I have worked at ESPN since Oct. 28, 1996. Today, in 2010, as I walk the hallways and climb the stairwells of the worldwide leader in Brett Favre coverage, I am viewed as a hockey-centric televangelist; a cheerleader with pompoms made of hockey hair.
There are some people at ESPN who pass me by under fluorescent light and say, “Hey, what’s up hockey guy? Did you see Chris Drury go top shelf on Jonathan Quick last night at 1:04 in the morning? Of course you did! You’re the hockey guy! Rock on!”
Now, I understand I hosted a nightly hockey show from 1998 to 2004. I’m fully aware I have written a weekly hockey column on ESPN.com’s NHL page since 2001. I get that I helped write a book on the hockey life story of Versus NHL analyst Keith Jones, called Jonesy, who played college hockey at Western Michigan. I know I have easily driven about 50,000 miles and spent about $30,000 dollars in my 10 years as a two-time hockey dad. I’m not blind to the fact that I have constructed a 60 by 40 outdoor rink in my backyard since 2001. I remember that I’ve played separate rounds of golf with Ray Bourque and Wayne Gretzky. (OK, now I’m name dropping. My bad.) And so what if my idea of “formal wear” is a game-used Chris Drury sweater.
But don’t pigeonhole me, Sparky!
You would think that this hockey bag tag would please me. It doesn’t. No one looks at ESPN’s Trey Wingo and says, “Hey, the football guy.”
(When people stop me at the local rink and ask me if I am that guy who works at ESPN I always reply, “Yes. I’m Trey Wingo. Nice to meet ya.”)
I’ve often written in my weekly hockey column on ESPN.com how it doesn’t matter to me if four, 14 or 4 million people watch a hockey game on TV. That television rating doesn’t alter my view of hockey or my sporting self-esteem or self-worth one way or the other. If only three other people listened to Ben Folds music, I would still be a huge fan of Ben Folds.
“Too many hockey
But this extra attention at ESPN does bother me a little bit. To me, it says hockey is still viewed by many in America as a circus; a sideshow that is only paid attention to in a mass-media way after someone gets injured, there is a line brawl, fans fight over a Scott Niedermayer hockey stick, or after a minor league coach throws every ingredient of a hockey bench except the backup goalie on the ice in protest of a non-boarding call.
You see, I have always viewed hockey as an equal part of the ENTIRE American sports family. As a child, I hummed the music of NFL Films in my head while playing football next to my house and dreaming of becoming an NFL running back. I shot my Nerf basketball in the house with the CBS basketball theme in my head (“You’ll see the best of basketball on CBS.”), and I played whiffle ball every day the weather permitted.
And, yes, I played street hockey in the summer, skated in the winter and used the legs of living room chairs for makeshift hockey nets while Peter Puck was on the black-and-white television.
It all just blended together for me as a series of sporting planets in one athletic universe.
There was nothing strange or odd about hockey. It was cool and different at the same time; as different as country music and heavy metal. But I can appreciate Kenny Chesney as well as I can appreciate the band Tool.
And that continues to this day. I love the anticipation of a big Monday Night Football game. Kevin Garnett and LeBron James are so exciting and interesting to watch in the NBA. I find more joy watching how they interact with people than actually playing basketball; I was like that with Larry Bird.
I love baseball because it is the game more than any other that requires complete mental awareness. Every moment of the game is dominated by thought. I find the Yankees’ Derek Jeter and the Red Sox’ Dustin Pedroia to be the smartest and most aware baseball players. The player who thinks most clearly, concisely, and quickly is the player who is a joy to watch and a player who wins.
That is why I enjoy watching USA Hockey alumnus Brett Hull video so much. Hull played hockey like a baseball player. His mind’s finger was always on the awareness button. Even today when Brett Hull watches hockey, his eyes are always on the lookout.
I have always emphasized awareness to my USA Hockey sons, 17-year-old Brett (born the summer after Hull’s third straight 70+ goal year. It had NOTHING to do with it. I SWEAR!) and 10-year-old Squirt, Jackson.
1. Look before every hockey moment. You have more time than you think. Find and sense the seam or find and sense the man.
2. Look during your hockey moment. See what is happening around you and where the puck is going. You can anticipate your next move. Go where the puck is going to be.
3. Look after your hockey moment. Stay away from the dead ice spots. Hockey is too fast, you have to get in the right position before the other guy. Moving your feet while being aware of where you are is what can make you a difference-maker.
This is what we can teach our hockey players, in a fun and satisfying way, earlier and better: Awareness, teamwork, anticipation and territorial strategy.
And this is what I try to bring to the national media scene anytime I do a hockey highlight on SportsCenter. I try to illustrate awareness and smarts and human interaction and the importance of a game. Because most in the national media are hockey-ignorant, the casual and serious sports fans are usually shown the fights, the high sticks, the broken glass and coaching tantrums. And so the game is defined as such.
All these thoughts that had been in my mind for a while were really awoken by what I heard Phoenix Coyote coach Dave Tippett say while coaching the Dallas Stars in 2008. Brenden Morrow scored a quadruple-overtime game/series winner against San Jose, and Tippett said: “That was as fitting as anything I’ve ever seen in sports that Brenden Morrow got the game winner.”
I love that quote. Tippett is thinking big by saying “in sports.” He is including hockey in the fabric of American athletics. He is not thinking small or thinking like a hockey elitist.
Too many hockey people treat hockey like an exclusive fraternity locked away from others. Tippett is telling people that our game – make that everyone’s game – is part of the sporting landscape in the United States. Its uniqueness should be part of the sameness.
Of course, every game is different. Of course, people are different. But hockey is not a freak show. It’s part of the purple mountain majesty of sporting passion. It has the physicality of football, the speed and agility of basketball and the mental faucet drip of baseball. And man is it fun. You will never feel more alive. In the winter, the local rink can be the warmest place in town.
I am not the “hockey guy” at ESPN, but I will point out its values when I anchor SportsCenter and do NHL or U.S. college hockey highlights, or when I do play-by-play during the NCAA hockey tournament.
I will celebrate its inclusion in the American sports scene that we love. Yes, I am the American sports fan guy. And hockey has a seat at the table. We are separate and unique, but we are equal.
Hockey, in the U.S. and Canada, has a long history and purpose that is undeniable using any reasonable person’s common-sense department.
It’s time to let us come out and play.
What Caleb Followill is to the Kings of Leon, John Buccigross is to ESPN’s hockey coverage. He is a regular anchor on the award-winning SportsCenter and writes a regular hockey column on ESPN.com. He is also a devoted hockey parent and even hits the ice for a little pick-up adult hockey at rinks around his home in Connecticut.