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June 1, 2006
  

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 Wyshynski.
 

(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 Finals.

"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 zombie rituals.

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 basketball team.

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 of quasi-approval.

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.

Witness:

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 flat-out rebellious.

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.

Witness:

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 don't lie.

Stay on this course, and the NHL could become the Pearl Jam of sports.

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.
 


Greg 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 History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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