I want to take this opportunity to thank Hockeybuzz's own Julie Robenhymer for writing a much needed blog, "How Can I Get My Girlfriend to Like Hockey?" (You can read her blog here: http://www.hockeybuzz.com/blog.php?post_id=16472
). I wish I would have had that type of starter kit about 15 years ago but luckily it all worked out for me.
As you may have guessed, I am living proof that this beloved conversion is not only possible but can be unbelievably rewarding. It only seems fitting that I have enlisted the help of my beautiful wife for this blog and she has gracefully agreed to humor me yet again. Like Jules, she is an only child whose parents are "super cool". Unfortunately for me, they did not introduce her to hockey at an early age nor were they very interested in the sport. There were no tickets to the Blackhawks or watching the team on Sports Channel America, no listening to games on the radio or even checking the newspaper for the latest scores and standings. We met in college in a small rural town where the only hockey experience was a four team floor hockey league created by yours truly and a few fellow puck-heads. Her lack of hockey experience presented a tremendous opportunity while the unavailability of local ice hockey provided a daunting task. As Jules perfectly illustrates, watching games on television just doesn't cut it.
Lesson 1: TV just doesn't cut it
I'm sorry NHL, IIHF, et all but the sport I love does not translate well on television, even with the improvements of HDTV. Telecasts lack the true anticipation and build up of rushes, the sheer presence of the crowd, the size and strength of the players, the speed and grace with which they move, the physicality of the hits, the jockeying for position and so much more. In order to even remotely enjoy watching a hockey game on television, you have to already know the game, being able to picture what is happening off-screen, how the play is developing, knowing the defenseman is waiting at the point for the pass before the pass is made, etc. Even though the NHL will argue with me, television is not the best medium to sell hockey to casual fans. Gentlemen, learn from me. Please do not make television's inferior portrayal of the sport your girlfriend's first experience of hockey. The only television exposure a new fan should have is a show like "NHL on the Fly" (note to the NHL - get a condensed version of this brilliant show on regular cable a few nights a week, at least during the playoffs - think nightly Masters coverage), focused on highlights that show well.
Unfortunately, our circumstances presented little options other than television. My puck-head friends and I regularly journeyed to the local sports bar to watch our favorite team. My wife has always been an athlete, a great sport, and "one of the boys", often tagging along on various excursions. Ever supportive, she would watch our floor hockey games while doing some homework or light reading. She saw how we lived and breathed the sport and was captivated, wanting to see what had commandeered part of my core. Unfortunately, this anticipation was likely replaced with confusion by the disappointment of what she saw in that first game on TV. As she eloquently points out, the camera doesn't follow the puck well which makes it very hard for someone new to the game to truly appreciate the beauty of the sport and causes the casual observer to ask a lot of questions, something the casual observer fears is annoying to the die hard fan. She watched a few games more out of obligation than enjoyment before quietly suggesting that I go alone with the boys, something that disappointed me as I realized she did not share the same appreciation for the sport I love so much. Over the next year or so, we gradually accepted that hockey would not be a passion we share until, with the permission of my super cool in-laws, my wife spent the holiday season with my family and I enlisted the help of 20,000+ screaming fans and a wonderful tradition that is holiday season hockey.
Lesson 2: Nothing beats watching a game in person
As Jules intonates, taking your girlfriend to games is critical. The game experience is an event in and of itself. There is an essence to a good hockey game, the game taking a life of its own. The sites and sounds of the arena, the chill of the building, the anticipation of a breakaway, the roar of a big save, the leap from your seat excitement of an overtime goal, and the chants of fans all pump energy through the spectacle.
The experience of the game varies differently based on your seat location, something that fans often overlook when trying to convert new hockey fans. Every new fan should experience a game from the rafters first and then a game from ice level. The rafters provide a vantage point where the players seem smaller and the game appears slower and easy to read, allowing you to watch a play develop, see the pass before it is made, understand the positioning of players and the breakout of teams. It often provides an environment of long-time season ticket holders, die-hard fans, the origination of chants in the crowd, and more. Ice level provides a much different experience where you see the grace and beauty of the players skating ability made even more impressive considering their size, strength, speed and athleticism. You hear the true sounds tape to tape passes and blades cutting the ice. You see (or not if big Al is shooting) the true speed of a shot, feel the magnitude of a big hit, and the constant fighting for position that happens throughout the game. You cannot understand the true complexity of the game without seeing the game from both vantage points.
