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Weekly Question: Growing the game edition

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How do you think the NHL should be growing the game?

2021 NHL Draft Lottery Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

The NHL is famously resistant to change, and hostile to newcomers. Hockey culture values history and tradition, as exemplified by the way the media reacts every time two original six teams play each other. In recent years, the league has been trying to “grow the game,” which has mostly involved expanding to nontraditional hockey markets and inviting pop stars to perform at events. I think it’s safe to say that the reception to these attempts to grow the game has not been great, which is a shame because social media has really highlighted just how much talent and creativity there is in the hockey community. The NHL’s seeming latest blunder was the hiring of a young TikTok star as a “voice for the fans.”

I recognize that since I don’t use TikTok much and have been out of high school for a while now, I’m perhaps not the best judge of whether or not a TikTok star is appealing to The Youths — but I don’t quite understand this hire. This kid looks like he was created in a factory for TikTok stars, and all he seems to do on his page is stare into the camera and sometimes lip-sync badly. It’s very off-putting. He also has a podcast with Dave Portnoy and works a lot with Barstool, which is just… great. It’s so great.

This got me thinking, though, about what the NHL could actually do to appeal to The Youths. I’m well aware that hockey’s main audience is people in roughly the same demographic as this TikTok boy, so on some level it does make sense to partner with, say, Barstool, to lock down those white dudes who like sports but don’t like hockey. It’s really frustrating, though, to see this league continuously refuse to even try to reach out to new demographics.

I don’t harbor any delusions about how much hockey actually appeals to people who aren’t cishet white men. I’m well aware that I engage with hockey fandom in a bubble. But the thing is, I built myself that bubble, deliberately, because before I discovered hockey blogs, my experiences with hockey fans were almost universally awful. To this day, when I tell people that I have a hockey blog, the reaction I get the most often is shock and confusion. Most people assume that, as a female hockey blogger, I must be facing gamergate-levels of harassment on a daily basis. I’m not, thankfully, but this is the kind of reputation that hockey has. I’ve also met a lot of women who have told me that they would never have gotten involved in hockey fandom if not for the relatively diverse and inclusive community that exists online. I feel like, maybe, I don’t know, the NHL could try to make sure that kind of thing happens more often.

Here’s a fun fact some of you might not have heard before: Fanfiction about men’s hockey players is one of the biggest fandoms on the world’s biggest fanfiction website, Archive of Our Own. It currently sits at 13,285 fanfics. For comparison, men’s football is at 16,662, figure skating is at 4,919, baseball is at 1,185, and men’s basketball is at 454. There is more fanfiction about men’s hockey players on AO3 than there is about The Hunger Games, Anne of Green Gables, Pirates of the Caribbean, and - brace yourselves - Twilight, just to name a few examples. That’s without even counting the fanfics being published on tumblr, wattpad, or any other fanfiction website (and yes, the numbers for some of these other, non-sport fandoms would be a lot higher if I was counting other fanfiction websites, but still).

Now, you might ask, why are so many people writing fanfiction about hockey players? And why aren’t they writing about other sports? I don’t personally engage with this particular side of hockey fandom, but I know enough to tell you that there are two explanations.

The first is a popular webcomic called Check, Please!, which began on tumblr in 2013, and wrapped up in spring 2020. The webcomic followed the adventures of a fictional college hockey team. It was geared toward people who didn’t know much about hockey, with frequent interludes to explain the rules of the game, or little-known hockey slang, or fun parts of hockey culture. It focused on the weirder aspects of the game, like nicknames and hockey flow, and had a strong theme of found family, as well as a romance plot between two of the players. This webcomic was huge on Tumblr during its run, acquiring a massive fanbase mostly made up of people who had previously had no interest whatsoever in hockey. To this day, a lot of Tumblr users will joke about how “everything they know about hockey is from Check, Please!.” A lot of those fans got so into the webcomic that they started actually following hockey, and, in many cases, reading or writing fanfiction about real hockey players. To this day, a significant portion of the online hockey community comes from Check, Please!, and while I have my own opinions about real person fanfiction, I must say that the fanfiction people have made hockey fandom a much more enjoyable place.

The other reason - and I’m a little less knowledgeable about this one - is that One Direction fanfiction was really big around the same time that hockey fanfiction started blowing up, and a lot of the people who read One Direction fanfiction started reading hockey fanfiction, and got into hockey through that.

I’m bringing this up because this is an example of the NHL accidentally reaching a brand new audience. Clearly, there’s something about hockey that’s fun and appealing to people who don’t necessarily belong to the NHL’s target audience. The NHL’s online fanbase has become very diverse in recent years, both because of people coming over from Tumblr and fanfiction, and because those new people being in hockey fandom makes hockey fandom more welcoming of marginalized people. Hockey is fun and weird and the fandom is full of people who know how to appreciate that.

I can also confidently say that blogs like Silver Seven, Welcome To Your Karlsson Years and BonksMullet (RIP) all made me a bigger hockey fan. I didn’t start watching every single regular season Sens game until I got invested in reading game recaps and scrolling through funny live-tweets. I’ve seen lots of people become more invested in Sens hockey because of the online community - people who (sorry) probably wouldn’t have reached that level of passion for the game with just the Sens’ and the NHL’s marketing efforts. I think there’s a real market for hockey content that’s a little off the beaten path - stuff like fancams, or bRian5or6-style shitposts, or game recaps that are more comedic than serious. People like Josh Richards might appeal to the NHL’s established fanbase, but is that fanbase really going anywhere? Isn’t the point to reach out to new fans? Couldn’t people like the countless fancam makers and twitter personalities and bloggers I’ve come across during my time as a hockey blogger do a better job of advising the NHL on appealing to the youths?

Also, not to be the bearer of bad news but hockey is not going to become more popular than football or basketball by trying to appeal to the same demographic. Maybe it’s time to try something new, and see if they reach a completely different audience.

So here’s my question for you all: what do you think the NHL should be doing to grow the game? What kinds of measures do you think would actually help make NHL hockey more appealing to The Youths and other groups that haven’t traditionally been served by the league’s marketing and outreach?