By: Brennen Krikorian
For years now, the NHL has had the lowest national popularity among the four major sports in the United States. As crazy as it sounds, there are more people that know about Zion Williamson, who has yet to play an actual NBA game, than Nikita Kucherov, the reigning MVP of the NHL. The obvious reasoning behind this is that the media coverage of the NBA is far more glamorous. However, if people choose to go slightly out of their way and start following hockey, they will soon realize how much more entertaining of a league it is than the National Basketball Association. Among other reasons, there are five main aspects of the NHL that make it a better league to follow than the NBA.
This is by far the most obvious reason why the NHL is more enjoyable than the NBA. In the past couple of years, fighting might have gone down in the NHL, but it is still a common occurrence. As fans, we get to watch guys drop their gloves, throw haymakers at each other, sit in the penalty box for five minutes, and then go back onto the ice like nothing ever happened.
In the NBA, we see guys trash talk each other and get suspended for a couple games. NHL legends such as Sean Avery, Derian Hatcher, Tie Domi, and Shawn Thornton were able to maintain long-term careers in the league because of their ability to go onto the ice and fight someone in order to give their team an emotional spark in the third period. The emotion and masculinity of fighting in hockey is enough to draw attention to the sport.&nbsp;
LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis are some of the biggest superstars, and indisputable top 10 players in the game of basketball today. But what is one similarity all of these players share? They have all played for multiple NBA teams throughout their careers. The NBA has transitioned into a league where people are no longer fans of teams, but rather just fans of players.
Now take a look at some of the top NHL players in the league. Sidney Crosby. Nathan MacKinnon. Patrick Kane. Alex Ovechkin. All of these stars have played their entire careers for the same organization. This has allowed fans to watch their favorite players and become fans of their teams over an extended period of time. There is no concern regarding the stars leaving for another city to build a superteam.
As a result of players staying with their organizations, teams have been able to create rivalries with each other that don’t just go away once a certain player leaves. In the NHL, have lasted generations. Whether it’s the Original Six war of Boston/Montreal, the battle of Pennsylvania between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, or the Canadian competition of the Edmonton and Calgary, fans are passionate about preserving the rivalries between one another. The love that players have for the cities they represent allow the fans to have a stronger appreciation for the sport.
If you were to ask 50 people who follow basketball who they believe will win the NBA championship this season, you will probably get a lot of repetitive responses. The Lakers. The Clippers. The Bucks. The Sixers.
With that being said, if you were to ask 50 people who follow hockey who’s going to be hoisting the Stanley Cup this year, there is a good chance you’re going to get 15-20 different answers.
NBA history is filled with teams that win for three to five years at a time and are unofficially deemed champions before the season even starts. Whether it’s the Showtime Lakers, Jordan’s Bulls, Kobe and Shaq in LA, or the superteam in the Bay Area, spectators have an idea of the champion from day one, and simply end up watching teams battle for second place.
In hockey, it is the complete opposite. Rather than signing two superstars and surrounding the team with role players to win a championship, an NHL team must be constructed in a way that features a balance of skill and team chemistry. Talent must be distributed on both offense and defense.
Take a look at the 2018 season, where the St. Louis Blues were in last place on January 2nd, but ended up winning the Stanley Cup in May. Since the 1985-86 season, only eight teams have won both the President’s Trophy (awarded to the best regular season team) and Stanley Cup in the same season. The uncertainty of who will be crowned as champion makes the entire NHL season more intriguing than the regular season of the NBA.
In the NBA, 24% of players on 2018-19 rosters played for either Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, Arizona, UNC, or Texas. In the NHL, only 33% of players played college hockey at all, which is actually a record high in NHL history.
While hockey offers junior teams as a collegiate substitute, the NHL still has a plethora of players from Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and The Czech Republic that did not attend a university. You’ll find players like Mats Zuccarello, who is viewed as just a decent player here in the United States, but in his home country of Norway, he is viewed as a legend that is introducing thousands of Norwegians to the sport. With the significant number of international players, as well as the six NHL teams that play in Canada, the global diversity makes it one of the best sports in the world.
To put it in simplest terms, the NBA Draft is an underwhelming night. It consists of only two rounds and is fairly predictable. We have seen the majority of the potential selections in college and have an idea of where they are going to land.
The NHL draft is a two-day, seven round spectacle that contains a majority of players that fans are just seeing for the first time. There is no way of truly gauging talent, as all players have dominated in various different leagues around the world. The competition has been different for each and every one of them, making scouting an essential part to a successful organization in the NHL. From the first pick to the last pick, there is always a level of uncertainty. The NHL Draft is also held in an open arena that is filled with representatives from each team, and gives fans a front row view of behind the scenes to show the decision making of the front office.
The NHL will never be at the level of popularity that the NBA sits at any time soon. Due to its easy accessibility and the drama within the league, more viewers are tuning into basketball here in the United States. While that may be true, think about this: How popular would the NHL be if it had the same national media attention as the NBA?
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