Do remember that time you first learned how to throw a baseball, ride a bike or how to cast a line in the water to go fishing? I would guess that in most of those situations, a parent was involved helping guide you at learning and mastering those skills. It certainly did not mean it was free of bumps and bruises. I know when I learned how to ride my bike that tough lesson learned meant I accrued a few scars as well as a few stitches in the process. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't bad parenting just when my parents let go of the bike I moved into some sand lost control and did a header to the curb. Painful yes, but I learned to avoid sand and through trial and error I eventually gained enough confidence to bike without the training wheels. Yet would the lesson been more painful if my mom and dad didn't help me? Most likely yes, especially after you watch movies like E.T. when I was young where apparently every kid is brazen and skilled enough to outrace police officers in cars and can turn a developing neighborhood into your own BMX supercross event. Sure as I gained more experience I began to trying some of those moves but on far smaller scale. Maybe a small jump off a few boards, perhaps a few off-the road trails but never to escape from a slew of police officers. Pretty tame stuff.
Yet without that help at the beginning who knows how it could've turned out for me. I may have chosen to avoid bike riding altogether. Instead it was valuable escape for a kid as I rode all over town to sports practices and just random kid errands. I never would've had that independence to just jump on my bike and ride off if I had never learned how to ride in the first place. So, what does this have to do with hockey? I think its a lot like riding a bike. Without too much concentration riding a bike seems pretty simple as perhaps does the game of hockey. Put a puck into a net, how tough is that? Whichever team puts the most pucks in the net wins the game. Simple right? Yet like riding a bike upon closer inspection, you begin to notice the variables that can cause you to question your understanding of the whole affair. You see the players performing a line change and suddenly you look around nervously and wonder why they chose to switch personnel at that particular time. That question could be answered rather easily by someone who watches the game regularly but did you ever fear of asking a "simple" question for fear of being teased for your lack of basic knowledge? Its a common fear, I know I didn't often ask questions in class for fear of looking "stupid" in front of my classmates. It seems silly to have been worried about that now, but when you're younger its a big deal yet that fear can still be there into adulthood. People usually tend to avoid things they are unfamiliar with; especially in sports where they don't want to be exposed for being aloof or unaware of basic rules and procedures.
This brings me to the main crux of this article. I love hockey, and I want to see the game grow. Like it or not, hockey is a niche sport in this country and I believe its the duty of every fan of the game to do their best to help grow the game. So what can you do? I know that not everyone reading this played hockey and can speak from first-hand experience as to how the game works. Yet even if you're a non-hockey playing fan you can help teach those who know little or nothing about the game. I am going to try to provide some ideas as how to introduce new fans to the game in a way that allows them to fall in love with the game naturally and avoids making them feel patronized. So what can you do?
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1. Invite them to a game ~ It may seem incredibly simple, but it does take some encouragement and some flexibility in one's schedule to make it happen. It doesn't have to be the NHL; lower level games (like high school, college or the minors) can work very well and often the price to attend are far more affordable which certainly encourages the event. Once you are at the game, just encourage them to ask any questions if they have any. Answer clearly but be concise, this is not a time to wow them with all of your hockey knowledge at one sitting. If you think your answer could become a speech, tell them you'll finish during a stoppage or an intermission. Let them enjoy the flow and speed of the game. This approach also avoids you patronizing them by explaining elements of the game they may already know or understand. Lower level hockey also things pretty basic so you won't end up confusing these new fans with lots of jargon about strategy. After you've gone to a few lower level games then try moving up minor league and NHL hockey which will allow them to build upon what they've already learned. You typically do not start teaching a kid how to ride a bike by starting out with a professional level speed bike, so why start with the most complicated level of hockey first?
2. Keep it social and light ~ If you want someone to feel they can join a great fraternity like hockey fans the key is to keep things both social and light. Afterall if they're not having fun more than likely they're going to give up. So if you have some big issue with how the team is being run you may want to mute those feelings a tad and just stick to enjoying the hockey the best that you can. I know that can be tough; a team can make a move you disagree with or a coach can continue playing someone you think is hurting the team and it drives you crazy. Yet if this new fan sees you all angry and bothered about it, it may kill the fun of enjoying the game. The other side effect of making it social is the sense of belonging it creates and that in itself can encourage them to follow the game as well.
3. Invite them to watch a game on TV with you ~ While many say its better to be at a game than to watch one on TV, there is something to be said for the wide angle you view the action from the comfort of your home. The wide angle can allow new fans to see plays develop as well as having access to replays where they can pick up on the subtle portions of the game that may not be apparent when seen at full speed. I would recommend once again to avoid becoming your very own play-by-play person but rather provide input when they ask for it. Sometimes seeing games on TV slows the action down to a more easily understood level. Not to mention, the broadcast themselves may provide the additional input they may be seeking while not sounding like a know-it-all that you may come off as if you offered the same information.
4. Watch a hockey movie or documentary together ~ This one is sort of an optional suggestion. But hockey has its own sort of popular culture thanks to some of the movies made about it. Hockey movies like Slap Shot have become a part of the lexicon, and while I wouldn't necessarily recommend such vulgar film to just anybody but if you feel they could handle it they might enjoy hearing where so many of the phrases that may appear in a hockey broadcast originate from. If you feel they may not appreciate some of the humor from that film there are more tame alternatives like Miracle, or perhaps a hockey documentaries like In the Crease or Pond Hockey. These documentaries can provide valuable insight into youth hockey but also they celebrate the fun of the game.
5. Avoid suggesting message boards but direct them towards blogs or quality hockey writers instead ~ A message board may seem like an obvious place for a fan to learn the game but they are also places that are rather clicky. Message boards have their own amount of regulars and they may not have the patience to deal with a new fan and the kinds of questions they may ask. A better approach is recommending they visit a proven and trusted hockey blog or local team beat writer and then its less about fitting into some new social group and more about information. Most beat writers that work for newspapers often blog to add a bit more beyond their normal coverage. They are some of the most accessable sportswriters in the league and they often are quite cordial and friendly when responding to questions.
These are some basic ideas you can use to introduce people to the game of hockey. But especially if you don't live an area that lives and breathes hockey like I do its a great excuse to get together and do something different. Hockey is a culture, and one that is a lot of fun to be apart of. But it certainly doesn't help hockey or the NHL grow in popularity to shut out new fans who are new to the game. I know I've made a lot of friends simply because of the shared interest in hockey, and without question that opportunity would be true for them as well. If the game grows in popularity, everyone wins. I believe that most people feel very comfortable sharing about things they love and appreciate so why not the game of hockey. I know it will take time, and that you have your own busy lives to think of but why keep it to yourself. Your love can become someone's passion and that is always a wonderful thing to behold.