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March 23, 2006

The NHL Blog Bust
The NHL promised increased interaction with fans, including an array of player and team blogs on its website. So why hasn't the league been able to deliver on that promise? Greg Wyshynski looks at the state of official hockey blogging, from Elisha Cuthbert to Martin Biron.

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- During those nervous weeks leading up to the opening of this post-lockout season, National Hockey League officials kept making promises about new marketing efforts, fan-friendly promotions and increased interaction between players, coaches and paying customers.

Archived Articles

(Mar. 16) Gerber, baby!
(Mar. 9) Deadline? Dead Time.
(Mar. 2) Clearly, This Rule's a Bad Idea

The new marketing efforts turned out to be some whacked-out, hockey-player-as-samurai campaign that went over about as well as Crystal Pepsi. (And are you as tired as I am of that little brat they keep showing in the commercials that bears a disturbing resemblance to Jake "Yipeeeee!" Lloyd from "The Phantom Menace?" I guess it's better than having Jar-Jar trying to sell hockey to the newbies.)

The fan-friendly promotions have been hit-or-miss. Teams that offered deep ticket discounts and inspired fan promotions – like San Jose and Florida – have been better than expected at the gate; other teams that did not have flat-lined or dipped in attendance. Clearly, the league has done well in bringing back the previously converted, but continues to struggle to increase that audience. 

"The people who are excited and ready to come back, we're extremely lucky to have them," Dallas Stars winger Bill Guerin said during the pre-season. "We're going to do everything in our power to make [the ones who are upset] happy and to get them back in the arenas because hockey's a great game. You want everybody to come back and enjoy the sport."

The question that continues to vex the league is how to get those fans on the fringe back into hockey, or into hockey for the first time. In particular, an entire generation of younger fans whose primary experience with the game are a decade's worth of 2-1 playoff contests that had so much clutching and grabbing you’d think Jacques Lemaire was coaching every single team in the league.

The most obvious, direct marketing route to these fans is the Internet. I hear it's a big hit with the kids, what with the My Space and the free music and plentiful pornography. 

And something called "blogging."

It's a funny little term that can mean a lot of different things. For a slew of sports fans and part-time sportswriters, it's a way to present news and views without infiltrating, or filtering from, the mainstream media. 

For newspaper publishers, it's the leading cause of hypertension. Ditto for Dan Rather. 

Earlier this season, produced a full page of blogs, from journalists to NHL front office types to the bassist from Godsmack to the adorable actress Elisha Cuthbert, who has replaced Ashley Judd as the sexiest hockey advocate in Hollywood. 

Ah, but if it were only that easy to be a blogger (ask George Clooney). 

Cuthbert's blog made an initial splash, but appears not to have been updated since Thursday, Dec. 15. (As of this column, published on Thursday, March 23.) 

"I just want to start by apologizing to everyone, my fifth blog is long over due," she wrote. 

Gee, honey, what are you going to do for us now that your sixth blog has been absent about as long as Owen Nolan this season?

This is the problem with the NHL's "celebrity" blog effort — when it comes down to it, there really isn't any priority for players or coaches to write them, fan-friendliness be damned. 

Mike Knuble's blog for the Flyers hasn't been updated since the beginning of February, which is a damn shame because he had something to say when he did write. 

"I think that they had to do something about the captaincy," Knuble wrote. "I'm not a big fan of just giving somebody the C. I feel like they did the right thing by waiting, waiting and waiting for Keith, but we have to face the facts. We might be without him."

Carolina Hurricanes rookie goalie Cam Ward went from Jan. 15 to March 7 without a blog entry — can't this kid bring a laptop on the bench while he's watching Martin Gerber backstop the team to first place? 

Buffalo passes its blog between players, which makes for frequency, but little consistency. 

And these boys could use an editor, as this quote from goalie Martin Biron shows: 

"Going in to the game, there wasn't really a whole lot that I felt uncertain about or rusty at."

Who's his English coach? The teacher from the "Peanuts" comics?

Not every blog goes bust. Defenseman Eric Weinrich was open and honest on the Blues' site before he was traded to Vancouver, and in fact dealt with the potential for a trade in his final blog: "Some guys, like a Chelios or MacInnis, can right their own script, but I have felt the wrath of the critics from time to time. Proving someone wrong can be very motivating, but proving to yourself you can do the job is more satisfying."

The truth is that not every team is blogging. The teams that are blogging do not make what could be a vital interaction between players and fans a priority. Most blogs on these NHL sites are being written by broadcasters and team executives, not players. 

"My guess is that a player wouldn't be able to do it very often," said Mike Sundheim, director of media relations for the Carolina Hurricanes. 

Sundheim blogs on the Hurricanes site, and it's one worth reading: a travelogue of his adventures with the team, and how he manages to stay in touch with his family. 

Having been in media relations, and having dealt with some real stone-wallers in my time, his columns are still a little guarded, but can be candid. 

From March 22: "I remember just before the break, after a loss in Tampa Bay which cut our division lead down to 14 points (The Lightning would cut it to 12 two nights later), someone on the Tampa side of things looked at our schedule and said, 'Oh. Well, you guys have nine of 10 on the road, I didn't realize that.' What he was really saying was, 'Well, you guys haven't hit the worst part of your schedule yet. Maybe we still have a chance.'"

He said his team, and others, were inspired by the lockout blogs by Dallas Stars broadcaster Daryl "Razor" Reaugh on the Stars' official site. 

"Razor with an Edge" is a sometimes hilarious read, especially his January entry about Finnish-to-English translation: "Take it from a guy who bought, cooked and then attempted to cut and chew reindeer meat (all the time thinking I had purchased beef steaks), Finnish is an s.o.b. of a language."

Since the players aren't involved, Sundheim and Razor are the types of bloggers that are keeping this media effort alive on the official hockey sites that offer them. "It goes along with everything else that we're trying to do in being more open to access, allowing more insider-type access," said Sundheim. 

It's also a way to deliver hockey coverage and news without the negative filters of the non-hockey media. (Case and point: in Washington, DC this weekend, a Capitals score was given by a local sportscaster who said "if any of you actually care about hockey, the Caps lost." Keep it up, and we'll find a way to liberate Ovechkin...) 

"I think it's an advantage if people think they can go to your website and get information they can't get anywhere else. I don't have any control over what a local newspaper is going to write," said Sundheim. 

While media relations officers and broadcasters have been doing yeoman's work on these blogs, what about the players? The biggest knock on hockey is that "casual" fans have no identity with the players, either because they wear visors or because of the language barrier, or hundreds of other factors. Wouldn't a weekly blog help bridge that gap with young, net-savvy sports fans? 

"To be honest, the season is enough of a grind as it is," said Sundheim. "I've definitely had weeks where it's been pretty difficult to find time to write."

That's not to say the players aren't eager to try and bring in new fans. 

"For sure, the players all have good ideas for how they think teams should be marketing, and how things should be focused," said Sundheim. "Sometimes it's realistic, and sometimes it's not."

The question the league and its players still have to answer: Realistically, how far are you willing to go to really, truly reach out to your fans?

Maybe Elisha will have the answer in her sixth blog of the season.

Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for and the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.



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