Friday, May 12, 2017

My White Hart Lane Story

SB Nation's fantastic Tottenham Hotspur blog, Cartilage Free Captain, is posting stories from supporters about White Hart Lane, the venerable old ground for the club that will host its final game on Sunday against Manchester United. Since they have quite a backlog of stories to post, and seeing as they'll likely not post a story solely about a guided tour, it's probably best that I post my own story here.

But even though my story is only about a guided tour, it still is my only experience with the ground for a club that has quickly become one of my deepest rooting interests. When I went on that guided tour back in the summer of 2012, I had only been a "Spurs supporter" for maybe a year at most, and was still learning the lay of the English soccer landscape and what it meant to support Tottenham Hotspur. I had already learned the hard way that it would be a struggle after a certain Champions League Final with a certain club that shall not be named, but that pain wasn't quite as searing as it would be for supporters with longer histories.

In my lifetime as a sports fan, I've only seen one of my team's stadiums close down, and that was Shea Stadium for the Mets. I went to one game there that was called after 4.5 innings because of rain, and I only needed that long to learn that Shea was an absolute dump. But, since I had only been there once, I didn't quite feel the emotional attachment to it that many others did, so I wasn't that sad to see it go. But with White Hart Lane, I've felt something different, despite like Shea, only going there once.

When you see where White Hart Lane is, you marvel at how stadiums can appear in places like that in the first place, but then you realize it's been there in some form or another since 1899! Quite a bit changes from 1899 to 2012 when I sauntered up to it. And then you realize that it's actually kind of... dinky. English soccer is defined by cathedrals like Old Trafford and Anfield, and while White Hart Lane has plenty of history, it certainly doesn't meet those standards. The day I turned up also turned out to be the day that Spurs legend Ledley King had announced his retirement, which made the day a little more special. Even an idiot like me could sing the great Ledley King chant about him playing on one knee.

Inside the ground, what struck me was just how... small it was. The concourses barely fit three people across, the concession stands to buy pies weren't much more than shacks, and the plastic seats barely were able to fit 18 year old me and my then overweight frame. If you sat in just the wrong spot, you'd have a support post blocking your view of the pitch, too. But looking around at the whole stadium from those seats, and then the player's tunnel, you realized that was the charm of the place. With everything just not right by modern standards and the pitch being just small enough for Spurs to easily exploit it when they were good, you realized that everyone that played for Spurs and supported Spurs at that ground left a little bit of themselves there (in a good way).

In the tour, we saw pictures of all of the club legends that even I knew by heart at that point; Bill Nicholson, Ozzie and Ricky, Klinsmann, King and so many others. We saw the few trophies that Spurs had won, including the two UEFA Cup's, a Champions League ball from the magical 2010-11 campaign, which was even more special to see then because at that time it seemed like Spurs would never play in the Champions League again and even the dressing room, with the kits of players that would soon be sold to Real Madrid. And through all of it, I felt like I belonged there.

Keep in mind that my choosing an English soccer team to support was an un-scientific process that boiled down to rooting for a club that wasn't swimming in oil money, not owned by an idiotic American (much easier to do then than now) and was just good enough to be seen on FOX Soccer every weekend, basically leaving me with Spurs and Everton to pick. I settled on Spurs because I had a distant family member who used to have season tickets at the Lane, figuring that would be a good excuse and front if I ever had to explain myself. But sitting in the Spurs dugout that day, and trying to convince my guide that Clint Dempsey would actually be a good signing and just hoping that Andre Villas-Boas wouldn't be an awful manager, I felt like I belonged at Spurs.

The club was just good enough to attract idiotic Americans like me to their cause, but not good enough that they won all the time. They had a history, a soul, and a passion that just wasn't present at Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal that made the experience of supporting them seemingly worthwhile. And that day at White Hart Lane confirmed to me what I already thought: I made a good decision.

I left that day thinking I'd be back to see a game there once, and it never happened. That will be one of the biggest regrets of my life. But at least I can say I was there once, if just for a tour. I know that I'll see many games at the new stadium, maybe even call a game or two there. But White Hart Lane has a little piece of every Spurs supporter there, even a dummy like me who was there only for a tour. And since it's the first time I've ever watched a stadium like the Lane close down for one of my teams, it's a new feeling. But seeing how Spurs have become such a fundamental part of me in just six short years of fandom, I can't imagine what longer term supporters and those who have been around the club way longer than I have are thinking heading into the final game. My best Spurs experiences were waking up preposterously early to watch games and then yelling at my TV when they did something stupid. What could the same thoughts be like for people whose best Spurs experiences were watching Derby wins at the Lane and chanting how Ledley King playing on one knee will always be better than John Terry?

My abiding memory of the Lane will be talking to a steward about how Clint Dempsey will actually be good for Spurs if we signed him. That's my unique White Hart Lane memory, and it will always be mine. The picture I took looking at the golden cockerel which has watched over the Lane since 1899 and the entire stadium is still my phone background, and it probably always will be. When the stadium gets torn down bit by bit, a very small part of me is going with it.

