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Lorton: Get into hockey before it’s cool

| Tuesday, September 30, 2014

With the season starting next week, let’s talk hockey.

Coming off a season with six outdoor games, the Winter Olympics and an exciting playoff run to the Stanley Cup, hockey is poised to continue growing in popularity.

Since the 2005 NHL lockout, hockey has had a steady and strong viewership, both on air and in person. All signs point to this fanbase growing. Each year in the Harris Poll, which annually identifies Americans’ favorite sport, from 2005 from 2014, five percent said hockey was their favorite sport. Even in the 2011 partial-lockout season, the number was at 5 percent. This is just one percentage point below the NBA. Professional football received the highest percentage, 35 percent.

There have been recent debates about whether the NHL is now more popular than the NBA, with the NHL beating the NBA in ticket sales. In 2014, 13 NHL teams were at or above full capacity for every one of their home games. The NBA had only eight such teams. This is not meant to be a popularity contest of sports but rather a comparison in order to show the growth of hockey relative to a firmly established sport.

Two of these teams, the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings, are not in traditional hockey regions of the country. Hockey has expanded beyond the frozen tundras of the northern states and Canada to places such as California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Tennessee and North Carolina. Teams like the Kings, who garnered popularity by winning two of the last three Stanley Cups, led this charge.

Television coverage has been a huge factor in expanding the hockey fan-base.

The NHL and NBC have a television deal through 2021, which includes around 100 regular-season games, a number of special games, like the Winter Classic, and the Stanley Cup.

Outdoor events like the Winter Classic allow hockey to get back to its outdoor roots and in front of larger crowds. The 2014 Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs was held at Michigan’s Big House in front of 105,000 fans and was viewed by 4.4 million people in the United States. Other outdoor games, part of the NHL Stadium Series, were held at Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium and Soldier Field. These too increased the exposure of the NHL to new fans and younger generations.

The improvement of televisions themselves also have helped make hockey more watchable. Before, it looked as if you were watching people skate back and forth randomly, but with high-definition televisions, you can see the puck whizz across the screen.

Now that you know the NHL is on the rise, hop on the bandwagon before you become a bandwagon fan. Do it while it’s still cool. If you need more convincing, here are a few reasons why.

Hockey is exciting.

It is fast-paced and high-octane. There is never a boring moment in hockey. With constant line changes, hockey is a continuous game, with few stoppages in play and no break in the action.

Hockey is a true contact sport.

Some might say football is a true contact sport, but with all of the rules about quarterbacks and receivers and tackling correctly, it really isn’t. In hockey there is all kinds of hitting, checking and not much flopping. It is refreshing to see people take hits and give hits because it is part of the game.

Hockey has the coolest uniforms.

Overall, the NHL easily has the best jerseys in sports. The sweaters are colorful and unique and often incorporate throwback themes. There is still creativity in NHL uniforms, and that’s something lacking in other leagues.

Hockey is easy to get into.

Hockey is the easiest sport, behind curling, to yell at while watching on TV. It is engrossing. And although it is on the rise, there are still so many teams out there in the NHL with small, loyal fan-bases who need your voice added to the mix. Please, just don’t become a Blackhawks fan.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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