The NHL will always be a niche sport — and that’s fine

Toronto Maple Leafs’ Wayne Simmonds (24) and Boston Bruins’ A.J. Greer (10) fight during the third period, Feb.1, 2023, in Toronto.

There is no fanbase that can whipsaw from beseeching the masses to watch their sport to getting pissed off at any mainstream coverage or attention quite like hockey fans. Any discussion of hockey’s ratings and popularity always includes a collection of the same reasons it’s not more popular, along with a scowl from hockey fans about why nobody watches. Hockey fans get pissed when it’s pointed out that it’s a niche sport, and then get equally pissed whenever it moves beyond that.

This is the tweet that started the usual carnival ride yesterday:

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However, as The Athletic’s (devilishly handsome!) Sean Gentille pointed out, these numbers are fudged a bit by some new scheduling by ESPN. The long and short of it is that ESPN started putting games up against Sunday Night Football, which is obviously going to crater ratings. Take those out of the equation, and ratings are even ahead of where they were last season on ESPN. TNT’s ratings are down, but regional blackouts have kicked in this year and that has had some effect.

Does that mean the NHL’s ratings are great? Depends on how you define that. They’re never going to approach the NBA. Those numbers put it behind Premier League ratings on NBC’s swatch of channels, but that’s basically where hockey is. All that matters is what ESPN and TNT think.

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Action & Action

The fact that NHL ratings are in the same pool as the Premier League puts paid to one of the tired and lazy tropes about why hockey isn’t more popular, and that’s scoring. This is an argument that burns my ass royally, because what fans want isn’t scoring. They want action. And hockey has never had more action. Watch a game these days and you’ll see far more happen in a 3-2 game than you would in a 9-7 game in 1986. Hockey will never get back to that, and nor should it, because honestly, it was pretty shitty. The goalies are too good now. The NHL has done its best to scale down goalie equipment, but there’s only so much you can do while keeping goalies safe. They’re still maybe the most athletic players on the ice instead of the confused wildebeests they were in the 80s. The NHL isn’t going back.

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But the game is fast and loud, and it’s as good as it’s been. It just doesn’t have 12 goals a game. That doesn’t mean nothing is happening. Yes, blocked shots and defensive outlooks from coaches are still something of a problem, but less of one than they were. Players are faster and more skilled than they’ve ever been, and the pace of games, even in the middle of the regular season, reach plaid more often than ever.

Marketing stars and expanding the audience

There was also the customary lament that hockey doesn’t know how to market its stars, though that leads to the question if these stars are even marketable. Have you ever heard Connor McDavid talk? You’re just waiting for him to get to the part about TPS reports. Most of these guys aren’t that different, and overexposing a host of guys with barely eighth-grade education can go backward in a lot of ways. And while the blame is put on the league, or the teams, or the marketing execs, hockey culture still puts its foot down on any player trying to rise above the team in any way. This just might not be an avenue that’s as open as people think.

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Of course, there’s the problem with the makeup of the playing staff and fanbase, and the sport’s unwillingness to open itself up fully to a new crowd. That’s a problem, and hockey’s constant fear of pissing off its base of crusty white men is getting in the way. But it’s no gimme that even if they were able to hit the right notes on any of that the ratings would then skyrocket.

Hockey, quite simply, is just not ingrained. While youth participation continues to grow, it still trails most other sports. There were six million high school soccer players last year. There were 42,000 hockey ones. If someone is still playing at the high school level, the sport has become entrenched. Maybe that doesn’t mean a lifelong, diehard fandom. But it likely means at least a casual one, and certainly the possibility that person would tune into a big EPL match in their 20s and 30s. Hockey just isn’t going to get to that level.

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But really…what’s the problem? If you’re a hockey fan, you can watch every game simply with an ESPN+ subscription, which is far cheaper than the other league pass packages. Arenas are filled. The only teams that aren’t filling their building to at least 85 percent of capacity are Buffalo, Chicago, Ottawa, and San Jose. All of those are strong hockey markets that just have teams that suck ass right now or have sucked ass for a decade, and all will return to full capacity as soon as they are good again to be sure.

The players may want to make more money, but they’re free to collectively bargain for that. Unless ESPN and TNT start bitching about ratings and ad revenue, there really isn’t any danger. If you watch hockey, and you have buddies to watch with, why do you care how many other people are?

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Hockey is in the same place it’s always been, it’s just that everyone has more access to niche stuff now. Ask soccer fans or wrestling fans. And that’s where it will stay.

And now let’s just get silly

Bobby Hull and Ivan Provorov don’t need you to defend them

Bobby Hull, who is dead now, pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer who intervened after Hull’s third wife accused him of domestic abuse. Hull’s second wife said he beat her nearly to death with a shoe. Hull was also quoted as saying “Hitler had some good ideas,” but denied saying that, causing Hull’s daughter to go on record as saying the quote was perfectly in line with his character. The Chicago Blackhawks built a statue in Hull’s honor.

