With the NHL collective bargaining agreement talks stalled, and with none planned in the near future, it's looking a little grim for hockey fans right now. It's been expected by much of the hockey media on Twitter that the NHL would start late this year - probably not until December or January - and that's looking more likely at this point. Fans are trying to figure out what to do in the meantime.
A lockout is particularly difficult for hockey fans, since we're like drug addicts; we need our fix, and nothing else will do. Oh, another sport will help pass the time, but it's just not hockey. Literally, as soon as one season is over, people will start asking about when the next will begin. A lot of that is due to our love for the sport itself, but some of that has to do with the nature of hockey fans.
Hockey fans love their sport in a way that's very unlike any other sports. Of course, every sport has their diehard fans, their stats heads, their Pollyannas, and those girls who don't care about the sport but really just want to date the players (in hockey, they're called puck bunnies; but don't ever call a woman who's a genuine hockey fan that, even as a joke). But hockey fandom goes beyond all of that.
Now, I grew up a football and baseball fan (go
Seahawks Huskies! and...uh...Mariners...?), and got into hockey just after high school. Hockey fans are simply not like fans of any of the other major North American sports. Perhaps it's the Canadian influence, or maybe it's because of the players themselves, but a fan's first allegiance is to the sport, not to the team of their choice.
It's a very profoundly different way to look at things. Thinking "sport first" creates a feeling of family among hockey fans. If you run into a fellow hockey fan, you're immediately pals - regardless of team affiliation. It's instant bonding. Even if the other person happens to be a fan of a team you absolutely despise, it almost doesn't even matter. The important thing is that you both like hockey.
Can you imagine Boston Red Sox fans bonding with New York Yankees fans over their shared love of baseball? Or some Michigan Wolverines alumni bonding with Ohio State Buckeyes alumni over the awesomeness of college football? It's just not going to happen. Ever.
But it happens with hockey fans all the time.
And the players do play some part in this. They are some of the most down to earth professional athletes out there. There's very little room for ego in hockey - in fact, putting a player before his team for any reason is very much frowned upon - and that carries over into their off-ice activities. They try to make the fans feel like a part of their team, regardless of where they play.
Don't get me wrong; fans do occasionally get ugly with one another at games. But those are probably more the exceptions than the rule, and that sort of thin often happens in the heat of the moment rather than being premeditated action. However, in the offseason, all fans are equal in the eyes of hockey, regardless of team. This time of year, a good natured ribbing is usually as far as things go, for the most part.
Some of this has to do with the small-community feeling that we all share. The NHL has the smallest fan base of all of the major sports in North America, and hockey fans are acutely aware of that fact. Some people even consider it a "niche" sport. So when we run into someone who shares our passion for the game, we know we're not alone and must acknowledge that fact somehow.
And it doesn't matter if you're new to the game or a retired NHLer. Everyone's more than happy to talk to you about hockey. And right about now, everyone's looking for someone to commiserate with about the lack of hockey (is it October yet?) and the probable NHL lockout this season.
Wear an NHL team t-shirt out shopping one day, and see if anyone talks to you. You probably won't be able to get back home again without at least one random person asking you who your favorite player is. Because a fellow hockey fan will probably feel compelled to ask or acknowledge you somehow.
So if you're a hockey fan, trust me, you're not alone.