With over 4100 views as of this writing, last weekend’s game between the Southern Stampedeand Canterbury Red Devils is officially the most-watched stream in the history of the New Zealand Ice Hockey League. The match was the second of the 2014 NZIHL season and gave us a great taste of the season to come.
Fans of the NZIHL and AIHL both can appreciate this milestone, as both fanbases have shared frustration at the lack of media attention often paid to our great sport. In countries where cricket and rugby are the sport de rigueur, attracting media attention to ice hockey has sometimes felt like an uphill battle.
And as in the case of last week’s games, the sad truth is that in spite of this milestone, it was the drama and tragedy of the game that attracted New Zealand’s mainstream media.
The injury of Stampede’s Matt Schneider at the hands of Canterbury’s Hayden Argyle is old news by now, but the media reverberations were widely felt. Publications which frequently didn’t bat a lash toward the NZIHL were suddenly experts on the subject, nevermind the fact that some of their articles contained factual inaccuracies.
For example, one piece mentioned Schneider being “held in place” for Argyle to attack. Sure, he was tangled up with another Devils player, but any veteran observer of the sport can tell you hockey players get tangled up in front of the net on a daily basis. There was no malice in the Devils’ positioning there.
This is not a naming and shaming piece so I won’t link to any of the articles in question. As someone who has followed the NZIHL as a fan far longer than I have written about it, I do wonder (in a cynical mental tone of voice, no less): will these publications continue following our League for the good clean hockey? Or will the interest wane if the next few NZIHL games pass without major incident?
And from there, the mind wanders to other questions: while a mostly-accurate account of an injury sustained on the ice isn’t the sort of publicity the fans want or need, does it help grow the sport’s popularity in the end? Is there truth to the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity?
The NZIHL has long struggled with getting the message across to the New Zealand public that our brand of hockey is more finesse than fisticuffs. After all, the Ice Blacks and NZIHL depend on a core of homegrown local players, and if future generations of parents are too afraid of goonery and concussions to enrol their children, that local core will suffer. The fewer NZ kids grow up playing hockey, the fewer future players that NZIHL teams and the national squad can draw from.
But on the opposite side of that coin, it’s possible that the slew of articles spawned by the Schneider/Argyle incident have alerted potential players and parents to the existence of New Zealand hockey in the first place.
Increased media coverage for the NZIHL is truly a double edged sword. Higher viewer numbers and the Stuff.co.nz streamed Game of the Week can only mean good things, but the New Zealand hockey community must now be aware that there are more eyes on us than ever before.
The Stampede’s fanbase had such a strong and vitriolic reaction to the Schneider injury that the team felt the need to issue a press release stating that, “… our fans are entitled to their own opinions and interpretation of the game, please note that their opinions are theirs alone and do not reflect those of the Stampede players and team management. The Stampede have put last weekend’s events behind them and hope that everyone can move forward with them as we continue a close and exciting 2014 season.”
Wise words in the eyes of this Stampede fan. The League, the players, and media who cover the NZIHL will do well to take those words to heart, and most of them already have. It’s important to celebrate the milestone achieved last weekend without allowing it to sour our opinions toward the sport as a whole.
I hope the mainstream New Zealand media is listening: the NZIHL is more than just an unfortunate concussion sustained in the heat of the moment. If the articles keep rolling in showcasing the finesse of our game, the storied histories of our imports, the dedication of our homegrown Kiwi players, and the devotion of our small but vocal fanbase, then I will happily consider my cynicism unjustified.