As this lockout drags on and fans become increasingly frustrated (or worse, apathetic), everyone has dealt with a lack of NHL action in different ways. Some have sought out other forms of hockey, shifting focus to the AHL or the ECHL or one of the European leagues – it’s almost the fan’s equivalent of an NHLPA member signing with the KHL, a defiant signal to the owners that you, like the players, have other options and aren’t afraid to exercise them. Others choose to avoid the sport altogether, opting instead to ignore it until the very best becomes available once again. Obviously to some extent this is what the owners are hoping for, that the fans are hooked and can be lured back in if and when the lockout gets resolved, no hard feelings.
The fact is, though, that we all want the NHL back. So it begs the question: is a fan who really just wants the NHL back any "worse" than the fans who are trying to convince themselves that they don't need the League to enjoy the sport?
I had someone tell me recently that hockey fans are divided between those who are truly fans of hockey itself and those who are really only ("only") NHL fans; they believe that one’s approach to hockey fandom basically comes down to the type and level of hockey with which you were raised/introduced, that people raised on the NHL are never fully able to grasp the beauty of the sport in its so-called purest form. And to some extent it may be true - if you grew up in a small town with little or no access to an NHL team, your devotion to the nearby ECHL or CHL or college team (and thus your appreciation of that level) is probably greater, at least initially, than those of us who grew up almost exclusively watching/attending NHL games.
What bothers me about this theory as a whole, however, is the implication that being an NHL fan is somehow lesser than, that someone who didn’t get exposed to minor league and/or college hockey doesn’t really get the game itself and that it’s impossible to start out watching NHL hockey and still appreciate the next level (or two or three) down. It’s the implication that you are somehow superior because while you may enjoy the NHL, you are able to experience the game without the trappings that go with a multimillion dollar roster, a fancy arena and 18-20,000 fans a night.
In short, hockey fans can be NHL fans, but it’s rarely the other way around.
Frankly, while I was raised in an NHL town with an NHL-focused upbringing, I have always considered myself a hockey fan above all else. I love so much about this game - and most of it transcends how much the players are getting paid or even if they’re getting paid at all. It’s how I’m able to turn on any hockey game at any given time and be at least moderately invested, something that’s nearly impossible to do with other sports. I love the sights and the sounds, the personalities of the game both sparkling and dull; I even love hating certain players and teams and fans. I’ve studied the history and the origins of the sport because I find it fun to see where the game has been and how far it’s come.
And yet I haven’t really sought out other leagues to ease the withdrawal pangs of this torturous lockout. I simply can’t get motivated to care about what is going on in the AHL or what the latest college scores are. I don’t even really want to know what some NHLers are doing in their assorted European leagues, so long as they stay healthy (looking at you, Mr. Laich…). The reality is that being a hockey fan can take a great deal of energy, emotion, time, and yes, money – and as all of these tend to be in short supply, I prefer to focus most of it on the best and little else. Someone saying that this doesn’t make me a "true" fan seems akin to telling a music lover that they’re only a "true" lover of music if they spend their evenings watching middle school band concerts and open mic nights at the local bar.
That’s not meant to put down these other hockey havens, mind you - the AHL is a perfectly good development league and a totally valid option to fill up the NHL-less days, as are any of the other leagues and levels in North America and abroad. Some find solace in these other forms of hockey; I’m simply not one of them. I prefer hockey played by the best players in the world at the top level in the world, and anything less just doesn’t appeal to me.
Here’s a newsflash: people choose to be fans in different ways, none better or worse than the other. Someone who replaces the NHL with the AHL or the CHL or college hockey is no better or worse than someone who simply abstains from hockey altogether, just as someone who started watching a year ago isn’t less of a fan than someone who has watched since birth. The common bond between all of us? We love the game. And that’s all that should matter.