Over the summer of 2009, Puck Daddy was asking bloggers to contribute a post detailing five reasons why they love hockey. Recently, John Fontana pitched to the staff here at Raw Charge on resurrecting the once-popular topic through a series of posts.
Growing up in southwest Florida and currently living in Los Angeles, most people are surprised to find out I'm a big hockey fan who covers the NHL team in Tampa Bay for SB Nation. "Oh, SB Nation?!", they say. "I know them. They post all those funny GIFs of NFL and NBA players. I didn't know they did hockey."
That leads me to my first point:
The mystique of an unpopular sport
Hockey in America is growing, but hockey in America is still very much an unpopular sport, especially when compared to American football (either the NFL or NCAA), the NBA, and even MLB.
I don't see this is a bad thing, though. Hockey's position as America's "other" sport creates a nationwide network of reserved fans. I work at a bar in Culver City, where the NFL and NBA reign supreme; but every now and then, someone will come in and grab a stool with an Anaheim Ducks or Los Angeles Kings hat. Lately, people have been coming in and asking for the Olympic hockey -- men's and womens' -- on the 100" big screen that hangs behind the bar.
Conversation with these people is easy, fluid, and fun. When I chime in about how Drew Doughty has looked in Sochi to a guy with LA Kings gear on, he's surprised and impressed, and I like to think the rest of his (or her) time at the bar is a little more enjoyable knowing that there's someone on the other side of the bar that's also been baptized into the cult of hockey.
This is probably the biggest answer to the question "why hockey (and not other sports?)". I actually like NFL football quite a bit, will watch a baseball game on an afternoon with nothing to do, and was an avid basketball player in high school. March Madness is a fun time of year.
But none of those other major sports have the type of continuous, uninterrupted play you can see in hockey. If you're lucky, and NHL game can go a whole twenty minute period with only the mandated TV timeouts. Players jump over the boards while the action is ongoing; coaches bark out adjustments from the bench as players zip by on skates that keep their momentum and let the entire game be played at near top-speed.
Even a penalty doesn't stop play; there are no foul shots, or yellow flags, or whistles blown. A referee raises his arm and a team gets to replace their goaltender with an extra skater until the offending team gains the puck.
Hockey is a fluid game, designed to play at a high speed with as few stoppages as possible, which is part of what makes it unique and so fun to watch.
A burgeoning analytics movement
I was too young when sabermetrics really took flight in baseball. Billy Beane (of Moneyball fame) took over the Oakland Athletics in 1997. I was 9 years old at the time.
Hockey's analytics movement, however, is still in its infancy. Though growing fast, things like Corsi and Fenwick didn't exist a matter of years ago. Bloggers and hobbyists -- myself included -- are responsible for a good chunk of the research and innovation that has brought new understanding to the game and how it's played, as well as player and team evaluation using objective criteria.
Direct participation in this growing movement has informed my writing and my analysis and given me an extra sense of purpose when watching hockey beyond pure entertainment value (of which it has plenty).
Scoring is perfect
In basketball, or football, a possession is considered wasted when you don't score. Even though both of those sports feature defensive players, the success of failure of an offense is measured against how often they score versus how often they possess the ball.
These sports have been shaped and re-shaped for an audience with no patience, an audience that demands instant and repetitive gratification: a culture of people that want to see goals, and points, and offense. They want to see it early and they want to see it often. The obsession with scoring in most of the major sports borders on gluttonous lust.
Hockey has its fair share of offensive dynamos and skilled superstars hanging on posters in walls across North America, the folk heroes of the sport are the grinders, the energy line guys, the penalty killers. "Blue collar" players that make the everyday fan appreciate their sport even more, because they're players that got where they are by filling a need through pure effort and practice rather than god-given talent. Gregory Campbell comes to mind:
Hockey is more like soccer -- a patient fan's game, with measured, careful attacks whose goal is often wearing out the defense to probe weakness and score later rather than score right away. But even soccer, played on an enormous 105m by 68m pitch, has half the players doing absolutely nothing for half the game.
The smaller ice surface leads to the Goldilocks-level of scoring (just right), as scoring still feels difficult but isn't so hard that a 0-0 draw is a likely or regular occurrence; when a team does fail to score, the credit rightly goes to the goaltender, not to the game itself.