The appeal of hockey, to an ever-shrinking insular fanbase that gets more and more shrouded by a new one (though not big enough), is that it’s not the other three sports. There are good reasons for that, we all love our cults. And then there are bad reasons for that, grounded in racism and sexism, hockey seen by some as the last bastion for the cantankerous white male who doesn’t want to change with the world.
Those who run hockey though, and a lot of people who follow it, would love for it to be like the other three major sports. The powers would love that kind of income, and the fans would just like the game to be more interesting, more fun, more relatable to more people. This past weekend was an excellent example of how hockey can’t seem to escape the clutches of the swamp it’s lived in for so long.
Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras, who has become Lord of Cool Stuff this season, did another cool thing against the Coyotes on Friday.
This is unquestionably the kind of thing that should happen more on NHL ice surfaces, and even if it doesn’t, it’s the kind of thing that the NHL should want people to think is going on regularly. It’s fun, it’s impressive as fuck, and it gets into the consciousness through social media because it makes for a great highlight almost instantly. More and more that’s how sports are consumed. And Zegras’ swag after it only feeds into that. That’s cool! Fans love it. Otherwise, why would we get constant glimpses of the suits that NBA or NFL players are wearing in the arena before the game?
But swagger and panache have always been the enemy of hockey. The old guard wants it as faceless as possible, to boost the overarching theme that it’s the ultimate team game (which it still can be with moments of individual brilliance sprinkled in). And in the darker corners, which are never too far away or that far buried in hockey’s psyche, their reasons for hating individualism and how it’s seen as “the other sports” is what the dog whistle sounds like. So you get horseshit like this:
In any other sport, if you suck ass as the Coyotes certainly do, and you lash out at the end of a game against the guys who kicked your ass six ways to Sunday, you’d be a laughingstock. The suspensions would flow like a river. There would be talking heads screaming on ESPN for weeks.
In hockey, it’s “the way.”
What brought this even more into the sporting attention this weekend was Coyotes TV analyst Tyson Nash cheering it on to the point he was practically frothing. Now, Nash has been an over-tanned jackass going back to his playing days. Nash would have been one of the palookas looking to sucker punch a Zegras or Troy Terry because he couldn’t have hoped to keep up. Players like Zegras and Terry left tire tracks on Nash’s chest in his playing days. HIs TV career hasn’t been much better, a highlight being him applauding Raffi Torres after he nearly ended Marian Hossa’s career in 2012.
Now, you can dismiss Nash as just a local TV broadcaster who is probably tired of watching the Yotes get their ass handed to them night after night. But that’s not the world we live in, as this stuff lights and then gets to everyone. This is what hockey looks like to everyone now, especially to those who don’t watch it regularly. And why would they?
Another problem for hockey is that so few of the skill players get into the TV booth. Because it’s generally the fourth liners and goons who are camera moths during their playing careers. Nash is here. Paul Bissonnette is one of TNT’s main analysts. Go through local broadcast teams and you’ll see a collection off fourth line plugs and bottom pairing d-men. At least Eddie Olczyk was a scorer, but even he has views that aren’t up with the modern times. Sure, Mark Messier and Chris Chelios are the studio guys for ESPN, but they come from a different time and Chelios still leans mesozoic. This is how the sport is presented, how it shows itself to the world. It’s not its best face.
Nash attempted an apology that only saw him sink into his moron-hole farther, and it’s clear he doesn’t get it. Another guy who doesn’t get it is Brent Sopel, who should know better, seeing as how he’s the self-appointed hero of the Kyle Beach-Chicago Blackhawks scandal of 2010.
There’s some pretty gross undertones to Sopel’s lament into turning into the other sports, ones hockey can’t hide from, given its history and the feelings of the parts of the fanbase they can’t escape and keep catering too. You know what he’s saying even if he’s not saying it.
And Sopel should know, if he wasn’t so busy celebrating himself, that the idea that hockey players can’t stand out is what leads to the awful things that happened to Beach and far too many others. The fear of “rocking the boat” and “going outside the room” being the biggest for hockey players is what keeps them quiet. It’s what keeps the people above them who should be protecting them instead trying to keep everything quiet and out of sight. Distraction is the enemy in hockey, after all. Being a victim is just seen as a different form of the enemy of individualism.
The two paths the NHL and hockey can walk could not be clearer. There’s the neon lights and joy of Zegras. There’s the dinosaur path of Nash. The fact that Jay Beagle hasn’t been suspended, and the fact that the guy in charge of such things is former goon George Parros, lets you know which path it’s still on.