The way we relate to professional athletes is a funny thing. They come into our homes via the TV weekly, nightly, sometimes even hourly. In the fleeting few moments we see them off the field (or ice, or diamond, or pitch), they are typically friendly, jovial, serious about their profession, but not in a way that overstates their place in the world. Their social media, often created by content teams working for their organization, gives us a rosy window into their lives — their children, their favorite movies, how much they love their dog. It’s seductive and it’s meant to be that way. After all, the entire purpose of sports organizations is to keep you watching.

These glimpses of what we think athletes can feel like making windows into their souls, but are, in fact, extremely limited looks into a person’s life. You see what the organization’s social media team (and by extension, the organization itself) wants you to see. Nothing more. Of course, it wasn’t always this way. There were a hundred years of professional sports without social media. But back then journalists were bound by a different code. No one wanted to spill the beans on Mickey Mantle’s drinking or allegations of Jim Brown’s domestic violence, or Joe DiMaggio reportedly abusing Marilyn Monroe the night after she filmed her infamous subway scene in The Seven Year Itch. Reporters kept quiet, and fans didn’t know. (Neither Mantle, Hull, or DiMaggio were ever charged with any crimes).

This strange dynamic has led to a truly bizarre phenomenon in sports: The parasocial relationship between fans and players. One site describes parasocial relationships as “one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence.” And no place do parasocial relationships flourish more than in the world of sports. In fact, teams count on it.

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So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised yesterday, when after Deadspin published two pieces critical of famous hockey players — “Good riddance, Bobby Hull and “The NHL isn’t for you — the emails came in fast and furious. What always does surprise me, though, is the vehemence with which men (and it’s almost always men) defend their heroes from well-documented allegations, and the vitriolic abuse they hurl at reporters who are simply stating well-known facts.

For example, “saltywood” here is extremely upset that the NY Rangers are being criticized (widely, I might add) for ditching the Pride Night jerseys they were supposed to wear last Friday.

“Sam fels (sic) . Go fuck yourself… I was at that ranger game.. I’m glad they didn’t wear the fag jerseys and put that rainbow fudge packing tape on the sticks.. I’d shit on that ass fucking flag.”

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And here’s another from Jeff, who uses more exclamation points than I did writing notes in junior high and is extremely misinformed about the role of the First Amendment in society:

“So, your article on Ivan Provorov and the Rangers concerning pride night!!! Let’s get something straight first off it’s a choice!! Second let’s say I want to bring atheists into the sports world and want recognition for so. You tell me if a group, person does not agree with my beliefs it’s against equality?!! Get your head straight Provorov did not bash or show hate either (sic) did the rangers. Why is personal belief of (right and or wrong) being Involved (sic) in sports? Should not be corrected by ones (sic) thoughts!! Leave personal life decisions up to the individual, talk about sports since that’s your job nothing else. Bringing this up is taking away from our first amendment and going against all on (sic) what our constitution says and stands for. You as a writer should be ashamed of your self (sic) and should not be called a writer of sports but a writer of personal agenda and opinions Based (sic) on one’s beliefs, (sic) Please educate your sel f (sic) and think out side (sic) the box and not what one or (sic) correct society, so they say, tells you!!”

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For his part, Jon simply sent us the youtube links to Green Day’s “F.O.D.” — which stands for “Fuck off and die” — which is ironic, considering that Green Day has been pretty open about being accepting of everyone at their concerts, going so far as to call their shows “a safe space.”

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. And the messages upset about our treatment of Bobby Hull were as good, if not better. And by “better,” I mean much more terrible. Some of our favorites include:

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The guys who responded to our litany of abuse and racism attributed to Bobby Hull by saying “Oh, so you guys never make mistakes?”

Um… not THOSE kinds of “mistakes,” sir.

But the point of this piece is not to whine about all the nasty messages that came in yesterday. We’ve been in this game long enough to know how social media (and fan interaction) works.The point is to ask the men who respond to well-founded criticism of athletes they love in this way what the hell they are thinking? Bobby Hull never needed you to defend him, he had the entire Blackhawks organization to do that while he was still alive. And the same goes for Provorov, and all the NY Rangers, who have layers of agents, publicists, lawyers, and various NHL league officials to make sure they are well-shielded from hearing any sort of criticism and, if any does manage to reach players’ ears, yet more professionals to make sure they don’t have to respond to it in any meaningful way. And if you believe that pro athletes in any way care about the fans who run around screaming at people on social media or sending unhinged emails to media outlets on their behalf, I have some Trump steaks to sell you.

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You know who does see your berserk tweets defending Bobby Hull? Jewish hockey fans. Black hockey fans. Women who have been in abusive relationships and are possibly still trapped there. You know who does see your tweets about Provorov and the Rangers and “muh rights!”? That young hockey fan who is still in the closet. The trans hockey player who has learned that hockey is not a safe space for her. The former NHL fans who have learned that the NHL is rife with players who refuse to acknowledge the humanity of marginalized groups of people, including themselves.

Shouting down those who point out the flaws in famous people is also a way of silencing victims. Imagine how many people might have been helped if this country started a dialogue about toxic masculinity and domestic abuse back when Joe DiMaggio and Jim Brown and Bobby Hull were in their primes? We’d be a lot farther down the road to eradicating domestic violence than we are now.

