TCS Daily

The Sport of Purple America

By Ilya Shapiro - February 23, 2005 12:00 AM

Hockey is the quintessential Purple American sport. Its traditional base lies in blue states such as the frozen M's (Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota), New York, Illinois, and in Canada, but its grassroots are generally concentrated in the reddest part of those states. The balance of power in its top professional league has gradually moved south and southwest -- Tampa and Dallas having won Stanley Cups in recent years, with Carolina, Miami, and Anaheim making the finals -- but the NHL's players are increasingly international and ethnically diverse.

It's a sport with a salt-of-the-earth working class sensibility, but you have to be earning quite a bit to afford fees and equipment for your kids (let alone tickets to the glitz-and-glam spectacle run by the boys in the league office in New York and Toronto -- at least when there's no lockout, on which more later). And with the invention of the indoor arena, you don't even need cold weather locales to enjoy it.

Of course, hockey's popularity correlates more with geography than geopolitics. Places where it's actually cold in the winter provide more opportunity to get involved in a sport that requires ice than places where sixty degrees is considered "long-sleeve weather." For many kids fortunate enough to have time for unstructured sports, hockey simply isn't an option; it's hard to play "shinny" (pick-up hockey) after school and all weekend when the local pond never freezes over. And as far as structured activity goes, most people (at least boys) experience basketball, baseball, and football in their phys-ed classes, while hockey lacks this competitive advantage.

Then why aren't there any NHL teams in such cold red states as Montana, the Dakotas, Kansas, Utah, or Nebraska? The same reason why the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix and Florida has more teams than Quebec: sparse populations -- no matter how intense -- cannot sustain major league franchises.

All those sparsely populated red states can, and do, however, support the vast network of minor leagues that continue to thrive even as the NHL faces financial uncertainty. Until the Jackson Bandits folded in 2003 -- forcing me to make the drive to Biloxi for my puck fix -- Mississippi had three teams at what could be called hockey's AA level. Mississippi!

But this red-and-blue parsing is beside the point: hockey is a purple sport because its cosmopolitan and provincial elements work so well together, whether that be in Portland, Oregon, or Peterborough, Ontario. Now, a strong case could be made that hockey may be purple in precisely the opposite way from that in which I use the term -- that it represents red state tastes and blue state values rather than the other way around. Provincial progressivism instead of cosmopolitan conservatism. Yet that's not quite accurate either (ask the average hockey fan what he thinks of gay marriage).

Indeed, "populism" may be the most accurate label for hockey's political culture -- but then any sport short of European handball can be painted with that brush, so that gets us nowhere. Regardless, hockey normally proves its violetness in the way it combines skill and violence, high and low technology, good beer (Labatt's or Yuengling, never Bud Light) and bad pizza.

Unfortunately, the sport isn't much of any color at the moment. As those of you not distracted by the Super Bowl, spring training, NBA All-Star Game, and the Daytona 500 -- and people say February is a bad sports month -- know, the 2004-05 NHL season has been canceled, a victim of players' union intransigence, owners' inability to exercise self-restraint, and commissioner Gary Bettman's misunderstanding of the sport's fundamentals.

This will thus be the first year since the great flu epidemic of 1919 that Lord Stanley's Cup -- the most storied team trophy in all of sports -- will not be awarded. (Apparently when the Red Sox win the World Series it is hockey, rather than hell, that freezes over.) But that would by no means signify the end of pro hockey and the trickle-down effects it has on the growth of the game in America; even if the NHL dies, it would be reconstituted into some new less-bloated major league.

And this year the Stanley Cup could be awarded to the champion of the American Hockey League (the "AAA" level), as one of the more original op-eds to appear in the New York Times of late argues. The way the standings are now, such a turn could potentially pit the Chicago Wolves (who routinely outdraw the Blackhawks) against the Philadelphia Phantoms -- and would likely be attended by thousands of kids playing in those cities' fabled youth programs.

In any event, the surprising thing that many fans have discovered during this long winter is that, in the words of Ken Dryden, Hall of Fame goaltender and now Minister in the Canadian government, watching hockey "was more habit than it was a passion." And if that's true in Canada -- where Dryden ignited a national debate with his comments -- imagine the existential realization south of the border.

But that's OK. Much as Purple Americans adapt to the failings of both red and blue states, we can accommodate our game's seeming inability to become a national passion. We proud purples can continue to pursue our individuality through a consummate team sport. In the D.C. area, I recommend the CBC feed at Summer's (the same place one goes for soccer).

Ilya Shapiro is a lawyer and writer living in Washington, D.C. He last wrote for TCS about Howard Dean and the future of the Democratic Party. This article is another in a series of ongoing dispatches from and about Purple America.


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