by Joshua Tenzer
Reason One: It combines the best aspects of every sport Americans like
Hockey is undoubtedly a bizarre sport. Ten skaters chase a rubber circle around with wooden sticks trying to slap it past a goalie with to score a goal. Despite being like no other American sport, it has all of the best parts of every other sport followed by a majority of the country.
Americans love violence and football has it in spades. Football actively creates situations where the only way to stop the opposing team is by forcing a player to the ground through hits and tackles. Hockey has the same big hits without them being a necessity on any given play. An offensive rush can always be stopped with a fancy move from a stick but hits are undeniably a part of the sport.
The best aspect of baseball is that it is truly a team sport. Hockey also has that emphasis on the team. In football, there is no doubt that without a decent quarterback, your team has no shot. In fact, the NFL MVP has been a non-quarterback only four times since 2000. Football has approximately 12 positions depending on how you count them and only four are represented in the history of the NFL MVP award since its inception in 1975. Basketball teams can rise and fall with one player. When Lebron James was with the Cavs, they finished first in the central division every year. They also made the finals all four years. When he left, they fell to near the bottom of the eastern conference. While there were other lineup changes between those two years, most of their offensive production walked out the door as Lebron went to free agency. Hockey is like baseball in that the MVP award is tied to no position and no team’s success is determined by one player. For example, in the summer after the 2017-18 season, John Tavares left the New York Islanders. Tavares was the team’s captain and had 84 points (37 goals and 47 assists) after playing in all 82 games. He was an important figure both on the ice and in the locker room. When he left the team to play in Toronto, a significant portion of the team’s offensive production left with him. This didn’t cause the Islanders to fall to the bottom of the league like the Cavs, quite the opposite happened. In the 2018-19 season, the Islanders went 43-27-7 and finished 2nd in the Metropolitan Division. They actually improved by a sizable margin after losing their captain despite the fact that no player on the 18-19 Islanders had over 62 points, 26 less points than Tavares had during his first year in Toronto. When the best player on a hockey team leaves, the team isn’t doomed to failure like in the NBA.
Reason Two: The referees are awful
I know that sounds like a bad thing, but this isn’t an article on why the NHL is a good league, it is about why Americans should watch it. The NFL is the most-watched league in the country and one of the hobbies that football fans enjoy most is complaining about bad officiating. Whether it is about pass interference calls, questionable catches, or roughing the passer, the referees in the NFL get a lot wrong. They get calls wrong that can easily be corrected through the usage of replay.
The NHL is very much the same. In the first round of the 2019 playoffs, the San Jose Sharks were down three goals to none against the Las Vegas Golden Knights. Off of the faceoff, Cody Eakin cross checked Joe Pavelski in the chest causing him to fall backwards. In a freak occurrence, Joe fell on his head and he started to bleed. The referees saw Pavelski down in the ice and bleeding from his head so they assumed Eakin cross-checked Pavelski in the head. They gave Eakin a five minute major for this perceived act.
The referees made a judgement call based on the aftermath, even though there was a massive scoreboard right above the referees’ heads showing the replay again and again. The Sharks scored four goals on the power play to make it a 4-3 game. Las Vegas tied it up but lost the game in overtime. Did I mention it was game 7 in a best-of-7 series
Reason Three: The game is fast
Baseball was once a sport known as America’s pastime but recently people have stopped watching. Baseball viewership is plummeting because fans think the game is too slow. According to the Wall Street Journal, a baseball game has about 18 minutes of action. Action is counted as any time the ball is in movement from when the pitcher throws the ball to when the play has stopped or when the catcher catches it. Baseball is given a three hour time slot on television. This means that the action of the game is only 10% of a broadcast.
American fans like fast-moving sports such as football and basketball where the breaks in action are limited. Basketball is a 48 minute game played on a 2.5-hour time slot equating to action being 32% of the broadcast. Football is similar as it is a 60 minute game played in a three-hour time slot so it has an action percentage of 33%.
Hockey has the highest percentage of action. It is a 60 minute game and it is broadcast in 2.5 hour time slots. This means that 40% of a hockey broadcast is time spent playing the game. Hockey is played in three periods so there is less time between sections of the game, and stoppages can be as much as 8 minutes apart because there is no set way to break the flow of the game. Of course, it should be noted that soccer has an action percentage of 75%.
America loves a good tournament. March Madness is lauded as the tournament above all tournaments for its massive bracket. 64 teams compete in a winner takes all competition. What people don’t know is how few NCAA D1 teams make the tournament. The Stanley Cup is the only tournament where over half of the teams make it to the bracket, allowing the most number of fans possible to have a stake in the postseason. Only 18.2% of all NCAA D1 basketball teams make it to March Madness, 50% of NBA teams make it to the playoffs, 37.5% of NFL teams play in January football and 33.3% of MLB teams make it to the World Series playoffs. By comparison, since there are 31 teams in the NHL (for now) and 16 of them make it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, 51.61% of hockey teams compete for the oldest trophy in organized sports.
Hockey is one of the least predictable brackets in sports. In the NHL playoffs there are four 1, 2, and 3 seeds, one from each of the four divisions. During the first round of the 2019 playoffs, all four 1 seeds lost to the four wildcards. That includes the Tampa Bay Lighting, a team that tied the NHL record for regular season wins, getting swept. The eventual Stanley Cup champions, the St. Louis Blues, were a 3 seed and had to upset four separate teams on their way to winning it all.
When looking at 2019 and all of the major sports tournaments in America, the Stanley Cup playoffs had the most upsets. The graph below plots what percentage of series, or single games in the case of March Madness and the NFL, ended in an upset. The World Series had plenty of upsets while both basketball tournaments went mostly as predicted.
(1) “Which U.S. Sport Had the Highest Viewership in 2018?” Yahoo! Finance, Yahoo!, 30 Dec. 2018, https://finance.yahoo.com/news/u-sport-had-highest-viewership-141700953.html.
All statistics came from Hockey-Reference
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