Let’s start out with a question. What makes hockey entertaining in your opinion? There are numerous answers to this question based on what interests you.
It can be the thrill of the action. It can be cheering your team on no matter what happens to them over the course of the season. It can be everything involved with going to a game live. We can go on for hours about entertainment value in hockey. The key is that there’s a lot of entertainment available.
But you know what? I think there’s an element of entertainment that can be improved upon in hockey. I’m not saying this element is completely absent. It’s there in spurts. But overall, if we had more of this certain element, the entertainment value of hockey would skyrocket even more. It might even draw new fans into the sport.
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What am I talking about? I’m talking about villains. You know, those players that you absolutely hate with all of your heart because 1) they’re not on your team and 2) do something to rip your heart out and 3) do things on or off the ice that you cannot stand with a passion. These are the kind of players who get you, a diehard fan, emotionally invested in the games and in the outcome.
The reality of the situation is that while there are some villains in today’s game, there are not nearly enough of them. In this space, we will discuss who some of today’s villains are and why they are actually really good for the game.
Examples of Villains
You know who the obvious villains are in hockey today. These are players in which all I have to do is say their name and the crowd turns to look at me with peaked interest.
Example one. Brad Marchand. Outside of Boston, he is one of the biggest villains in hockey. What makes him awesome is just how much he embraces that role. He does things to annoy the heck out of other teams and their fans. But because he’s really good at hockey and is a superstar, he rips your heart out by scoring big goals in key moments. When something bad happens to him, 31 other fanbases can be heard cheering. But when he creates a big moment, he makes sure you know about it. He’s the perfect villain.
Example two. Tom Wilson. I say his name and you immediately ask what did he do now to get NHL Player Safety’s attention. Wilson has very much crossed the line on several occasions where fans have asked why is he still in the game. But the reality of him is that he is the player most willing to toe the line. He lays big hits on opponents. He will see how far he can go before he has to tone it down.
But then you see what he did to the New York Rangers and Artemi Panarin last season and everyone reacts to it. There’s no quicker way in becoming a villain than doing something to your favorite player. How many Rangers fans can’t stand the thought of Wilson? It goes way beyond Rangers fans though. But what sets him apart is that he’s a very talented hockey player and an important part of the Capitals. It’s the perfect storm of circumstances that allow most every fan outside of Washington D.C. to hate him. Like Marchand, Wilson is the perfect villain.
Other Examples of Villains
There are other villains out there that we’ll quickly touch on. Matthew Tkachuk fits the bill, especially when you consider his style. Sidney Crosby is very much a villain outside of Pittsburgh. He terrorized opponents for years on route to winning three Stanley Cups. Just mention his name to a non-Penguins fan and watch steam come from their ears instantaneously. P.K. Subban will also draw a lot of attention if you just say his name.
Related: 7 Cool Things About P.K. Subban
One other example that recently played out in a game involved Rangers’ defenseman Adam Fox. They played a game in Calgary on Hockey Night in Canada. The Flames drafted Fox. He didn’t sign with them. Flames’ fans unleashed on him during the game when he had the puck, including right after the opening faceoff.
These are the kind of things hockey needs. Fox is absolutely a villain to Flames fans. Even better during the game is when Fox scored only to have the goal taken away by an offside. The crowd reaction said everything.
Why Villains Are Good For Hockey
The Fox/Flames situation is exactly why villains are good for the sport. Did you hear the crowd and how energetic they were? This storyline turned a normal regular season game into something more. The emotion of the fans changed the atmosphere in the Saddledome and made the game that much more entertaining to watch.
The same is true for any villain. If Marchand or Wilson or Crosby take a penalty, fans love to see it. It adds energy to the building and the game being played on the ice. The presence of villains is a perfect way for fans to get emotionally involved. That leads to a more electric atmosphere and trickles down to the players.
This works on a team level also. Just mention the Toronto Maple Leafs to a non-Leafs fan and you will likely get a reaction. Mention the Penguins to anyone in the Metropolitan Division. Mention the Ducks to a Kings fan or the Blackhawks to a Blues fan or the Lightning to a Panthers fan or the Oilers to a Flames fan. There are several examples of this. Connor McDavid could even work his way into the role of a villain.
Villains are good for hockey because of the emotion and passion it brings on in fans. As we saw during the height of the pandemic, games were just not the same in empty or limited buildings. The energy that was once there was mostly gone. Players had to create their own energy. But it’s the fans that bring everything alive. How do you get fans involved? Villains.
Hockey is always looking for ways to be more entertaining and to draw more fans in. One of the best ways to do that is to have more villains.
Think of TV ratings also. Why do teams like the Penguins, the Capitals, the Bruins and others have such strong ratings outside their local markets? It’s because if given a choice, fans are going to watch something they care about. If Marchand, Wilson or Crosby are in a game, they draw fans whether you like it or not. There’s also no middle ground. You’ll either like them or hate them. Fans are always interested in what villains do. They’ll tune in if given the chance.
All of this is why hockey needs more villains. It makes the game more interesting which in turn brings more fans in. That’s a win-win for the NHL if you ask me.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.