A Hockey Fan Abroad

By: Brayden Fengler / November 19, 2022  

A week or so into the start of this season, when the Canucks’ win column was… well about the same as it is today, which is to say – disappointing, I thought it wise to attempt to write a satirical article. The thrust of this article had me making suggestions for how overly disgruntled Canucks fans should “calm down” and gain some perspective on what was only a handful of losses at the time.

My suggestions were intentionally off-topic from hockey and purposefully trivial. I suggested that boiling-over Vancouver fans try drawing themselves a bubble bath or jumping into a pile of freshly fallen autumn leaves, along with a number of other suggested activities ideal for taking one’s mind off of the already stressful Canucks’ season.

In the end, this article never made it past the first handful of paragraphs. Was that because the article lacked any actual relevant or insightful hockey content? Not at all, that’s often our bread and butter here at 

I ended up scrapping the article because the more I wrote, the more I wanted to give myself a knuckle sandwich. I still think that “touching grass” so to speak can cure some of the ailments associated with cheering for a losing hockey team

However, I figured that if I was invoking an annoyed feeling in myself based on the words I was writing… in the interest of self-preservation, I had better not release these words to others that may end up sharing that same sentiment.

Flash forward to two weeks ago; I’m on a plane to Japan for a long-planned Holiday with my girlfriend, a trip which I arrived back in Vancouver from just this week.

As coincidence would have it, even though I didn’t end up writing that aforementioned piece about followers of the Canucks stepping away from the game and clearing their heads, that is exactly what I ended up doing for myself. Given the current state of the team, I would recommend other Canucks fans do the same from time to time, though you don’t have to go as far as Japan to do it.

The First Things You Notice

Even though I just said that my trip had the benefit of allowing me to take a few steps away from following the Canucks, that wasn’t a conscious plan that I had going into the trip.

Without completely shutting off my rink rat brain when I landed, there were a few things that I noticed pretty quickly about trying to follow hockey and the NHL while being geographically located somewhere like Japan, which isn’t exactly known for its hockey exports.

There is a 16-17-hour time difference between Vancouver and Japan, putting most NHL games on at around 9 to 11 am local time. This didn’t make following along with the Canucks impossible for me, but the very nature of a vacation is to go to new places and do exciting things. Sitting in my hotel room during the early morning/afternoon watching a completely legal stream of a Canucks game, wasn’t really in the cards for many reasons.

Aside from the inability to experience Canucks games the same way that I do at home, there was something else that unsurprisingly stood out to me as I explored Japan.

Japan is a country that has little to no general public interest in the game of hockey and even though I was aware of that fact before going, it was very quickly reinforced by the complete lack of any references to Hockey in any major metropolitan setting in Japan. Again, not a shocker, but as a Canadian I don’t think I really realized how hockey just blends into the background of life here.

It’s to the point where you don’t really notice how much even non-hockey fans are exposed to it. In Canada, when you’re at a restaurant, hockey highlights are playing on TV in the background, when you’re in public, it’s common to see massive posters for the local team.

Even just walking down a street you’ll pass Sidney Crosby and Nathan Mackinnon trying to sell you hockey cards on a window ad at Tim Hortons, not even mentioning the origins of the massive brand that is Tim Hortons itself. Hockey is everywhere in Canada, but not everywhere in the world. Experiencing this firsthand has made me appreciate the game more.

I love the game of hockey, and I want more people to share that same love. It’s easy for me and probably you if you’re reading this article, to feel like hockey and the NHL is the biggest thing in the world sometimes, but it’s not, and that’s a shame because it could be.

It’s All in the People

The disparity between the presence of hockey in a country like Japan compared to that of Canada goes beyond just the lack of corporate ads and a constant TV presence. What I was maybe more surprised by in Japan and again didn’t realize how prevalent it is here in Canada, is the reflection of how much our interest in hockey is celebrated within the clothes that we put on our backs.

It’s not uncommon in Canada to be walking down the street and see a person in a Toronto Maple Leafs hat and wonder to yourself how they could’ve been raised so poorly. Or to catch a glimpse of someone wearing a sick old-school North Stars jersey and wonder what vintage shop they pulled that from. Experiences like that were virtually nonexistent for me in Japan, and their absence made me realize how much is spoken without words when two hockey fans repping their gear, pass each other on the street in Canada. There is a comforting non-verbal comradery that comes from spotting a stranger silently celebrating a passion of theirs that you also happen to share.