And while that part of me is miniscule compared to the hundreds of thousands of Spurs supporters who left a bigger part of themselves there, I can say that I was there, and that my White Hart Lane experience, like my Spurs fandom, is unique to me and unique to this bizarre, maddening, but brilliant club that we all share.

I just spilled a lot of virtual ink for a ridiculous hunk of sheetmetal that I went to once, in a part of London no tourist ever ventures to for a club that I've supported for maybe six years.

But that's Tottenham Hotspur, and that's White Hart Lane.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Mike Milbury and the NHL's Popularity Crisis

    Last Friday night, PK Subban of the Predators was warming up for Game 2 against the St. Louis Blues by dancing. Not only can I not tell any hockey player how to warm up or not to warm up because that is far out of my purview, but far be it of me to tell PK Subban how to do anything related to hockey or even life. But on NBC's pregame coverage of the game, Mike Milbury, the utmost and highest authority on all hockey matters (at least he believes this), called Subban a "clown" for warming up like this.

   Now while I struggle to take anything seriously that Milbury says about hockey because he once attacked a fan in the stands with his own shoe, all hockey fans in the US have taken this comment seriously because it reflects on a major problem with the NHL, it's only rightsholder in the US and the problem of hockey's popularity in the US all in one fell swoop. And if the NHL wants to break through to the casual sports fan and create more hockey fans in general in this country, comments like that one from Mike Milbury about one of the games biggest stars isn't just an impediment against that growth; it's an active deterrent.

   NHL coverage in the US is in a fairly precarious place at the moment. As ESPN has gotten out of covering hockey almost entirely, there are very few places to turn to for coverage of the game outside of the NHL's only US rightsholder, NBC. And when hockey fans only hope for salvation and love of the game they so cherish comes from a network that employs talent that calls PK Subban a "clown" for dancing during warmups, what are hockey fans supposed to think about how networks view the sport they love? Sure, hot take artists are all the rage in sports television right now and maybe NBC thinks comments like this, which can be construed as thinly veiled racism, will stir the pot when everyone else is talking about LeBron, the Warriors or the Cowboys. But when hockey is such a non-factor to the casual sports fan, comments like this don't move the needle, and instead just serve to anger the small but incredibly dedicated fanbase of US hockey fans.

     And the real shame of it all is that NHL Network has been improving dramatically over the past few years. The network is hiring analysts like Kevin Weekes, Mike Johnson, Ryan Whitney, John MacLean and a host of others who cover the sport in ways the US audience generally hasn't seen before. But, NHL Network's audience is still a fraction of what NBCSN draws in for its coverage, which in of itself is a fraction of the sports marketplace in general. While the casual sports fan who occasionally tunes into the Stanley Cup Playoffs isn't going to necessarily cringe at the comments Milbury has made, where are they going to go if they want more meaningful coverage of the sport and learn about these players and teams for themselves? NHL Network isn't readily available, the hot take shows on ESPN and FS1 certainly don't cover hockey (though we should be thankful for that), and it takes effort to follow this sport in a way that it doesn't for any other major sport, even soccer.

     NBC Sports is the steward of hockey right now in the NHL. Since no other sports network gives barely a mention to league issues, storylines and players, NBC is the only place American fans can legally tune into on television en masse to watch games and hear commentary on the league and its issues. And when its major imprint on hockey coverage is Mike Milbury making another dumb comment, what else are hockey fans to say but, "why?" They legitimately can't go almost anywhere else to find coverage of the game, and these comments instead end up defining the only coverage of the NHL anywhere in the US to the point that the die-hards are tuning out, which isn't good for the league or the sport.

    Even though the NHL has a very obvious and not subtle role in deciding who the talent is on the NHL's front facing coverage on both sides of the border, expecting them to do something here is unlikely. Therefore it is incumbent on NBC to change its ways in order to not only grow the game for the sake of growing the game, but for its own bottom line. Bringing over more names from NHL Network as analysts is a start, along with hiring an insider that can break news on their own so hockey fans can go to them instead of local sources or up to Canada for that information.

   NBC's deal with the NHL lasts until 2021, and if they want to fully reap the rewards of it, and perhaps keep the league beyond then as a foundation of their cable sports network, changing their ways is a must. Become a destination for US hockey fans to find news, analysis and commentary, not just a place where they have to watch the games. Bringing on an in-house insider, minimize the voices like Mike Milbury and bringing in analysts from NHL Network is one way to start building back the trust between themselves and US hockey fans, and are steps that need to be taken.

   Coverage of the NHL and hockey in the US is in a precarious place at the moment. With almost no outside network coverage, NBC is basically the only destination for fans to go to to find the coverage they crave. And when they are given nonsense by Mike Milbury, it's a slap in the face by the only network in the country that has decided the NHL is worthwhile.

   For a company that produces the NFL and the Premier League so well, it still boggles the mind at how NBC can't cover hockey in the same way. And much like football and soccer fans deserve the coverage they get, hockey fans do too.

   If the NHL wants to grow the game in this country at a time where it seems to be stagnating or fading from view, the league needs to pressure NBC to make changes to their coverage. Hockey fans can only go so many places to find the coverage they want and crave, so why can't they get it from the league's only stakeholder in the US?