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So to all the fans out there who come running from the dark corners of the internet to defend the honor of their favorite players, stand down, huh? We get it, you feel like your 1950s view of how things “should” be is under attack. The world is changing. You no longer sit on the top of the pile just by virtue of the biological lottery. But find a better way to spend your time. Have you considered pickleball? 

The Pro Bowl knows it’s a joke with the inclusion of Tyler Huntley

Tyler Huntley

The Pro Bowl has rarely been a true All-Star game. It’s the only one in major American professional sports to take place after the conclusion of the season and not about halfway through. There are no real stakes to missing the Pro Bowl either, unlike in the NHL, where skipping its All-Star Game, if healthy, incurs an automatic one-game suspension. The feel-good nature of the Pro Bowl being in Hawaii, flying out some sort of teacher of the year and the true spectacle of being the season finale of every NFL season has been lost, despite any skills competition that takes place this year. The league giving less of a crap about this game is undeniable. And replacing Josh Allen with Tyler Huntley is only further proof. Who is Huntley you might ask? Great question!

Two touchdown passes earn a QB a Pro Bowl nod?

If the NFL wanted to give fans a reason to laugh today, great job. Having a quarterback who threw two touchdown passes the entire season on the AFC’s roster proves it. It doesn’t quite distract from the abysmal officiating in the AFC Championship Game but it’s an attempt to change the subject. How many quarterbacks must have turned down the trip to the Pro Bowl for Huntley, who finished in a seven-way tie for 48th place in touchdown passes this season, to make it? Huntley threw as many touchdown passes this season as David Blough and Taysom Hill, a whopping two! He’s one of the league’s best!

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Lamar Jackson-Baltimore Ravens drama

There has been a ton of drama surrounding the Ravens and their quarterback situation. Baltimore desperately wants to hang onto Lamar Jackson and will likely have to break the bank to do so. And if you think more than a dozen teams in the NFL wouldn’t change around their entire payrolls to sign Jackson, you’d be wrong. Yet, with a Pro Bowl now on Huntley’s résumé, it doesn’t change anything. That’s how important the NFL’s All-Star game is. Placing it the week between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl was always a mistake. Adding a bunch of skill competitions isn’t a bad move, but please point out one non-delusional Ravens fan who is going to tune into any Pro Bowl festivity now that Huntley is part of the showcase. What a needle mover!

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How iconic are certain Pro Bowl moments? Giving Jeff Saturday one last chance to snap the ball to Peyton Manning before retirement, despite being elected to the contest for different conferences is one. What about Sean Taylor’s introduction to the league with a legal, crunching hit on former Bills’ quarterback Brian Moorman? Those moments are in the past and we’ll likely never see anything memorable from a Pro Bowl ever again. But hey, quarterbacks with two touchdown passes this season and who didn’t touch the field until last month get to participate! Hooray!

Why there are roughing-the-passer penalties and why there are no answers

Brock Purdy walks into the medical tent after suffering an injury during the 1st quarter of the NFC Championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Jan. 29, 2023, in Philadelphia.

It’s a belabored point by now. We’ve spent enough time covering it. But every time an NFL game turns into a farce when someone has to turn to a backup QB, or wonder in vain why they didn’t dress a third, we get back to it. We rant and yell when we watch our team on the ass end of a game-changing roughing the passer call — or in my case or any other Chicago Bears fan’s case when we can’t get any call on Justin Fields. But deep down we know the answer.

The San Francisco 49ers got where they are because they have superlative coaching and they also lucked out when no one particularly wanted to acquire Jimmy Garoppolo and he ended up as their backup. Trey Lance’s injury to any other team — and in fairness that was on a scramble — probably kneecaps their whole season. QBs run now, and there’s an inherent risk, and there’s nothing to be done about that, but the league feels the need to lessen the risk where they can.

Is there a better way? Perhaps not every call has to be worth 15 yards. Conceivably they could be on a scale. But then you’d have to trust the refs to know what was a five- or 10-yard penalty and what was worth the usual personal foul. A slight bump after a pass is thrown could be just five yards, whereas a whack to the head 10 seconds after a pass is thrown gets the full penalty. But didn’t the refs of the Cincinnati Bengals-Kansas City Chiefs game show the world why that wouldn’t work? You really trust these guys to make judgment calls?

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The NHL couldn’t pull that off either. In a perfect world, two- or four-minute high-sticking penalties would be a judgment call based on recklessness and intent. But NHL refs couldn’t be trusted to tell the difference, so they have the pretty arbitrary criterion of whether a player bleeds or not. And NFL refs are farther down the totem pole of competence than their NHL comrades, somehow. No, NFL refs need clear rules that are as close to cut and dried as they can get, and they’ll still fuck that up.

We could say that every team should just rise to the level of planning and tactical genius of the Niners to be ready for a backup or the No. 3 to take over. But if you go over the rules for practice in training camp and during the season, there really isn’t all that much time. And given that more and more NFL teams are easing off practice as the season goes on, there’s less time than ever. And that’s fine, because those practice rules were collectively bargained and probably save some injuries to a host of players. It just won’t prep a backup.

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That’s the game now, though so is complaining about it all.