This made the very few moments that I did spot hockey clothing being worn in Japan stick out to me like a sore thumb. These moments felt to me like making eye contact with a friend out in public when you had no idea or reason to expect to run into them. 

While waiting to board a train in Tokyo, diagonally across the tracks I spotted it. A person in a bright Red Chicago Blackhawks jersey. Not exactly the team that I would’ve hoped to see representing hockey overseas for a number of reasons, but there it was. A highlighter red hockey jersey in the middle of Tokyo.

In the 16 days that I spent in Japan, this was one of only three instances where I spotted hockey-related paraphernalia being worn by the public. 

The second instance was seeing a local leaning up against a building in Shibuya smoking a cigarette while wearing a Seattle Kraken hat. I have to say that this one made me a little annoyed, simply due to how geographically close the Canucks are to Seattle, and how new of a team they are in comparison.

The Canucks have been around for five decades, plenty of time for a branded ball cap of theirs to drift across the Atlantic. Yet, the first hockey hat I see being worn is for a team that doesn’t know life prior to the pandemic. 

Lastly, near the end of my trip, I witnessed a young family at Tokyo Disney with the dad wearing an old-school duckbill Mighty Ducks jersey. I struggle to really count this one strictly as a hockey merch sighting, given the link between Disney and the Ducks of that era and the fact that I was visiting Disneyland at the time.

But as someone who currently has an old alternative Disney-era Ducks jersey in his closet right now, that sighting gave me a warm sense of familiarity within the unfamiliar country I was in, just like the others did.

How Does Hockey Reach the People

For the uninitiated to the world of Japan and their sporting interests, baseball is massive over there, so seeing MLB merch was a given. It was hard to miss in stores or on people of all ages. Sadly for the NHL, the other two major North American sports leagues (NBA and NFL) were also represented within stores and on locals more than anything hockey related.

I’m sure that a fair amount of the vintage NFL windbreakers and NBA shirts that I saw, were being worn because of their look rather than true fandom of the teams in question, just based on how fashion-focused Japan is compared to North America, but really who knows? Maybe that person I saw in rural Japan really is a fan of the Cleveland Browns, I don’t know for sure.

However, if as I suspect most of the sports merch I witnessed being worn was for fashion’s sake, why couldn’t that Detroit Pistons hat be swapped out for the good old stick and rink hat? 

Hockey as a product is fantastic. I truly believe that if you get the game in front of people’s eyes, they’re going be hard-pressed to look away, the trick is getting it there in the first place.

I didn’t expect to fly to Japan and be greeted by a sea of McDavid jerseys, this article has a Japan-focused comparison, but my point here is not just to hammer home how no one cares about hockey specifically in Japan. The point is to bring up the bigger question of “why”, why can’t hockey be big in Japan, why can’t it be big in other countries, heck why can’t it be bigger in North America? 

Growing the Game’s Appeal

There are many reasons and many fingers that can be pointed as to why a game that’s been around for over a hundred years isn’t more popular.

In recent history, there can and has been NHL-specific finger-pointing at the league’s long-time commissioner Gary Bettman and to a lesser degree the NHLPA. Poorly timed lockouts throughout the last few decades have hindered hockey’s ability to grow in the public eye during critical times.

The NHL lost out on the opportunity for continued exposure specifically, during the 94-95 lockout season when hockey was the closest in popularity to the NBA as it had ever been.

The reality is that we are where we are now when it comes to hockey’s popularity regardless of how many fingers are being pointed, and the game still has the ability to grow today, despite past mistakes. There is a lot that is being done and needs to continue to be done at a grassroots level to grow the game. Including continued operation and or the introduction of in-expensive “try-it” programs often offered at local community centres.

Additionally, organizations like KidSport provide a much-needed lifeline for families of youth trying to get into a game as expensive as Hockey. KidSport runs donations for sporting equipment and provides it to children and youth that otherwise may have never gotten a chance to try hockey or other sports.

I would love to see the NHL more consistently financially involved in these kinds of incentives. The NHLPA has its Goals & Dreams program, but the NHL itself could stand to be more publicly invested in grassroots efforts to grow the game.

