The Plight of the Californian Hockey Fan
“I didn’t know there were hockey fans in California.”
That one sentence sums up the challenges that hockey fans like me face every day. Whether it comes from Canadians or Californians, that statement always comes out whenever I reveal that yes, I am a hockey fan in California. Some are clearly joking; hell, sometimes I even state that I’m a “rare hockey fan in California” in a somewhat self-depricating way to get a few laughs. But there’s the underlying belief that California does not house any born-and-bred hockey fans that perpetuates the statement. It’s a belief that, not only is completely and utterly wrong, but also hinders the growth of the sport.
Simply being a fan of a Californian team that is not the Lakers or the Dodgers already is equipped with a certain sense of neglect. The talk about an “East Coast Bias” isn’t just talk – there’s a definite focus on teams in that one time zone. National broadcasts usually feature teams from eastern-based conferences or divisions, if not on the coast then at least east of the Mississippi. It should be expected, what with the time difference that causes the games that start at resonable times for Californians sometimes go past midnight for those in the East. And yet, Californians somehow find the time to watch games that start at 4pm in the afternoon, during work and school and all those pesky commitments. But I digress.
The bias is evident when analyzing the national television broadcast schedule for the NHL. NBC’s entire lineup of games will feature either the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, or Detroit Red Wings. Only one team in the Western Conference, and it’s a team that’s almost further east than Atlanta, Georgia.
“But that’s only 10 broadcasts!” you argue. Well, let’s take Versus’s lineup. The Eastern Conference will have a team playing 93 times. The Western Conference? 59. Or, if you split it up in the traditional line of East v. West thinking, with the Mississippi River being the divisor, the east gets a whopping 123 broadcasts, compared to the west’s 29. Those teams – which make up 37% of the league – get 19% of the national broadcasts. I’m sorry, but that disparity is pitiful.
To highlight the lack of attention for Californian teams, just look at the playoffs. The six game, first round series between the Sharks and Ducks had more games nationally televised than all three of the Californian teams combined during the regular season. And California, at the time, boasted the unequivocal best regular season team in the league and a team only a year removed from a championship. Oh, and the Kings.
But the broadcast discrepencies can be argued about all day – what about the teams themselves?
With the lack of attention on the Californian teams, their great players often fly under the radar. For the Ducks, there’s Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry, Jonas Hiller, and Ryan Getzlaf alongside of Selanne and Neidermayer. The Kings have Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, and Alexander Frolov in a completely underrated team. The Sharks have Patrick Marleau, Devin Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, and Douglas Murray as well as their big name stars of Thorton, Heatley, Boyle, and Nabokov. All of these players are either locks, very close, or a few years away from making their respective countries’ Olympic teams. Yet, most people only have a slight name recognition with any of these players, much less the rest of the roster. If there was an award for the most underrated player, I would be that players on Californian teams would make up most of the list. Hell, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau have already gotten underrated nods from James Mirtle and fellow NHL players, respectively.
The rivalries between the teams are as intense as any, especially between the Sharks and Ducks. There’s already this Northern California/Southern California rivalry that’s evident on any Facebook group concerning the state, one that’s intensified when sports are added. That attitude seeps onto the ice, and creates some truely epic matches. One Sharks-Ducks game last year features 64 PIMs given out at the end of the game because of a line brawl. The teams hate each other, they bring their best against each other (save for a certain game 4), and there’s always a fight. Even if it’s just George Parros v. Jody Shelley, one always happens. The lack of coverage for this rivalry is astounding, simply because it is very entertaining hockey.
Recently, with the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy case, the ideas of relocation and contraction have been renewed and tossed around, and not just for the Arizona-based team. Certain hockey “fans” have decided to take that case to point a finger at all the non-traditional market teams, basically those teams that have come around in the 1990s expansion. They argue that some those teams are not doing that well at that gate, and so those areas should be abandoned in favor of more “traditional” markets – specifically, those in Canada.
The trio of Californian cities – San Jose, Anaheim, and Los Angeles – are not immune, although most of the focus is on the two 90s expansion teams. Despite being two of the most successful teams in the 2000s, the aforementioned “fans” want the teams gone. “Hockey shouldn’t be played in California,” they argue, “Not enough history or tradition to keep the sport alive.”
Yeah, Californian teams don’t have that much tradition – you’re not giving them any time to establish it! The Sharks have only been in existance for 18 years; all the kids that were born the year that the team started are just reaching draft age. There hasn’t been a second generation of hockey fans established in the area yet, just a first generation. Tradition is born through parents telling their offspring about the team, about the hated players and the beloved, about crowning moments and shameful ones. That hasn’t quite happened yet, but give the teams five or ten more years and it will.