Vancouver Canucks trade Bo Horvat to Isles

There was a pretty big trade in the NHL last night, as the Vancouver Canucks finally freed Bo Horvat from his toil in B.C. and sent him to Long Island, and the Islanders returned Anthony Beauvillier, Aatu Räty, and the Isles’ first round pick in the 2023 draft.

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Horvat has been lighting it up this season, as his “Come and get me!” beacon, with 31 goals, already matching his career high. It’s not that Horvat is that much of a different player than he’s ever been, he’s just seeing more of his shots going in because clearly, the gods wanted to get him out of Vancouver to save his soul as well. The Canucks get a reclamation project in Beauvillier, an intriguing prospect in Raty, and a first-rounder they can totally biff come June.

What exactly the Islanders are doing is anyone’s guess. They’re only two points out of a playoff spot but the teams they’re chasing have three games in hand on them. They’ve gotten pretty old at forward, and with Horvat turning 28 in April, he doesn’t really help that much. And that’s if he re-signs.

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Which is another issue for the Isles, as they only really have Semyon Varlamov’s $5 million coming off the books, and they’d have to hand that and more to Horvat coming off a 40-goal season. And then they’d have no flexibility.

The Islanders are not unlucky to be where they are, as they’ve gotten some great goaltending from both Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, but once again a team with Lou Lamoriello as GM lacks punch up front. Horvat will help with that, but enough? And where is this team going even if it scraps a wildcard spot? It’s not the 90s anymore, and Lou can’t just toss 12 faceless forwards out there who simply work hard and keep a good defensive shape to win. But Lamiorello has always been allergic to actually paying anyone, and he’s already committed $9 million a year to Mathew Barzal. Is he going to do it again to Horvat? And if he doesn’t, what was the point of this trade?

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This is why you don’t hire a guy whose major accomplishments were 15-20 years in the rearview, folks. 

Good riddance, Bobby Hull

Bobby Hull has died at 84.

Bobby Hull was a terrible person. Most athletes can outrun or outskate that with what they accomplish on the field or ice. But even though Hull was one of the best hockey players of all-time, the monster he was in his everyday life should shine through his accomplishments. He is no symbol of anything other than being a ghoul, and something that the NHL and especially the Chicago Blackhawks, should be running away from.

Hull’s alleged history is well-known

Hull was accused by two of his three wives of domestic abuse. In one instance, he allegedly attacked a cop who had responded to a call at his house while one of these domestic abuses was allegedly taking place. His ex-wife Joanne said that Hull beat her with a steel-heeled shoe on a trip to Hawaii. Hull once expressed Nazi-sympathizing views to a newspaper in Moscow. He then denied making those statements, and threatened to sue the Moscow Times and Toronto Sun over printing the remarks. The lawsuits were never adjudicated.

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He also scored 610 goals and 1170 points in the NHL, the Chicago Blackhawks’ leading goal-scorer to this day. And that’s exactly the order he should be remembered in. Garbage-runoff of a person first, great hockey player second.

All of this puts the Hawks once again under a spotlight they’ve wilted under before. Hull still has a statue outside the United Center. His #9 still hangs in the rafters. Only after the Kyle Beach Debacle did the Hawks remove Hull as a team ambassador. They’ve already released the customary, bland statement after the news of his death:

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One wonders how many prayers they were sending his family when Hull was allegedly actively attacking them?

The Blackhawks aren’t known for deftly handling this kind of thing

This is still the Hawks, who handled the rape accusations against Patrick Kane in 2015 by immediately announcing his bobblehead night (Kane denied wrongdoing and was never charged). This is the Hawks, who let Brad Aldrich stay on staff through the 2010 Final after they had been told he had sexually assaulted Kyle Beach. They remained mum on Aldrich’s departure after that season, at best, which allowed Aldrich to get future coaching positions in hockey where he allegedly assaulted another player. This is the Hawks, whose owner shouted down two reporters at a town hall last February when they wanted to ask about policies that the team had installed after their failures had come to light earlier that season.

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Are they going to celebrate Hull at their next home game, which is tomorrow night? Will they simply let it pass, and perhaps risk an older generation of their fans who have always refused to see what Hull actually was? That’s the easiest option. Will they tell their broadcast to ignore it as well? Or if they can’t do that, will they instruct them to mention everything Hull was, including the massive amounts of ugliness? You probably know the answer to that one.

Hull was an unremorseful puke-stain of a human being. That is hardly up for debate. The Hawks cannot pretend that his hockey accomplishments simply washes that out. Putting hockey first is what got them into the pit they’re in now. This isn’t some guy who had one bad night when he was still a kid. There are reportedly repeated incidents, and the one where he assaulted a cop was when he was 47 in 1987. The incident his ex, Joanne, documented with a shoe was in 1968. This isn’t a man who learned anything.

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The Blackhawks would be best advised to let it pass without a mention, because they won’t have the stones to mention everything they have to. Whatever anger comes their way will pass, and is meaningless anyway. But as discussed earlier today, all of hockey is hostage to the worst portions of its fanbase. The kind that would still revere a scumbag like Hull. 

