viewers per telecast.
The new Winter Classic is a sign that hockey is growing on the American sports’ fan’s radar screen, too. The idea is to play an outdoor game mid-NHL season in a famous football or baseball stadium, hopefully on a snowy, hot-chocolatly, wintry day.
The first Classic, in January, 2008, contested by the Penguins and the Sabres at New York’s Ralph Wilson Stadium, brought out
more than 72,000 fans and was such a success that it’s become a big annual event. The 2009 Classic, pitting the Blackhawks against the Red Wings at Wrigley Field drew the highest television ratings for any hockey game in 33 years.
NHL players are now coming out of non-traditional, non-winter geographical areas, such as Texas and California. Hockey may still be categorized as a niche sport, but there is no doubt that the fan base is evolving from a small, rabid, loyal few to a growing, newly passionate, larger number.
Some say soccer’s somewhat escalating popularity in the U.S. has been built on forgetting about the casual fan and catering to the hard-core only. Now let’s see if even the halo non-hard-core public among us show a sustained interest in the World Cup this summer. I’ll be there. And that’s a sign that many former skeptics will be tuning in as well.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And that’s The Score.
Banner Image: PITTSBURGH - MAY 12: A general view of the last game at Mellon Arena, played by the Montreal Canadiens and the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Mellon Arena on May 12, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Canadiens defeated the Penguins 5-2 to win the series 4-3 and advance to the Conference Finals. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)