Curious and irrelevant: The NHL chase for ESPN and the casual fan

The problem is the league itself. How do you bottle what they're serving now at the United Center, and at The Joe in Detroit, and in Pittsburgh, Boston, etc., and make me -- the know-nothing borderline hockey follower -- into a full-fledged NHL fan, TV viewer and occasional paying customer? Because if you can't get me -- and there are lots of hockey tire-kickers just like me -- then the league is never going to be more than a boutique sport in this country.

>>ESPN.com's Gene Wojcie- ... Wojcie- ... Wojcie-not-gonna-watch-hockey anymore

In a way, I understand this attitude, because I am the converse: I watch hockey religiously, yet baseball bores me, football and I long ago parted ways, and the NBA and I were never even properly introduced. We have many choices for our time and money in life, and I ultimately decided other major North American sports weren't carrying enough weight to attract mine.

But there appears to be a difference between fans like me and some of these "mainstream" sport followers and writers: They apparently need popular validation for their sport -- to have it be what EVERYbody's talking about. I, myself, do not.

Nonetheless, the NHL is a business, so while I rather enjoy some aspects of its niche sport status (more on that in a moment), I understand that owners want to increase its visibility, its popularity and its reach into heavily populated "non-traditional" markets. Some of its attempts to appeal to the casual fan -- the Fox glow puck comes to mind, as does pretending Michael Jordan's presence at a game "validates" the Hawks -- turn my stomach, but I still can't blame a league for trying.

Yet to the extent the NHL fumbles or fails in its quest to find new purchase for its seed, I don't mind: It's actually kind of nice to not have to hear "know-nothing borderline followers" chiming in about hockey on the radio; it's a relief to rarely encounter the casual fan with the giant-sized uninformed opinion, like you come across constantly when the other sports have their ESPN-worthy water cooler moments.

I mean, I agree with Wojciechowski's point: If the NHL wants casual fans like him who didn't "know what a Khabibulin was," blah blah blah, they sure do need to magically conjure some circus that attracts his attention. And yeah, the NHL would probably love any fan convert it can get. But here's the thing: I'm not going to say Wojciechowski is full of it, but if he hasn't watched a full game since the Miracle on Ice, I'm pretty certain he's not actually winnable as a fan, and I'm absolutely certain that most hockey fans do not care. He doesn't matter. The addition of such fans, in any sport, are the bandwagoners who tune in (and annoy others) only when something is "hot."

Yet that "if you want me" proposition is so common among general sportswriters who take turns chiming in a hockey-dismissing echo chamber of their own creation: Many apparently would rather not have to worry about hockey, so they constantly put it down -- the same goes for soccer, interestingly -- in a feedback cycle that both presents and confirms the high-schoolesque notion that it's "cool" and "mainstream" to rag on hockey.

And when by some force of overwhelming NHL playoff excitement or editor cruelty they are required to cast an eye, however briefly, toward the sport I like most, they inevitably put themselves in the role that Wojciechowki did: As the begrudging casual fan who says, "Well this is nice and all, but to make me care they need to ___." The column then predictably follows a tone that assures you it's okay not to care about hockey. I encounter such columns with bemused curiosity. (Why, I wonder, does someone put so much effort into something he says he doesn't care about?)

Bill Simmons' recent podcast (the 5/15 episode), in which he (again) rediscovers hockey, was both fascinating and amusing: He and apparent fellow fan Dave Dameshek betray both attraction and ignorance to the sport. Their omissions are too specific to catalog here (paraphrasing: "Have they run out of room on the Cup?" ... "You know you're the only one who puts Mario that high, right?"), but suffice to say it's clear that even when they followed the sport more regularly it was with the casual eye (and limited historical reference) of a sports fan who tries to follow everything enough to have a bar conversation.

Those are the conversations I avoid, simply as a matter of preference. I suppose I could spend my days saying baseball would still draw me if only the last 30 years weren't clouded by steroids, or the NFL would appeal to me if it didn't use-and-abuse its players while employing a remarkable amount of violent felons, but god almighty: Sports are just entertainment, so to each his own. If I don't like Star Trek or Brad Pitt, I simply won't watch the films -- not rant about why they should be different or what they should do to draw me.

That's what's glorious about this multichannel age of entertainment: We don't have to argue over the metaphoric remote control anymore. Hockey fans no longer need the sport to have mainstream appeal in order to get access. The sources of info and video on the Web and through specialized packages like Center Ice mean we don't need ESPN to give a damn, so we don't have to watch some such Stuart Scott painfully boo-ya hockey and pretend to care.

Sure, it'd be nice if you could get hockey in your hotel, or if my bar didn't switch to the NBA with eight minutes left in the Penguins-Hurricanes game and the score just 4-2. But it's no longer a make-or-break deal. The Web, Center Ice, SB Nation, nhl.com, your iPhone -- the fan controls his/her intake now, and finds the conversations whose degree of seriousness best fits personal tastes.

In the late-'80s, I missed tons of games because the NHL switched from ESPN to SportsChannel America, which my carrier didn't have -- a short-sighted Versus-like move that may have done more to hurt the game's entrance into mainstream consciousness than the 2005 Versus move did. But today, while Versus' smaller reach hurts exposure for the casual fan, it's an issue the serious fan easily gets around. For the hard-core hockey fan, ESPN and its ilk is literally irrelevant, like Newsweek to the serious news hound.

More power to the NHL for trying to broaden its appeal (alas, in sometimes comical ways): It's their business, good luck to them. And today, as ever, more power to the sports fans who (like several of my friends) like 'em all including hockey, or even don't like hockey a bit. I'm not offended, and each sports' relative popularity doesn't affect me. Today's technology allows us to consume more than our share of whichever sports we like, so we don't depend on ESPN for anything but mainstream conformity, like submitting to "American Idol" simply because others at the office talk about it.

And when a columnist like Gene Wojcie-not-gonna-watch-hockey-anymore-anyway randomly weighs in on hockey, it only matters to the echo chamber, because he and his employer are not the gatekeepers anymore, and they sure as hell don't provide us new information we can't get elsewhere. That phenomenon belongs to a different century. One that's, like, so not, uh, "who's now."

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