As we stated before, these vantage points cannot be illustrated well through TV. The game experience builds on itself and fills every person in the stadium, making the first game selection very important and why, in my humble opinion, assuming you can control yourself, selecting a pre-season game is a bad idea. By selecting a meaningful game that has story and character, you automatically bring interest and anticipation into the equation. Taking time to share the reasons for the hated rivalry and the importance of the game only fan the flames of interest.
Luckily for me, my fateful holiday season hockey provided an opportunity for my wife to overcome her trepidation of heights and attend a weekend tilt between the Red Wings and Blues from the nose bleed seats. At mid-season, both teams were good and had a strong rivalry based out of recent playoff matchups with the Red Wings surpassing the Blackhawks as public enemy number one. The building was full of raucous fans and the teams did not disappoint.
Lesson 3: Remember you are a teacher not Herb Brooks or Scotty Bowman
By taking her to such a heated tilt, I risked losing control of myself in the game and my patience with her. As Jules points out, the last thing you should do is to make her feel stupid in any way, shape or form. That means no deep sighs, no snapping, no shaking of your head, no rolling of your eyes, no "shut ups", no "do I have to explain this again", no "you don't know what you are talking about", no "you are such a girl" statements, etc. More importantly, it means positive reinforcement, keeping her abreast of new rules, being patient and understanding and taking time to explain things, perhaps in multiple ways using different analogies. It means teaching in small doses and reinforcing that learning often. If she expresses an interest in learning the sport, you might buy her a stick, her own stick and take her outside for a quick lesson to illustrate different types of shots and passes. You might also consider arriving early at the stadium so you can watch warm-ups and explain the lines, penalties, key players on both teams and other general rules. It means reading her body language and gauging her interest, understanding when to back-off and when to ask open-ended questions. It means remembering she needs equal control in the learning process, watching the beauty of her enjoyment and absorption grow, and most importantly understanding and accepting that she will likely love the game in her own way, likely in a different way than you.
We arrived at the stadium early as I wanted her to get a sense of the building filling up, the fan energy, seeing the banner boards of the older players spread throughout the stadium, getting a program, etc. I wanted her to see warm-ups, the drills teams use, to familiarize herself with the team lineups, and go over some of the basic rules with the rink in sight for illustration.
Lesson 4: Rewards, rewards, rewards
Remember to reward her along the way, making sure to comment on how you appreciate her devotion to learning the sport you love, how you appreciate the time you get to spend together along the way. Take tours of the gift shop and gauge her reaction to various items and use these items as presents to show you care, making sure you select what she wants not what you think she wants. For example, my wife is with Jules in that she wouldn't want a pink jersey unless it was related to a breast cancer charity event. Unlike Jules, she prefers a big bulky authentic size 52 jersey that fits bigger than a dress on her as opposed to a lady's cut jersey. Each woman is different, something that makes them so special so you need to pay attention to your particular girlfriend.
In the end, think of every home game as your own special date night spent partially with 20,000 of your "friends". It's insurance that you will be able to get away from work and the stress of your daily lives to come together and root for your team. Perhaps you get to snuggle in bed while you two watch their away game in Anaheim or better yet you take an annual vacation to a visiting city to see your team play an away game. Maybe hockey becomes so much of a passion for her that you two take skating lessons together and head to the local rink on a Friday night for a skating date. Perhaps it gets so ingrained in her that she agrees to take a second annual vacation with you to attend the Frozen Four. If you are lucky like me, these can all be realities as well as seeing the Flames and Senators play in Calgary while you are on your honeymoon in the Canadian Rockies. The benefit of sharing a common passion is the best result of all. The reward of the quality time you two will now share will be better than any reward you could have imagined and to top it all off, just imagine what kind of celebration you two will share when your team wins the Stanley Cup.
As always, it's a great day for hockey!