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March 09, 2023

Eytan Shander: Hockey is an afterthought in Philadelphia

As the NHL's national interest crumbles, so does the Flyers' even in a sports-crazed city like Philadelphia.

Flyers NHL
Gritty Always Sunny Cameo Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

The Flyers' instantly iconic mascot Gritty.

Was Stephen A. Smith… right?

The Philadelphia Flyers are an absolute disgrace to a sport that I’m not quite sure matters much to Philadelphians. Through 64 games played the Flyers have limped their way to 59 points and nobody cares.

More people would get up in arms about whether Villanova deserved a parade for winning a championship than just care about this team. I’m not here to tell you what they need to do, I don’t care enough about them to do the research.

But that’s just it. Not many other people will either.

The sport is still a lot of fun to watch and playoff hockey is tough to match in general. But here we sit with a team that’s just so far removed from the rest of the local sports scene. It’s like the old Sesame Street bit where one of these things is not like the other. Even the lure of the mascot has subtly worn off in the city.

People were outraged online that Smith and ESPN could purport such falsehoods about their beloved game, but the ratings don’t match other “big” market sports, not in the regular season and not on a consistent basis. The sport doesn’t need saving, it might simply be beyond it.

There are a handful of cities right now who can’t ignore their hockey team. Sure, maybe with the revival of the Flyers there’s a bigger buzz, right? Send them back to the Stanley Cup Finals and you’ll have a sea of orange and black throughout the city. We love winners as evident by what’s around us, but our interest also wanes with a lot of teams when they go sour – not limited to the Flyers.

They suck right now, and it’s going to be impossible to reclaim anything that the Eagles own and Sixers now rent in Philadelphia. The sport hierarchy reflects what Smith said on TV, not the online outrage that followed. The NHL is an afterthought in our city and a team barely making the playoffs isn’t changing that anytime soon.

Do you see hockey coverage outside of a clip of their head coach spouting off? Do you hear long form conversations about the team on the radio  outside of any pre-/post- or in-game commentary? Sure, maybe the occasional caller or guest on the station that carries a team. That’s all. Even the old WIP morning show moved away from talking about it with two hockey guys at times on the show.

The Flyers are not alone. The Phillies went through this until they brought in Bryce Harper. Ever since then there’s been a consistent effort by this team to spend money and improve the club. They have brought up some youth while aggressively spending money in free agency. This is exactly what people complained they weren’t doing for years.

Once the ’08 era’s slow ending became official, the team was in a bad place. Like the Flyers and the NHL, both team and sport were ignored during that awful Phillies stretch. It’s happening right now with college basketball too. We saw a great day in conference tournaments, but the overall appeal of a tournament with no local teams is soured.

The Phillies deserve a lot of credit and have been rewarded with an enormous amount of love. But it’s not just love. It’s sustainable love. The team may exit in the NLCS, or make it back and lose again in the World Series, but like the Eagles, there’s this expectation that the team will return.

The easiest way to gauge how much we care about a sport as a fanbase is to see the type of reactions game to game. The model is the 17-game schedule for the Philadelphia Eagles. If we (you) are matching up our reactions during an 82-game season – like with the Sixers – as we do with the Eagles, then you have a textbook definition of “care." Doc Rivers is fired every other night. Joel Embiid wins the MVP every other night. The Sixers are taking down Boston every other night or losing in the second round.

That’s what the NHL lacks here, even if the Flyers are somewhat good, who cares? It’s a local team so you have to support them in public, but the majority of you  us  aren’t paying that much attention to this team. If it comes across your timeline in real or fake life, it gets your immediate attention, but that’s surface care without substance. That’s not sustainable.

The Eagles are about to sign their franchise QB to a mega deal, they restocked coordinators with a blink of an eye, and saw the division stay put in mediocrity – especially at the quarterback position. This is a glorious time to be a fan of a team in the most popular sport. The Sixers are almost there, but are in this conversation about best teams and playoff chances.

It’s fun to live and die each night with a meaningless NBA game in February, or opine about how the season is over after the Eagles start 1-1. We have returned to hanging on every pitch or at bat in baseball. The ballpark is one of the most social places to be in the entire city. That’s way more than ratings or jersey sales, that’s love of sport interwoven within our society.

The Flyers had that love, but will never get that back. Mostly because the sport has just fallen so far behind. I don’t watch those morning TV shows but I’ve seen the clip and the reaction. If only people took that energy and focused on supporting the game of hockey, then maybe it would be earlier on SportsCenter.

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