When you think about it, hockey really is a funny game. In what other sport (other than boxing and MMA), is fighting a largely accepted element — penalized, but done so with a wink and a nod? It is a sport where failing to tie down your sweater is penalized more harshly than pummeling your opponent and where elementary safeguards, such as helmets, goalie masks and visors have inched their way into the game over the grudging “Hrrumphs” of grizzled veterans. Where else do players and coaches talk about playing the game “the right way”? For that matter, in what other sporting endeavor do the participants wear “sweaters”?
No, hockey is steeped in tradition, and surrenders to progress with great reluctance. It’s players are — for the most part — polite, soft-spoken and subservient to The Game. In many ways, hockey is more akin to golf than any of the teams sports, with the ceremony attendant to winning The Cup not far removed from hoisting The Claret Jug at St. Andrews. Of the team sports, baseball comes closest to that sense of tradition, but still falls somewhat short.
Tradition is a great thing, but sometimes it crosses the line into bias. A large segment of the hockey population relies on tradition to cast aspersions on those “pretenders” who would dare to join the fraternity of hockey cities. After all, hockey is the birthright of Canada and The Original Six, and the rest are largely pretenders. Sure, Minnesota and Buffalo are readily accepted, as they are almost in Canada anyway. The Flyers get admitted to “the club” by virtue of sheer nastiness — or “Old Time Hockey” — as the Hansen Brothers would call it. The Blues get a pass as well, due to the illustrious names passing through that franchise since 1967. New Jersey and the Islanders are accepted, both because they fall in the geographical “sweet spot” of the NHL, and their ability to hoist The Cup. Other than that, however, there is a significant segment of the hockey community that views hockey in “non-traditional” markets as a fool’s errand, and would much rather see a 16 team NHL than cater to the likes of Phoenix, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Nashville, Florida . . . and Columbus. Peruse the message boards, listen to talks shows from Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver and you will here how these cities do not “deserve” franchises. Even cities with demonstrated success — such as Anaheim and Los Angeles — receive only modest recognition. This segment points to revenue numbers, attendance figures and the twice-failed experiment in Atlanta as evidence that expansion outside The North is futile. The lack of a “Hockey Tradition” is deemed fatal in these cities.