Since everyone claims to be a “nerd” nowadays, it may be useful to find out what sport, if any, these people enjoy.
Let me save readers time and simply announce: it’s hockey.
Nerds are non-mainstream people, so it follows they would enjoy a non-mainstream sport. Sadly, despite the efforts of many, the NHL occupies the “4’ spot on the list of American sports leagues, making it the most non-mainstream league available. Love for all things creative seems to animate non-mainstream individuals. More specifically, an intensified enthusiasm for movies, comic books and video games is present. So let’s examine these creative arenas, and their relationship to the sport, one at a time.
Creative endeavors that offend traditional senses of propriety will find eager customers among the disenfranchised and the outcast. The 1977 film “Slapshot,” one such endeavor, was initially shredded by critics for its raunchy depiction of minor league hockey barbarity. While grossing 28,000,000 dollars may deny “cult” status to “Slapshot,” students of nerd-history still regard the Paul Newman flick as the birthplace of hockey-movie harmony. This harmony began with “Slapshot” but the best, and the worst, was still to come.
In the fall of 1992, youth hockey registration increased dramatically in the United States.
For the first time in a generation, demand for roster spots suddenly exceeded the supply. Local hockey associations, lacking sufficient team sponsors, had to turn away weeping youngsters and outraged parents from rink entrances. The obvious solution for parents was to sponsor teams themselves, something many of them were prepared to do. All of this was due to the release of “The Mighty Ducks” that same year.
Every generation needs its underdog tale and the “The Mighty Ducks” filled the apparent need for these stories for many a Gen-Xer and Millenial. As stated earlier, the relative unpopularity of hockey makes it an outcast sport from the get-go. “The Mighty Ducks” focuses on a group of outcast kids within an outcast sport and the results are as expected. The movie is heavy-handed, cheesy and lame, but simultaneously, charming, innocent and mildly inspiring.
“The Mighty Ducks” stresses the value of teamwork verbally, but visually, the film concentrates on individualism: glass-breaking slappers, penalty shots, etcetera. And despite the popularity of youth hockey in Minnesota, there is no peewee league that has its own professional play-by-play announcers, one of the sillier gimmicks in the film.
This emphasis on individual glory is undoubtedly what brought kids to the rink. Despite its flaws, “The Mighty Ducks” was a success for Disney, had a significant cultural impact and as we all know, inspired the NHL to name its newest franchise after the film.
1992 was an important year for hockey at the movies and “Wayne’s World,” a movie less concerned with the sport as “The Mighty Ducks,” was nearly as influential, nevertheless.
Taking place in Aurora, Illinois, Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar dine at “Mikita’s,” a donut shop named for one of the first Europeans to play in the NHL. It’s likely that officer Koharski, the doughnut-munching policeman in the film, is named after Don Koharski, a referee former Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld told to,“have another doughnut, you fat pig.” Wayne and Garth, the unambitious but loveable duo, are responsible for “game on” becoming part of the modern American lexicon. Garth receives a “Stanley Cup: 100 Years Of Glory” cassette in the sequel and both films portray the fun of street hockey.
“Wayne’s World” is filled with Chicago Blackhawks memorabilia which must have irritated Mike Myers, an avid Maple Leafs fan, but bringing attention to the NHL via any team is helpful. “Wayne’s World” does not contain the wholesome lessons found in “The Mighty Ducks” and that is precisely the reason grown men still quote it.
Inferior, more recent films have echoed the fan angle found in “Wayne’s World.”
The annoying dorks in “Swingers” mumble away about NHL 94, the beloved Sega Genesis game. “Clerks” features rooftop hockey and the villains in “Dogma” wield hockey sticks for weapons. The common thread running through all these films, other than the finest sport in the world, is nerdiness. It’s nerdy to get bullied like the kids in “The Mighty Ducks.” It’s nerdy to mouth the lyrics to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the car with friends and Kevin Smith, the oaf responsible for “Clerks” and “Dogma,” is nerdiness incarnate (more on “Swingers” later).
Examples of the hockey-movie connection are endless so apologies if I omitted your favorite example. Finding hockey’s influence in other mediums is harder but not impossible if we look closely. Todd Mcfarlane, creator of the “Spawn” comic book series and former part-owner of the Edmonton Oilers, added the manufacture of action figures to his nerd-empire. Among these figures were professional athletes. Care to take guess which athletes came first? That’s right, like a good Canadian, Mcfarlane chose NHL stars to inaugurate his doll line. It may irritate Calgarians to discover one of their own sought ownership of the Edmonton Oilers, but Albertan partisanship aside, Mcfarlane remains a demi-god in the comic community. It’s obvious how the tastes of this demi-god could influence his worshippers.
The dopiness of NHL 94 talk in “Swingers” doesn’t make the dialogue inaccurate. The “NHL” video game series is a cash-cow for EA Sports, something a look at your Facebook feed will convince you of. Video games let us do things most people have never done and never could do. No one alive today will be fighting aliens on distant planets or serving tyrannical lords in feudal Japan. As a result, it should come as no surprise if more people play hockey on Xbox than on ice. Those who were too fat, too small, too slow or too whatever to achieve on-ice glory can do so, and have done so for many years, thanks to EA Sports.
People will continue to make movies. The same goes for video games, so more vicarious hockey fun is undoubtedly on the way. The popularity of comic book movies may add another element to the hockey-nerd connection, but only time will tell.
It’s a curious phenomenon to suddenly see so many people flashing nerd cards. “Wait, now you want to be like us?” is an attitude some nerds have. But no matter how you slice it, we must admit this swell in nerdiness is a good thing. More people will notice that Valtteri Filppula looks like an elf and that Slovakian names sound a bit like Klingon (Hasek, Tatar, Havlat).
We nerds are not so alone anymore. Hopefully, soon, hockey will not be so alone either.
I began my career in hockey as a pre-scout for Cranbrook Kingswood Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. I have been writing about the NHL for multiple platforms since the 2007-2008 season.