The NHL isn’t for you

Image for article titled The NHL isn’t for you

Once the NHL let one through the door, it stood to reason that another would follow. After the Flyers’ Ivan Provorov refused to wear their Pride Night jerseys in warmups, and their coach John Tortorella refused to admonish him in any way (nor did the official partner of the NHL in these matters, the You Can Play Project), the New York Rangers seemingly were only too happy to have that baton passed to them. On Friday night at MSG, the Rangers did not wear their Pride jerseys or use rainbow stick tape for warmups, even though that was advertised as part of the Rangers’ Pride Night festivities. Which makes for a Pride Night basically on the margins, which is the whole fucking problem in the first place. The point of these is to make it clear that LGBTQ+ fans, and by some miracle players one day, are welcome in the whole arena, both literally and figuratively.

This is what the NHL gets by sticking its head in the sand on Provorov and Tortorella. Instead of making the NHL a welcoming place for those who have not felt comfortable in the past, or right now, they have opened up more room for bigots, ignorance, and hatred. And they seem happy to do so. Did it come with yet another toothless statement from YCP? Of course it did! It’s what they specialize in:

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This isn’t about accepting all views, as the league, its teams, and YCP want to claim. No one was asking Provorov or any of the Rangers to make out with a teammate at center ice during warm-ups. They were only asking them to wear a jersey that said people different from them are also welcome, which should be easy enough no matter what your beliefs are. Especially if your beliefs are supposedly deeply Christian, which — though most everyone following that religion seems to have forgotten — is actually based in acceptance and love for others even if they’re not also Christians.

Nobody’s hearing nothing

What all of these entities have lost sight of is that Pride Nights and other events like this aren’t just about reaching out to the LGBTQ+ community. It’s just as much, if not more about educating the rest of the NHL’s fans and employees that this is what we stand for now, to teach them that the LGBTQ+ community is going to be part of the NHL world going forward and that the NHL is happy to have them be so. And that not only will it not be the end of the world, it’ll actually be better. That everyone has to realize what modern times and what the world looks like now. These nights are just as much about teaching the Provorov’s and Rangers of the world that this is part of your world now. And even if it doesn’t apply to you, you’re going to make room for it.

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Instead, what the NHL and its teams have said is that it’s OK for its players and execs to think and act as if they’re a group of fans, and yes, players in their dressing room — because there are gay NHLers — are less than. That the hatred and ignorance that they’ve faced that have either kept them out of the arena seats or being who they are as a player is sanctioned.

Because that’s what it is. Whatever Provorov or the Rangers or YCP want to hide behind, all of this is based on the idea that LGBTQ+ are lower, are less than. They are not worthy of my respect, they are not worthy of simply wearing a shirt for 20 minutes, because they don’t belong. They are saying that they can’t take the smallest bit of time to make it clear that they are welcome, even if it’s not who I am. Because only who I am is what’s allowed, what’s proper, what is “normal.” That’s the path the NHL is on.

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If that were all for the NHL, that would be bad enough. But this all comes in the same time period that the league couldn’t find the cardboard spine to stand up to Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Standing up to DeSantis should be the biggest hanging curveball in our culture today. He’s so wrong and so ugly on so many things, it’s a gimme. The NHL was going to hold a Pathway To Hockey Summit during All-Star weekend in Sunrise, where minority candidates were going to be able to learn about and seek out jobs in the NHL. Clearly the NHL needs this, given the makeup of its current staff.

Of course, DeSantis couldn’t wait to come running and cry “woke.” The response from the league should have been obvious. And it still was obvious, it was just obvious in the way that the NHL and hockey has always been obvious. The NHL backed down and removed all language on the event about diversity and minority candidates. Maybe the biggest whiff ever.

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What is the NHL afraid of? As always, it’s terrified of its crusty white fanbase, even though most of that will be dead in the next 10-15 years. The NHL is still pretty convinced that its arenas are mostly filled with old white guys who just showed up to see fights and hates anything that caters to modern society in the least. Mostly, they’re terrified that if there was any kind of similar reaction to their league that the NFL got over Colin Kaepernick, it would be fatal for them. The NFL can stomach that blow, which only lasted barely a ripple anyway, but the NHL can’t.

The thing is that hockey fans aren’t going anywhere. Too much of their identity is wrapped up in being a hockey fan. I’ve always said, for example, that if the Chicago Blackhawks changed their logo, there would be a lot of whining and yelling from a certain set of fans, and then those same fans would be the very first ones to buy the new jersey with a new logo on it. I’ve seen it. But Gary Bettman and the NHL are still too scared.

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All you need to know is that while the NHL might claim this or that, they still have Paul Bissonnette on one of their national broadcasts, who works for BarfStool, a bastion of hate and ignorance. That’s where the NHL is. The NHL is where it can watch one of the major sports media companies, SB Nation, ax almost all of its hockey coverage when it decides it needs to cut marginal costs, because that’s where the NHL is.

In the spirit of how they and YCP want to act, we’ll just say that’s their choice. It’s a choice that will see them left behind of course, but it’s their league, and they can drive it into the ground if they choose. 

A change for the better

LeBron James

For sports fans who believe that NBA basketball has been “too playground” since Larry Bird retired in 1992, this year’s All-Star game is doing the opposite of reaching out to those fans.