But even without that established tradition, there still is a love of hockey present in the state. The day after the Sharks were eliminated by the Stars in the 2008 playoffs, one of my classmates decided to wear a Stars Turco sweater. He was shunned all day. I once had a long, in-depth discussion about the Sharks versus the Ducks with a cast member while waiting to ride Space Mountain in Disneyland. Every day at college here in Southern Calfiornia I find a Ducks or Kings fan to talk hockey. Many men around San Jose remain unshaven come April (here is where I pause for you to insert your own Sharks in the playoffs joke).
“Yeah, but they’re not real fans, just fairweather fans.” Please tell me which team has had a continually high attendence and amount of support despite a losing record, besides the obvious exceptions of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. There are only two that immediately come to mind – the Minnesota Wild and the San Jose Sharks. Yes, the California team that you advocate relocation/contracting. All other teams have gone through periods of little support, even those Original Six and Canadian teams that the “fans” are so in favor of. Remember the 1990s, with the Canadian Assisstance Plan that had to bail out the struggling Canadian teams? Remember the early 2000s, when Boston and Chicago couldn’t sell out their arenas to save their lives? Remember the Dead Things era? People want to watch teams that win, especially if there are a wealth of other options out there.
Really, the hipocracy that pervades discussions about sunbelt teams astounds me. Teams like the Phoenix Coyotes, Atlanta Thrashers, and the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have all had horrible ownership groups and bad on-ice products for a number of years, are held up as candidates for relocation because of the lack of fans. But then the examples of the Dead Things and the Blackhawks in the Bill Wirtz era are brought up, but those are “real hockey fans” because they are “protesting the ownership with their wallets.” Why can’t that be the case with all the sunbelt teams? They have just as bad, if not worse, ownership and management, and yet their lack of fans is somehow worse than other teams’ lack of fans.
And then there’s San Jose, a team that has never had their arena average less than 90% capacity throughout the franchise’s history. This is a team that had a record of 11-71-2 in its second year. A team where you can take the number of wins from any of its first two seasons, add them together, and not have them equal the number of wins the Sharks had in the 08-09 season (granted, that might say more about the 08-09 team, but I digress). There were some horrible teams during the Sharks’ short history, and yet people have always turned out to watch them. Is that the defintion of “front-runner fans”?
Not only that, but according to last season’s ESPN player survey, San Jose was voted to have the third most disruptive fans. The only teams they trail are Philadelphia, which is notoriously disruptive for all sports, and Montreal, which is somewhat self-explanitory. Now, I know that the disruptivity of fans isn’t the best way to see which fanbase is the best, but it definitely contributes. People – players, broadcasters, visiting fans, and so on – often comment about how loud the Tank is. Are those not real hockey fans?
Yeah, we have warm weather most of the year, and yeah, it doesn’t snow in San Jose proper (but just try and stop it from falling on the Santa Cruz Mountains), but that doesn’t mean anything, except that we have to pay a hell of a lot more money for housing because of it. People here like to watch hockey, just the same as those back in the Northeast. Actually, we probably like hockey more, because it’s that much harder to get into and support the sport around here. Not only do we have to deal with those “fans” who think we don’t deserve the sport of hockey, but we have to deal with all the people in California who are apathetic about the sport. It is much easier to gain an interest in something if many people around you are interested in it as well.
People argue that hockey needs to go back to its “roots,” specifically, contracting to the Northeast states and Canada (Minnesota can come too). You know what? I think personal computers need to get back to its roots, and should stop shipping anywhere but California, since people here are the only ones that can appreciate computers and technology, because we invented it, right? Enough with the phony computer users, people in the Northeast don’t deserve computers.
See how stupid that sounds? And yet, the essential concept is the same – stopping the spread of something invented in one part of the world from going to another, simply because of an asinine belief that it wouldn’t be appreciated on the same level.
In closing, I’d like to leave you with a quote from this amusing hockey book I found that was published way back in 1995:
“Expansion has its drawbacks, but one of the best things about it is when an area that’s new to the game turns on the hockey and then flips out over it. That’s hippie jargon for the nineties’ phenomenon of the San Jose Sharks, who joined the NHL in 1991 and for two years should have been called ‘the Cow Palace Sharks,’ because they played their home games in a dilapidated former livestock arena on the outskirts of San Francisco.”
– Kevin Nelson, Slap Shots.