Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Whither Hockey?

I've been spending the last few months following the New York Rangers. The NHL Center Ice Package is a pretty good bargain for just shy of $130 so I signed up and I've got access to essentially every televised game.

The new rules, and the stricter enforcement of certain penalties, have been a complete success. Offense is on the rise, teams that can stick handle and move the puck around are winning and the slow and the thuggish are getting weeded out. Goals are up, the neutral zone trap is history and teams that don't skate fast and win battles in the corners lose, regardless of reputation. It's a lot more fun to watch.

There's a good number of purists out there who hate these rules and it's easy to see why. This isn't the same game. Defensemen used to be able to stifle attackers by clutching and hooking players with the puck and impeding the process of players not carrying the puck. It didn't matter if the guy was faster, passed better or beat them to the spot, they could grab at him from behind and slow him down. Now if a guy beats you, you're beat and he's gone. This is hurting the seasoned veterans, aka the older guys who are slowing down. Brett Hull is gone, Yzerman is complaining publically and the Darian Hatchers of the world must be a little concerned. Size and experience mean nothing if you can't beat the guy to the puck. And if you can't match enthusiasm with a guy whose been stuck the in Canadian minor leagues for the past few years, you're going to get left behind.

That works for me and clearly for the NHL as well. They'd rather have a more watchable product and this NHL is definitely more watchable. The question is why aren't more people watching it?

I don't have anything against the NBA but the whistle keeps blowing, guys keep launching bombs from 30 feet away and it gets tedious. The players are far more interesting than the game they play. The NFL is much the same way: there's no way I could sit through a game without my Tivo. I find myself fast forwarding between snaps because of commercial timeouts and, lately, an abundance of referreeing. There's more violence in football, more athleticism and much more strategy compared to hockey but watching a hockey game is far more visually compelling than a football game.

So why is no one watching hockey? Let's cover the basics:

There aren't many Americans playing and it's not an American sport. That's true, but has the NBA suffered from its recent infusion of European players? Not so much. There are enough Americans playing hockey to satisfy xenophobes.

There are no recognizable stars. Also true. But the NFL proves that stars are less important than the plays they make on the field. Remember, you can't even see the players faces when they're playing. The NHL has tried to market itself on its stars, but that's a hard sell when the guys generally aren't on the ice for more than 1/3 of the game and when they are on the ice, there's no assurance they are going to be involved in the play and it's even less likely they'll score. The NHL is a team sport. Like the NFL, it succeeds based on fan allegiance to teams and quality of play.

It doesn't televise well. Remember the glowing puck thing Fox tried? Awful. Bigger screens and HDTV have made hockey more than presentable via television over the past few years so this is no good.

There are no black players. I think more than anything this reinforces the notion that this is not an American sport.

I haven't played it before. Most Americans haven't. Everyone played baseball, hockey, football in school. Very few played hockey. Gretzky changed this to an extent but for most of us, our first direct encounter with hockey was with the NHL.

It's weird. This is what kills the NHL. It is weird. Partly because Canadians are weird. Partly because they play it in bizarre locations such as Columbus, Anaheim, Tampa Bay, San Jose, Calgary, Carolina, Nashville, Ottawa. Partly because there's a team named after a crappy Emilio Estevez movie. The NHL doesn't seem to have a handle on marketing itself to Americans. We don't like goofy in our professional sports. It's hard to market a team as being fast, exciting and tough when there's a duck on their jersey. Plus, this relationship with OLN is absolutely ludicrous. You've now juxtaposed your sport with Ted Nugent and the great adventures of the fish and wildlife patrol.

No one asked, but this is what I think the NHL needs to do:

First, fold teams. Fold the teams in secondary markets, the teams that don't draw well and all the California and Florida teams. Pro hockey doesn't belong in hot weather climates. Tampa Bay is playing Anaheim this year. That just doesn't make sense. Give them minor league franchises. They really don't care.

Have a reentry draft and spread the talent from the folded teams around. Imagine what it would be like if your home team had two or three legitimate first-tier guys. Talent like Jason Staal and Martin St Louis is being wasted in metro areas that really couldn't care less about hockey. The difference in passion between a Toronto fan and a Carolina fan is appalling.

Realize that the game today right now a regional sport. You have no one to blame but yourself for that. The national audience drifted away from the NHL for obvious reasons. By improving gameplay, taking the sports more seriously and concentrating talent, you can probably get back to being a nationally-appreciated sport within a couple of years. Until then, deal with it. And get out of that OLN contract, for Christ's sake.


At 2:08 PM, Blogger PhilosopherKing said...

Great Blog. You are a serious hockey fan. I think it would be kind of a bummer to close down the Cup champs. Even with Khabi, they are pretty good.

I agree that the game is better. Don't you think the Rangers should pick up Peca from EDM?


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