The NBA is taking it all the way back to the schoolyard this year in Salt Lake City. Yes, the starters will still be voted on by a combination of the media, fans, and players. Also, there will still be 12 players from each conference, reserves voted on by the coaches. The difference this year, fans will get to see the players divided up live, in a pregame segment.

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No more East vs. West

For five seasons, the NBA has done away with East vs. West All-Star game matchup, and had the two leading vote-getters serve as captains who pick and choose teams from amongst the other all-stars. In 2018, it was done privately. LeBron James then tweeted out that he wished it had been done on television, so since then captains have made their picks live.

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While the process is aired on TNT, only Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Ernie Johnson, and Shaq are in the same room. The captains are in different parts of the country and no other players are televised. This season, if LeBron James and Kevin Durant — or whoever the leading vote-getter in the East is — decide to mess with James Harden by picking him last, he will be staring right at them if receives an All-Star selection.

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Taking a page out of the NHL’s book

The NHL did something similar to this from 2011-15, except they set it up like the actual draft. It was interesting, but it might have been more fun if the players were lined up at center ice and skated over to the side that chose them.

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The details on how exactly the choice of players is going to be executed have not yet been revealed. We will all find out together whether or not pyrotechnics will be involved, if Kevin Hart will be making witty comments about the players as they are picked, or if players will be elevated up from underneath the court once their names are called. I’m just happy they finally have gone all in with this pickup game style of dividing up the teams.

I used to enjoy the East vs. West matchups every year, regardless of how competitive the game was. NBA All-Star Weekend is one of my favorite events on the sports calendar. I never thought it needed fixing. If I was in charge I would bring back the old Stay in School Jam from the 1990s — more so for the mascot slam dunk contest than the wholesome message.

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As fun as it was to pull for the perpetual underdog Eastern Conference, change is fine with me as long as the idea is good. Bringing basketball back to its literal most elementary form, choosing teams at recess, sounded like a winner as soon as the NBA decided on it. Of course, it will be more embarrassing this year for a player to be the last pick in front of a national audience than it would be in front of 10 of his friends two decades ago, but NBA players receive large financial bonuses just for being selected as an all-star. That check should quickly remove any shame.

NBA fans, be sure to get to the T.V. a little bit earlier than usual on All-Star Sunday. It’s the most athletically similar your favorite players will ever be to you. Waiting to be selected for a pickup game in the middle of winter.

The L.A. Kings, and the Pacific Division, prove why overtime and the shootout are a plague upon society

The Los Angeles Kings are not good

The idea that the NHL regular season is just an 82-game preseason is maybe the last vestige of a time when 16 of the then 21 teams made the playoffs. These days, when exactly half the teams are culled, some genuinely decent teams don’t make it. Teams like the Knights last year can rack up over 90 points and not make it, though we thank them for it because it was utterly hilarious. It may be a pointless and endless jaunt for teams firmly ensconced in the top of the standings, but for a whole host anywhere near the cutoff line, it’s a necessary exercise filled with excitement and drama. As dramatic as a Thursday night in Calgary can be, that is.

But that doesn’t mean that the NHL decides who has 82 games end justifiably or in utter dejection isn’t one of the dumber things going in sports right now. One need look no further than the Pacific Division to see why.

God save the Kings

Let us start with the Los Angeles Kings. The Figueroa Formation (I just thought of that) currently sit third in the Pacific, the last automatic playoff spot, with 58 points. Folks, lemme tell ya, the Kings aren’t good at anything. They’re 17th in goals per game. They’re 22nd in goals-against per game. Their penalty kill makes the baby Jesus weep. Their power play barely rises to the level of decent. Their metrics are just above middling, 13th in Corsi-percentage and 10th in expected goals percentage at even-strength. Their goaltending is less presentable than a puke-puddle in Hollywood, a far more common occurrence than most people realize. They’re not even getting all that lucky, considering their shooting-percentage is 24th in the NHL.

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This isn’t even a team being carried by some Atlas-like performance by anyone. Kevin Fiala is producing at a point-per-game rate, good for 32nd in the league, and their leading goal-scorer Adrian Kempe (I always have this urge to call him “Mario” because apparently I have a fascination with mid-70s Argentine strikers with incredible hair. Unlikely I’m the only one. And yes that was “Kempes” but it’s that kind of day) is on pace for 31 goals. There is simply nothing remarkable about the Kings, who scream that they should be a team that misses out on the playoffs by anywhere from 5-10 points.

And yet they have not just a spot but an automatic spot thanks to three wins in overtime and an additional four in the shootout. That’s seven points they’ve gained in the standings in things that don’t really have much to do with hockey as we know it.

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Yes, I know, fans love 3-on-3 overtime. Listen to the crowd during it, I’m told. This is the same argument the Cherry-acolytes trot out to keep fighting in the game, and no one who can count to six thinks fighting should be in hockey anymore. 3-on-3 is faux excitement. It’s a farce. It’s fake. I know, lots of things happen. But it’s really no different than the Manfred Man in extra-innings and everyone loathes that too. It’s being simply handed a chance to score without doing anything to earn it, which is the whole point of hockey. I’m sure if we decided baseball games by not allowing pitchers to throw anything other than batting practice fastballs, we’d see some of the game’s biggest sluggers end games with majestic blasts that would get a whole lot of ooze-filled goobers clapping like seals. What makes baseball’s best baseball’s best is they can do that while facing the most difficult challenges on the mound. Ditto hockey. Connor McDavid isn’t Connor McDavid because he can scorch through space that other teams simply can’t cover, it’s because he creates it against five defenders.

