Jeremy Roenick was on ESPN's PTI yesterday which was kind of refreshing. While I like Kornheiser and Wilbon a lot, their complete lack on interest in hockey is a huge punch in the gut to me as a sports fan let alone a hockey fan. JR was... well JR, I liked the way he poked fun at the two for actually talking about hockey for once.
The PTI guys said something interesting to JR that he agreed with, and I found disturbing... they said hockey seems to have disappeared. I agree, but I found myself asking why. JR didn't have an a single answer, neither did the hosts.
Every time I turn on ESPN and they finally get to some hockey it is always preceeded by a punch line: "Now it's time for some real sports," as an example. Why is hockey such a joke to this network? I'd say "who cares," but how can you not care. It's the biggest sports network in the world. What MTV is to being bling is what ESPN is to being sport: If they say it's worth watching, then it is, even if it is another stupid strong man contest.
It's shocking to me, even though it probably shouldn't, that they don't believe in this sport. But at the heart of this shock is even more surprise when I sit back and think that maybe the real problem isn't ESPN, it's the general sports fan. It's Billy Bob Joe Sue Anne who lives in Alabama and thinks hockey is for snobs and rich people that really bothers me the most. Let's face it, the South and the Midwest is the problem when it comes to Hockey. They simply have zero interest. I'd say it's because they don't have teams, but that's not it. Lots of cities don't have NFL, MLB, or NBA teams, but they still watch. Maybe its the fact colleges out there just don't support it as much, but again that's not it, for the same reasons as the pro teams argument.
Some people blame TV and media for not hyping it up the way they do other sports. Which is fine, but then why do they ignore hockey? which brings me to what I believe as the root of the problem in the USA. All of the reasonings lead back to one fundamental problem hockey has with the people of this massive nation: identity. Hockey does not identify with most people. Why? Because most people don't play hockey when they are young and build a passion for it like the other sports. This might all be obvious to you, but where I am going with this is who to point the finger of blame at...
USA hockey is to blame for this debacle. Period. This is a program that has made great strides in bringing the game to more kids. It is one of, if not the fastest, growing sport among our youngsters, but that's not enough. This is an expensive sport, and as such makes it seem like an elitist and snobby sport meant for privileged kids who didn't want to play pollo. How does a poor family in a trailer park, or ghetto, or slum have any chance to identify with this sport? They can't; they can't afford to play it and grow a love for it, and without the ability for everyone to play, the sport becomes novelty.
The excuse for this is, "well, it is expensive, but worth it," or "Unfortunately that's just how it is, pads and skates are expensive and we can't do anything about it." Bull. Straight Bull. With well organized funding and the right people behind it, this sport can work in high schools the exact same way football does. Club hockey has got to become a secondary option for kids. Schools have to buy into the idea of purchasing pads and having tax dollars pay for the funding of their teams. How do we do this? Through USA hockey setting up a program that gets schools started, and that doesn't mean giving them 2 pucks and a roll of tape. It means setting up a network of sponsors to donate the pads and money to get schools off on the right track.
USA hockey has to be the one to fix the stigma and make hockey a tradition not just reserved for the North and West USA. They have to take hockey off of it's pedestal as an international beauty queen and make it a a sport that anyone can play so long as they have the heart, forget about the check book or cultural status. That might not be how we, the hockey enthusiasts, see it, but that's how most people see it... too expensive, too pretty boy, too elitist. USA hockey needs to step up their youth hockey efforts considerably if there is any hope of hockey to be taken seriously by the people in this country.