Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hockey's International Flavor Bodes Well for Future of the Sport

As I watched a trio of Russian dynamos excite and entertain, a towering Slovak flex his shooting muscle (and, by extension, his stick), a young man from Ontario unleash his lightning-quick stride, and a journeyman goaltender from Flint, Mich., steal some of the Sunday evening spotlight by denying a man of Nigerian descent, all in the view of the second-largest Francophonic city in the world, I couldn't help but think one thing.

Hockey is the perfect sport for our modern, interconnected, globalized times.

I'll leave it to Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, and the rest of our worldly scribes to describe exactly how it's happening, but the fact remains that the political, ethnic, and religious boundaries that divide us are steadily fading.

In the country in which I reside, we recently inaugurated our first minority President to great and much-deserved fanfare. Furthermore, in a couple more decades Caucasians are projected to make up less than half of America's population.

This isn't your grandfather's world, it isn't your father's world, and heck, it isn't even your older cousin's world. (You know, the one who still lives with his parents.)

Applying this knowledge to the sporting landscape, it's easy to pick out the sports that appear to be the best equipped to thrive on a planet where "It's a Small World After All" isn't just a song from an old Disney movie—it's the truth.

Of course, soccer is uniquely positioned for expanded growth. Seemingly every nation cares about it, and it's extremely cheap to play, which is a part of basketball's appeal. Soccer is also the only major team sport in which international competition and regular league play share the marquee, giving it a two-pronged interest-generating attack.

Tennis is a sport played and followed worldwide as well. The four Grand Slam tournaments are competed on three continents, and at least five continents have produced significant characters in the sport's collective history.

Make no mistake though, hockey is third on the list of globalized athletics. While it has yet to create a meaningful foothold in Africa, South America, and Australia, the game inspires great passion across Europe and northern Asia in addition to the obvious Canadian hotbed.

Due largely to the presence of the sport's premier league, the NHL, many cities, states, and regions in America have contracted puck fever. Places like Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and the entirety of New England can rival any foreign counterpart in affection for the game.

Contrast hockey's international presence to basketball, baseball, and especially football. Hard to argue against hockey as the most prepared in that group of four for the incredible shrinking world.

Sure, baseball has Latin America and Japan, and basketball enjoys an increasing presence in Eurasia, but the composition of the Major Leagues and the NBA looks downright xenophobic compared with the cultural cornucopia that is the National Hockey League.

So enjoy the continuing exploits of Alex Ovechkin and Alex Kovalev, of Evgeni Malkin and Zdeno Chara, of Andrew Cogliano, Tim Thomas, and Jarome Iginla.

We as sports fans can either deny the globalization of our games or embrace it.

Meanwhile, we as hockey fans can be grateful our sport is so ahead of the times.

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