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John Feinstein Blog: Hockey Fans Still Distinct Minority Across Sports

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(Credit: Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

(Credit: Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

People love to argue about sports — specifically which sports are worth watching and caring about and which sports are not.

Try telling a soccer fan that the game is 90 minutes of meaningless running back and forth occasionally interrupted by something worth watching and prepare to duck. Not only will you be told that you don’t understand the game — which you don’t — but that you are a philistine who is unworthy of even talking about the beautiful game much less being allowed to watch it.

Millions of people live for NASCAR. Millions of other see a lot of left turns and people dressed like billboards.

Baseball is either the most fascinating and intricate game ever invented or it is three hours — or four when the Red Sox play the Yankees — of watching grass grow. Football is America’s Game unless you are one of those people who see it only as an excuse for grown men to hammer one another mercilessly and often needlessly.

And then there is hockey and basketball or, specifically, the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association. Let’s leave college basketball out of the argument for the moment because it raises an entirely different set of issues, such as how can you enjoy a game that has been so corrupted by the people running it.

The NBA playoffs began last weekend and they will stretch — or drag, depending on your point of view — into late June. The NHL playoffs won’t start until next week because of the owner-player lockout of last fall and winter and they MIGHT be over before Fourth-of-July.

Both take too long and both have too many teams playing and too many games.

This though is where the argument begins. Some of us are passionate about hockey. We grew up with it, we understand it and for us, few things are more dramatic than a Stanley Cup playoff game in overtime.

Others are just as passionate about how boring it is. Soccer on skates some would say. When I was a young pup reporter at The Washington Post, the two columnists were Ken Denlinger and Dave Kindred. Both were superb at what they did, smart, reasoned and educated men who were devoted to their craft and—luckily for me—to mentoring those who were trying to learn that craft.

The exception to all of this was hockey.

“A bunch of fast breaks on skates with hundreds of turnovers,” was the way Kindred described it once.

This was shortly after Denlinger had walked into the newsroom one morning and proudly announced: “I have built an insurmountable 1-0 lead on Kindred in hockey columns for this season.”

He wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t wrong either.

Two weeks ago over dinner at The Masters I commented to Kindred that I was very excited about the possibility that the Islanders might make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.

“Oh, did they go ahead and play hockey again this season?” Kindred asked. “I didn’t know that.”

The Kindred-Denlinger approach to hockey pretty well sums up the way legions of non-hockey fans feel. My friend Tony Kornheiser insists that every city with a hockey team has exactly 19,000 hockey fans and, “they all go to every game because none of them have a life.”

Years ago, Kornheiser and I were getting on an airplane (that in itself is major news) to fly home to Washington when I noticed that The Washington Capitals were on the plane. In those days, hockey teams still flew commercial and the Caps had caught an early morning flight that stopped in Detroit, which is where Kornheiser and I were flying from.

“Hey look,” I said to Tony as we walked between the sleeping players, “the Caps are on this flight. Guess they couldn’t get a non-stop.”

Tony looked at me as if I had just told him we were on the wrong plane. He shook his head and said, “You see, this is your whole problem in life. You RECOGNIZE hockey players.”

He’s probably right. I not only recognize hockey players, I still shout at the television set—much to my wife’s chagrin, except when the baby is sleeping in which case chagrin turns to fury—when the Islanders are playing. I like to talk hockey on the radio show. Fortunately for me, all three of my partners—Andrew Bogusch, Max Herman and Peter Bellotti—recognize hockey players and probably yell at TV sets on occasion too: Andrew at the Rangers; Max at the Devils; Peter—like me—at the Islanders.

Here’s the problem: We’re a distinct minority and we know it. Far more people listening to the radio show want to hear pick-by-pick breakdowns of the NFL draft or about Kobe Bryant tweeting while the Lakers are losing a playoff game. On Monday, Max asked if perhaps we should get an NBA guest for Tuesday’s show. My response was, “Why? Nothing has happened yet.” He didn’t disagree. I would have liked a hockey guest but we are all aware of our boss Eric-the-intern’s edict: “You can talk hockey AT TIMES but don’t overdo it.”

So we compromised and got a baseball guest.

TV ratings make it very clear that the NBA is FAR more popular than the NHL. Kornheiser’s assessment of 19,000 fans per city might be an exaggeration but not by all that much. And hockey is even more localized in interest than the other sports. The other day I suggested to Matt Rennie, one of my editors at The Washington Post, that a story on the Detroit Red Wings, should they miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years, might be a good idea.

Rennie’s a hockey fan. More specifically he’s a FANATIC Red Wings fan who sneaks into Caps game when the Red Wings are in town actually wearing a Wings jersey. (Editors, like reporters are supposed to at least pretend to be un-biased. Rennie, not so much when it comes to Detroit teams and the University of Michigan. His hero in life is Red Berensen, who 95 percent of you may not know is the legendary hockey coach at Michigan).

Here’s what Rennie, the hockey/Red Wings fan said to that suggestion: “There’s not a soul reading this newspaper who cares about the Red Wings.”

I couldn’t really argue. After all, any minute now Wizards owner Ted Leonsis is going to declare for the 1,000th time that the Wizards (29-53 this season for those scoring at home) are ‘headed in the right direction.’ The Redskins will draft someone on Friday with the 51st pick in the draft and that will take up three pages in the sports section. And the Nationals, Washington’s newly adopted team (now that they’re winning) are only about five months removed from clinching a division title.

Of course the Caps are big news in Washington too. They get a lot of space in the newspaper.

And all 19,000 of us who care read every word.

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