Problem rampant elsewhere in NHL, too

The Kings aren’t alone. The division-leading Knights have five overtime wins and an additional three in the shootout. Again, eight points they basically go out of a skee-ball machine. Their 21 regulation wins are good for 11th best in the league. And this is a division leader? Their +17 goal-difference is 12th. Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames, a genuinely well-constructed team, lead the league in losses in overtime with nine. That doesn’t mean they lack something, it just means a whole bunch of coin-flips–basically rebounds that bounced a certain way that led to a 2-on-1 the other way which is all overtime is–haven’t gone their way. And now they’re scrapping for their playoff lives even though they have a goal-difference some 14 goals better than the Kings.

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The Oilers have 25 wins in regulation, again the whole point of the exercise, which dwarfs anything anyone else in the division has done. They get a wildcard spot for their troubles.

We know why it works this way. Gary Bettman and his cronies long ago figured out the shootout and the point given for just reaching overtime creates fake parody. Teams always kind of look like they’re in the playoff chase unless they’re truly a disaster (and most of them these days are trying to be a disaster as they “Suck Hard For Bedard”). Only nine of the 32 teams right now would “appear” to be under .500 to the layman, and a three point gap to a playoff spot or division lead sounds small if you don’t know how hard it is to gain any ground in this wasteland of ginned-up equality.

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But it is not what it appears to be, and it never has been. And for that, we get whatever it is this Kings thing is presented as a playoff team. Maybe it is all a waste of time. 

The Vancouver Canucks are the worst

The Vancouver Canucks fired Bruce Boudreau in the most publicly embarrassing way possible.

For an organization that has spent almost its entire existence accomplishing nothing, the amount of noise the Vancouver Canucks generate is certainly outsized. Three lost Stanley Cup Finals is the sum of their 53-year existence, and yet it feels like the drama they create always seeps into the greater hockey world, if only because they demand it so. Perhaps given their placing on the West Coast, it’s the only way they can get anyone to pay attention to them between their sporadic spasms of competence, throwing another toddler tantrum instead of just doing what they’re supposed to. Fucking over one of the most well-liked guys in hockey, Bruce Boudreau, is an excellent way to get into the headlines when your play won’t.

The Canucks suck ass this year, which isn’t much of a shock. But they don’t, or at least didn’t, suck in any sort of noticeable way. They’re not really in the “Suck Hard for Bedard” Derby, nor are they anywhere near the playoff chase. They’re in the worst spot you can be in hockey, a nebulous gray area filled with nothing and not heading in any general direction. Basically, Sheffield.

When things are this in the mud and shiftless, firing the coach is a natural turn of events. The Canucks need some sort of overhaul, they have for a very long time now, and they hired in a new GM in Jim Rutherford just about a year ago. A GM wants his own coach, and he didn’t hire Boudreau. But it shouldn’t be all that hard to not tell the world that you’ve interviewed other coaching candidates before you’ve fired the one you’ve got, which is exactly what Rutherford did.

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It isn’t a surprise that a GM would have talked to others before firing a coach. It wouldn’t be prudent to fire a guy and then make it up as you go. You want to have a plan in place. But that’s all supposed to be under cover so you don’t completely embarrass the guy you’ve got. Especially when that guy is Boudreau, whom his players and fans always tend to love. You could do this with someone like John Tortorella, of course.

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The Canucks publicly embarrassed Boudreau for this guy?

Maybe the most galling aspect of all of this is that Rutherford and the rest of the Canucks front office put Boudreau out on an ice float so they could hire Rick Fucking Tocchet. There is nothing to suggest that Tocchet isn’t the same moron that most every other NHL coach is, a beloved former player who keeps getting work because he was a beloved former player and that’s it.

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Tocchet has coached for six years, two in Tampa and four in Arizona, and while neither roster was all that close to good, it’s not like he got any of them to play over their heads. He’s never come close to sniffing a real playoff spot (no, the bubble doesn’t count), and it’s hard not to notice his immediate replacement in Tampa, Guy Boucher, was able to goof a conference final appearance in the first season he took over. There isn’t even a raft of young players you could argue he helped develop into real stars. One gets the impression Steven Stamkos probably finds his way to 500 goals if he hadn’t spent two seasons under Tocchet’s tutelage. 

But there was Boudreau, left dangling in the wind all week, perhaps with his bosses hoping he would quit in the turmoil and get them off the hook for what they owe him, coaching two games at home with everyone in the building knowing that he was going to get fired. And it seems Boudreau knew exactly why it was dragged out this long.

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Could anyone possibly watch Tocchet’s work on TNT and conclude that he’s anything other than a pillock? What exactly about this doofus merits treating Boudreau this way? By the way, Boudreau has playoff appearances and 100+ point seasons as a coach dripping out of his ears. Generally, he knows what he’s doing, even if he hasn’t come all that close to a Cup.

