The NHL's Quiet Rebellion
The American sports media can't help falling in love with the
Stanley Cup playoffs and the newly cool NHL, writes TFP's Greg
(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Gary Bettman listened intently on
the telephone as a reporter peppered him with questions
about the upcoming Stanley Cup Finals. The conversation,
as usual, quickly turned to the National Hockey League
and its television ratings.
"These ratings are going to be fine. These are
good-sized markets," Bettman said. "Might the ratings
have been higher if Detroit played New York or Chicago
played New York or L.A. played New York or Detroit or
Chicago? Maybe they'd be higher. But I think the ratings
will be strong for this series."
"Why?" asked the reporter, openly questioning the lack
of a true superstar player or a glamour franchise in the
"I still think there are very compelling stories here,"
Bettman shot back.
The NHL commissioner was unwavering. He had endured
conversations like these for months, for years. It was his job
to accentuate the positives, and to politely — or as politely
as Gary Bettman's genetic make-up will allow him to be —
remind the American sports media that the NHL is a league on a
steady, if extended, rise.
"We're riding a wave, but it's a long wave," Bettman said.
"It's not a wave where you surf for one season and it gets you
to the beach . . . As long as we keep going in the right
direction, I'll be satisfied. I'm not expecting that in one
season, or two or three seasons, we will be at the point where
this sport has grown to its full potential. There's still an
enormous growth opportunity in front of us."
The reporter was Bob Kravitz of the Rocky Mountain News, and
the quotations are from his interview with Gary Bettman -- an
interview conducted on June 2, 1996, before the Florida
Panthers and the Colorado Avalanche were ready to battle for
the Stanley Cup.
It's a frightening perspective, isn't it, to realize that the
spin hasn't changed in over a decade? That the NHL, unlike
every other American athletic organization, is in a perpetual
state of arrested development; the Bart Simpson of pro sports?
This stillness of its reputation is peculiar, considering how
aggressive the NHL has been in pandering to its critics;
namely, a sports media establishment that treats hockey with
the same level of acceptance as the Vatican treats voodoo
For the last decade, the NHL has been like that chubby girl in
high school who always tried uncomfortably too hard to hang
with the cool kids; the sports media, meanwhile, has been
giggling behind her back with its friends on the varsity
Bettman's plan for the NHL involves a seismic shift from the
bile-filled tirades against a sport "nobody cares about"
(Frank Stasio, National Public Radio, 2/16/2005) to some sort
But that isn't going to happen until the NHL stops being an
easy punch-line. And if you thought "I went to a boxing match
and a hockey game broke out" was a tough rap to shake, these
awful television ratings have permanently turned the league
into sports comedy's most reliable "sure-thing" punchline,
ending the reign of Rafael Palmeiro on Viagra, Joe Namath
giving a sideline interview, and the L.A. Clippers.
David Thomas, in the Fort-Worth Star Telegram during a
column about "Bonds on Bonds" being cancelled: "Now, ESPN
is yanking the weekly documentary, which made it into about
450,000 households on average. (Those viewership numbers,
however, create the possibility of OLN picking up Bonds on
Bonds to show during NHL intermissions.)"
Tom Sorenson of the Charlotte Observer: "Ratings for
regular-season NHL games are comparable to reruns of All in
the Family. But when the playoffs begin, buddy, you better
buckle up. In the playoffs, our ratings are up there with reruns
of Full House."
Tony Kornheiser, in The Washington Post: "Hockey is so
dead in America, the players may as well still be locked out.
You can't find hockey anywhere on television unless you're
looking for the Bicycle Race network."
That network, of course, would be OLN. To hear some people
explain it -- namely ESPN anchor/apologist John Buccigross --
the NHL's decision to join a cable network with limited reach
in many American markets was a massive mistake. (Obviously,
American hockey fans didn't really want the opportunity to
watch five hours of intense, intelligent coverage every
playoff night when they could have had another network treat
the sport as an afterthought to Texas Hold'em and spelling
bees. Right, Bucci?)
I'll tell you why the OLN decision was a good one, ratings be
damned: because it’s the first time the NHL has done anything
under Gary Bettman that has resembled a giant raised middle
finger to the sports media establishment.
It's the first time the league isn't curtsying to mythical
"casual" fans with glow pucks and Mighty Ducks and rules
changes that put shackles around goaltender's skates. The OLN
decision is something, in hindsight, we haven't seen from this
league under Bettman's homogeneous marketing scheme: it's
And you know what? It's working. Taking hockey completely off
the radar screen has created this quiet, creeping credibility
in the mind of the league's toughest critics as they
"discover" the newly revamped game. Even as Bettman and the
league are under fire for low ratings and even lower national
interest, read between those lines: the media's opinions about
the quality of play and the enjoyment of the Stanley Cup
Playoffs are overwhelmingly positive.
Anthony SanFillippo of the Delaware County Daily Times
(Pa.): "Does anyone out there have an extra clue to spare,
because someone needs to send one to NHL commissioner Gary
Bettman post-haste? The NHL is in nuclear winter when it comes
to this postseason. And it's a shame really, because the
quality of play has been superb. The Carolina-Buffalo series
has been incredibly intense and is living up to a standard
that should be held for Conference Finals in the future."
Jennifer Floyd Engel, from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:
"Bashing hockey is apparently en vogue again. I keep reading
sports writers smarter than myself giggling about how they do
not watch and how TV ratings suggest that something is amiss.
I have a suggestion for them: Watch the damn games. Or don’t.
Just please stop ripping a sport that you obviously know
nothing about. The hockey going on in the Oilers-Sharks series
is really great. This has been a pretty exciting postseason,
with just about every game a sellout."
Back in 1996, Bettman referred to the NHL as a
work-in-progress, a league building steadily in the United
States. It's in the same place now, thanks to a decade of
bungled marketing, labor strife, and the continued inability
of television to capture the excitement of the game. But
what's different in 2006 is that hockey is suddenly
self-sufficient, able to exist outside the ESPN incubator and
without being a slave to what the corporate media believes it
should be. The revenues and attendance figures fib, but they
Stay on this course, and the NHL could become the Pearl Jam of
Eddie Vedder and the boys were on top of the world in the
early 1990s, and then suffered public indifference and
critical blasting for the next decade. But they kept making
the albums they wanted to make, and touring around in sold-out
shows their true fans. Now, despite not having appeared in an
MTV video since the "Ten” album, PJ has become a cult
sensation on the road – "Entertainment Weekly" just did a
piece on the band's massive touring success – and its latest
album was well-received both critically and financially.
By being the band they want to be, Pearl Jam is relevant
again. And by finally ignoring what others think it should be
and where it should be seen, the NHL is starting to build that
same kind of street cred.
Because, in the end, it's the game we love. It's the game we
want. And it's the game -- not the gimmicks, not the pandering
to networks that shun the sport, not the commercials with
Abercrombie models pretending to be samurai warriors -- that
will bring others into our family of hockey fans once they
hear the buzz.
Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is
a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com and the Washington
Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine.
His book, "Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports
is now on sale.