Well, what happens when you get a bunch of older hockey people in a room? They tend to be out of touch. There are far worse things for hockey players than video games, yet here we are.
The National Hockey League doesn’t like to make the game fun (or safe for that matter). But the issues I see today are not just from the biggest league in the world. It comes from an ingrained culture that is still stuck in the past.
You may have seen the headlines from the OHL. Rick Westhead from TSN was informed that “some players have been advised to scrub references to the game from their accounts.” That game is Fortnite. Hockey is frustrating in its ignorance. This is a golden opportunity to draw in a younger demographic, something the league is failing to do.
Hockey’s audience can skew a little older and it’s a tough sell to spend a lot of money on games, especially when your team is not very good. Around the league, hockey players play video games. Why wouldn’t they? Professional players are not expected to be out on the town every night, so what’s wrong with playing video games?
From silly to ridiculous
The TSN article noted several players around the league who play. The Vancouver Canucks are not excluded. A few months ago, Jeff Marek started a firestorm investigation by fans by saying a prospect was ruining his career because of video games. For a short time, Olli Juolevi was suspected to be the player Marek was talking about.
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It wasn’t true, but of course, hockey people took that the wrong way. They see video games as a problem that will interfere with hockey. Juolevi had a great season last year. I don’t think the video games are holding him back. His progression thus far compared to his peers is another discussion, but he’s going to play in the NHL. Of course the player Marek was talking about was not Juolevi.
That’s why it’s so strange to me that hockey people are concerned about video games. Of course, addiction is a real thing. However, hockey players throughout history were and are addicted to alcohol, gambling, cocaine, and if you are Bobby Hull (and other dirtbags), beating women. Hockey rarely confronts that. So, why video games? Because they don’t understand, or perhaps it’s an easy scapegoat? Fortunately, Canucks general manager Jim Benning doesn’t fall into that trap.
When Benning was talking to Ben Kuzma about the Juolevi situation in May, he understood that this is something today’s players do. For him, it’s not a problem unless it becomes one (i.e. an addiction). The Canucks GM has yet hear an issue related to video games yet. Benning doesn’t understand the appeal of watching other people play video games in an arena and that’s okay. Entertainment has evolved and it always will. But he is personally not restricting his players from engaging, as long as they stay professional.
Growing this game requires an open mind
The only thing that concerns me is how some teams may treat this at the draft. If video games are a reason to pass on a talented hockey player, then that’s a pretty stupid reason for doing so. I’m confident the Canucks won’t fall into that trap, but I don’t think it should end there.
I have said time and time again that when the times change, the league has to as well. You can take pride in your traditions, but if people stop caring about those, then the on-ice product will suffer. Hockey fans don’t live forever and maybe it’s just me, but I want this sport to continue to grow. It should never be satisfied with where it’s currently at.
But growing the game is not just tapping into jumping into new markets across the ocean. Some of us love sports because of the experiences we had when we were young. Not just playing, but going to games, meeting players, attending team-sponsored events.
The secret is to get younger demographics interested again. But when you make it look like there is a crack down on video games, hockey doesn’t seem so fun. To avoid getting on a soap box, it feels like a bunch of stuffy businessmen want to get your money and for you to leave. Hockey needs to open its minds just a little bit and know when to take advantage of the most popular game on the planet.
Video games command a huge following and if you can get even 1% of that audience just a little interested in hockey, that’s an army of new fans. I think it’s important to keep in mind. Not just because I enjoy video games, but I want to see this sport thrive. It already has a high barrier to entry with its cost to play. I do think it’s on the NHL to lower those barriers to help grow the sport globally. Because once that happens, everybody wins.