Developing a Hockey Fan: Part 1

16 September 2013

For my first post in this series (and the first of my entire blog), I thought I would share the story of someone whom I believe to be very well-versed on the sport of hockey - ME!  But, more specifically, I wanted to pose this question:

How is a hockey fan created?

It seems pretty simple to those people who grew up in the cold-weather climates of the Northeastern United States and Canada, but what about those of us who didn't?  How do WE pick up the game?  Using myself as an example, I'll chart a chronological timeline to show how tricky it can be - detailing a variety of factors from family connection and youth sports registration to television coverage and, the most underrated factor of them all, video games.

1982-1985: The Influence of Baseball, and the Curse of SportsVision

My father was a proud member of the US Navy, and so our family moved around quite a bit after I was born.  In 1982, we finally settled into Great Lakes, Illinois - just north of Chicago - as Dad was assigned to instruct the new recruits at the Great Lakes Naval Station (home to the nation's only Naval boot camp, as well as being my birthplace in 1976).

From a sports perspective, I come from a family of baseball fans.  My father played on his high school team and grew up cheering for the Milwaukee Braves - a team led by Hall-of-Famers Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Warren Spahn, the winningest left-handed pitcher in MLB History (Spahn, who has an award bestowed each year in his honor, was my dad's favorite player).  My father's family is from southern Illinois, and many of them still cheer for the St. Louis Cardinals to this day; my mother's family is from Missouri and Arkansas, and virtually all of them cheer for the St. Louis Cardinals as well.  With an upbringing like this, it should come as no surprise that I played Little League baseball, like many 6-year-old American boys:

Thrilled beyond belief
If there was some sort of pee-wee hockey to join at that time and place, then I sure didn't know about it.  But I definitely took a shine to baseball, quickly building a large collection of baseball cards, while watching as many games on TV as I could.  Even with the strong St. Louis Cardinals influence from my family, my sister and I ultimately found ourselves cheering for the hometown Chicago Cubs.  Sure, they weren't the greatest team, but their presence was everywhere - the home games would always be on right around the time I got home from school (remember - we were still several years away from having lights at Wrigley Field in order to play night games), and almost all of their games were on WGN, featuring play-by-play by the legendary broadcaster, Harry Caray:

Simply put, Chicago in the early 1980's was a baseball town - it was the only sport being discussed in my house, and I have a hard time recalling any other sport being talked about in the news or even on the playground amongst my friends.  The Bulls were lousy at the time, and Michael Jordan's arrival was still a few years away; the Bears weren't much better, and were also a couple of years away from prominence.  But what about the Blackhawks?

The Blackhawks were certainly successful at that time, making the Conference Finals three times in a four-year stretch from 1982 to 1985, but then why didn't I ever really hear about them?  I think the biggest culprit was the television coverage.  During that time, Chicago Blackhawks games were broadcast on a subscription-based pay-TV service known as ONTV, which later became SportsVision.  Noted baseball blog White Sox Interactive did a very thorough piece about SportsVision, and hinted at the biggest issue with this particular method of broadcasting:

The idea was to get Chicago sports fans to sign up for the service which would provide a steady diet of White Sox games (primarily home games) along with the Chicago Bulls, Chicago Blackhawks and Chicago Sting (soccer). The "channel" would be provided by local and area cable services as a "premium" (highest priced) service. At the time of launching, it cost most fans fifty dollars just to get it installed (you had to have a special descrambler), not counting the monthly fee which varied from system to system.

Suffice it to say, even though my family had cable television at that time, we didn't subscribe to Sportsvision.  And while the Blackhawks were winning in their pay-cable anonymity, one of the local MLB teams always seem to captivate a larger audience each year:

1982: St. Louis Cardinals win World Series
: Chicago White Sox win American League West (lose to Baltimore in ALCS)
1984: Chicago Cubs win National League East (lose to San Diego in NLCS)
1985: St. Louis Cardinals win National League pennant (lose to Kansas City in World Series)

So if no one in my family was talking about hockey, none of my grade-school friends seemed to play hockey, and I couldn't find the local team on television, that only leaves one outlet for my younger self to discover the sport: video games.  My family purchased an Atari gaming system during that time, and we would have family video game nights on many Saturdays.  One of the first games we owned was Video Olympics, which did feature a hockey game - but it was nothing more than Pong with a blue background, proving to be a very ineffectual way to hook new fans to the sport.  Activision also released an Ice Hockey game, but I can't really remember playing it - though it did feature this memorable commercial, featuring a young Phil Hartman ("ICE HOCKEY BY ACTIVISION!!!!"):

By 1985, Michael Jordan was gaining fame with the Bulls, and the Mike Ditka-led Bears were becoming a dominant force in the NFL (who could forget that year's "Super Bowl Shuffle"?), so the Blackhawks were driven even further into obscurity in my mind.  In the meantime, my father was transferred to a new duty post and our family moved that fall.  It's amazing to think that with a few slight changes, I could be a Chicago Blackhawks fan right now…

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I try in vain to discover hockey in an even more distant location, and reflect on one of the most notorious incidents in the history of the NHL.

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