Thursday, October 7, 2021

Streaks, spoilers, and other suggested New Season’s resolutions

With opening night of the 2021-22 now less than a week away, it’s time for one of my favorite annual traditions: the New Season’s Resolutions column, in which I offer up a few suggestions for how we could all be a little bit better at this hockey fan thing.

That’s all these are – just ideas, not commandments. As always, you’re welcome to try out all of them, or pick and choose one or two, or roll your eyes and tell me to get lost. But we all have room for improvement, and now’s as good a time as any to think about how we can make that happen.

We’ll start with what might be the most important resolution we can all make this year, because it touches on one of the worst parts of hockey fandom…

Let’s not gatekeep these new fans (especially in Seattle)

With a new expansion team in place, the NHL has a rare opportunity to do something it’s struggled with over the decades and add a significant number of new fans. That’s a good thing, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it by how the rest of us treat the newbies. It feels like so many of us want to descend on the rookies and test them, making sure that they’re worthy of joining our club. Some of us just seem to be waiting for them to make a mistake, so we can declare that they’re fakers and exile them from the kingdom of True Hockey Fans.

I’ll go ahead and give us the benefit of the doubt and say that this all comes from a good place. We love this sport, and we know that means we’re in the minority. We’ve all seen the cheap punch lines and lazy coverage, and we think hockey deserves better. There’s an old joke that hockey isn’t anyone’s second favorite sport, because you’re either obsessed or you don’t care, and whether that’s true or not we’ve kind of internalized the idea. If you’re not obsessed then you must not care, and if you don’t care you’re probably going to do more harm than good, so get lost and let the real fans enjoy what we enjoy.

OK, fine. But that can’t work when it comes to new fans, and new markets. There is a learning curve with this sport, and it’s a steeper one that we’d like to admit. And stereotypes aside, nobody actually goes from being a non-fan to an obsessive overnight. Maybe they get there eventually, but there’s going to be some time where they’re still figuring things out. And that means they might not understand a rule, or get a name wrong, or cheer at the wrong time, or tweet something dumb. If all of us in the old guard are racing to pile on every time that happens, we’re just driving potential fans away from a league that desperately needs them.

To be clear, that doesn’t make it our job to sell the league to a new audience. The NHL has its own PR department, and if you don’t work there then you don’t have to pretend that everything is wonderful all the time. But you also don’t have to actively drive potential fans away by sending them the message that they don’t belong, or that they aren’t welcome. Give them a chance to try the sport on for size. Some will like what they see and stick around, others won’t, and that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Maybe a few of those new fans will even become the next generation of embittered diehards, complaining about the refs and hating the loser point and booing Gary Bettman. If so, awesome. But until then, save the pop quizzes and eye rolls and give them a chance to get settled in.

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