In terms of more big-picture ideas, there are some things that the NHL has been doing well, that I believe are great initiatives for growing the game, and there are some things that they’ve severely dropped the ball on.

The Global Series games are naturally a direct way to bring NHL hockey to places that it’s never been before. Global Series games are something that the NHL should definitely continue into the future.

They are a bold, direct method for the league to showcase their offerings and grow interest in unexposed markets or markets with a hockey interest but no NHL access. I truly hope this initiative does not fizzle out like others in the league’s history.

Beyond the Global Series, the next major operation that the NHL needs to finally get in line is the World Cup of Hockey. The NHL attempted to reinvigorate the tournament in 2016, but since then, they have never returned to that format. The tournament’s return was just recently delayed to 2025.

Yes, the elephant in the room is the pandemic for contributing to the delay. But if it was a priority for the NHL, you would think pandemic or no pandemic, it wouldn’t be eight years between tournaments.

Over time, the World Cup of Hockey could grow into an event that creates an easy inroad to the game for casual fans, but the trick is consistency. If regular hockey fans hardly care about this new NHL version of the World Cup of Hockey, why would non-hockey fans care? 

Lastly, potentially a quicker and easier way for the NHL to grow awareness of its teams and the game of hockey is through fashion. One could argue that they have been trying to up their “fashion game“ with the reverse retro jerseys over the last two seasons. These are intentionally wacky and vibrant jerseys that draw on what makes hockey jerseys cool, fun, and exciting to wear, not just on the ice.

However, these reverse retro jerseys, and other team-level projects like the Justin Bieber brand Drew House collaboration jersey with the Toronto Maple Leafs, are more geared towards existing fans and have less of an eye for encouraging the uninitiated to wear them. 

Outside the Box

As I mentioned above, I suspect that a large number of the North American sports league swag that I saw being worn by locals in Japan, was likely in the name of fashion, rather than a Tokyo local actually being a big fan of the New York Jets.

This kind of “representation” although potentially more disliked by “real fans” as it does not come from an actual love or knowledge of the teams whose logo they’re wearing, is still a representation of the team and the league just the same.

Who cares if someone thinks that a shirt for a team they’ve never heard of is cool? Teams and leagues of any sport are brands just as much as they are sporting organizations, and what do brands need in order to be relevant? Exposure, eyes, attention.

The NHL should wish they are lucky enough to have teenagers from Japan rocking old-school Canadiens or Penguins jerseys like I saw them do with the Chicago Bulls or New England Patriots. This kind of exposure, whether the person wearing the clothing item watches the team or not, breeds familiarity among all those who see the shirt or the logo in their daily lives.

The NHL needs a look that people want to wear, something that many other sports leagues seem to have figured out how to create.

The New York Knicks basketball team just this month hired Ronnie Feig as their first-ever Creative Director. Ronnie Feig is a local New York fashion industry mogul, owner, and operator of the fashion brand Kith. I’m sure there are many New York Knicks fans that aren’t too moved one way or the other by Ronnie’s hiring, but Ronnie wasn’t hired just for them.

He was hired for his ability to design and create looks that people want to see, want to wear, and want to be a part of. You don’t hire a mind like Ronnie’s to sustain a fanbase or a company, you hire a mind like his to grow it. What if the NHL had a mind or minds like his?

Growth in hockey can come from young players in the sport. Growth can come from reaching other sports fans, sure, but growth should also come from finding a way to reach people that don’t even know they want to be hockey fans yet and fashion is a way to do that. It’s out-of-the-box moves from out-of-the-box minds that can grow this sport during the decades to come.

Hockey Can Be Everywhere

This article started as an observation of hockey’s presence in a non-hockey country and it expanded into my hopes and prayers for the growth of this game that I care about so much. I don’t just want hockey to be bigger so that the next time I go to Japan I see a few more (hopefully non-Kraken) hats. I want the game to grow because of how much I’ve enjoyed it in my own life over the years, and I want others to enjoy it as well. 

Our game of hockey is a special one, and the more people it can be introduced to, the better and more fun the game will be on the global professional stage as well as in roads and amateur rinks around the world. Hockey is indeed for everyone, so it’s a shame that not everyone knows about it yet.