Vancouver’s problems are not due to Boudreau

But even Boudreau couldn’t get it working in Vancouver, because they’re that big of a mess. In Washington, in Anaheim, and in Minnesota, Boudreau walked in and immediately rocketed those teams to the top of their divisions. In Vancouver he couldn’t manage to keep the axles from falling off.

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To be fair to both Boudreau and Rutherford, this mess was created before they arrived in B.C., thanks to the rudderless leadership that came before. Former GM Jim Benning never wanted to start over, but it is arguable whether the Canucks ever started either. Under Francesco Aquilini’s ownership, the Canucks have always grasped at the bottom playoff spots instead of starting from the ground up, which has led to a mangled roster full of players desperately nabbed and signed to ridiculous contracts simply because the Canucks needed someone. They traded for Oliver Ekman-Larsson just in time to watch his bones and skills turn to cardboard. Tyler Myers has always been a stiff, and yet the Canucks couldn’t help but be wooed by the fact that he’s 6-8. Conor Garland isn’t that financially prohibitive, but Benning gave up draft picks and more to get him and OEL when he’s just a guy, much like anyone else who’s put on a Coyotes jersey.

The whole organizations is in shambles

The Canucks haven’t been helped by some younger players who looked like stars stalling out. Elias Pettersson looked like he would be what Karil Kaprizov is as a rookie four seasons ago. He’s never really moved beyond that and looks like a really good second liner. Brock Boeser looked like a 40-goal scorer in his rookie year before getting hurt. He’s never been totally healthy since and has never taken another step forward, though a couple backward. He’s been a healthy scratch at times.

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The Canucks haven’t really earned the trust of their players either, which Quinn Hughes let out of the bag when he told the world he thought Tanner Pearson’s injury had been mishandled. At no level below Rutherford does anyone feel like they’re being treated well.

Rutherford also decided to extend J.T. Miller instead of trading him, and Miller’s a fine player coming off a 99-point season, but he’ll be in his 30s by the time the team is relevant again. There’s no space to extend captain Bo Horvat, who is headed for the exit door possibly by the time you read this. Which is fine, Horvat isn’t really a franchise-turning player, but how do the Canucks plan to find that? They’ll have to hustle to get into the mix for Bedard or Adam Fantilli, and there are just enough players not quite good enough to make for a contender but not anywhere bad enough to see Vancouver bottom out. They don’t really have too much cap relief coming for another couple seasons unless they can rob some other team blind (never out of the question in the NHL). They’ve seen what a team built around Horvat, Pettersson, Boeser, and Hughes can get them, which is a handful of themselves. Now it’s time to try with just Hughes and a new crew.

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But how do they get there? The Canucks have never shown any evidence they know how, which is just about the only tradition they’ve managed in their existence. 

It would be cool if some of the Jacksonville Jaguars kneeled in protest of Ron DeSantis’ recent actions

Image for article titled It would be cool if some of the Jacksonville Jaguars kneeled in protest of Ron DeSantis’ recent actions

When the Jaguars take on the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium, it will be Jacksonville’s first time playing in the Divisional Round since 2017 — which is also the last time the Jags made the playoffs. 2017 is coincidentally the same year in which members of the team kneeled against a politician’s hateful ways. Donald Trump was the cause then. If it happened this time, it would be because of Ron DeSantis.

This is why local elections are even more important than national ones.

Florida man at it again

This week, Florida’s Republican governor blocked the College Board from testing a pilot AP African American Studies course. The National Review was able to obtain a letter that detailed how the state’s Department of Education’s Office of Articulation feels that the curriculum “is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”

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According to information from the 2020 Census, at the time, Florida ranked as the third-largest state with a population of 21.5 million. Of those residents, 12.4 percent were Black, which equals over 2.5 million Black people. Also, over 45 members of the Jaguars’ total roster are Black. But despite those numbers, a governor that’s already banned Critical Race Theory and who signed the “Stop Woke” act into law last year, dared to post a message on MLK Day when he’s tirelessly working to prevent Black — and white — students from learning what King’s famous dream was actually about.

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(Also, DeSantis also made a push to ban COVID-19 mandates in Florida this week.)

Politics and sports

Recently, DeSantis slammed a job fair that the NHL was going to hold in the state that was supposedly going to be open to people who “identify as female, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, and/or a person with a disability.” This isn’t surprising given who we’re talking about. Just last year, DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law which bans public school teachers from classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity.

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A few years ago, the relationship between the NFL and politics was tumultuous, to say the least, as the President seemed to find great joy in taking shots at players, owners, the league, and Commissioner Roger Goodell as a way to keep igniting his base. As a result, people started kneeling all over the world following in Colin Kaepernick’s footsteps.

*Looks around*

A good time to take a knee

Given the circumstances, it seems like this would be a great time for some of the Jaguars to take a knee again.

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But, it’s a pipedream. We now know that the “racial awakening” of 2020 disappeared faster than it arrived and that the peaceful act of kneeling was hijacked, eventually turning it into a fad. Besides, this is the Jacksonville Jaguars we’re talking about. A franchise that was back standing for the national anthem only a little over a week after Trump said that players who kneeled should be fired.