Tuesday, February 6, 2007

The State of the NHL

So, football's over for the year (unless you really want to count the pro-bowl) and now the country can turn it's sports eye to it's truly beloved ... Basketball? ... um Spring Training? Yea, exactly, there's a complete void here and not too long ago, it would have been easily filled by the NHL. In the early 90's, the NHL was entering the pinnacle of it's existance. Gretzky was in the second biggest market (LA) and the Biggest market had just won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 54 years. The NHL had so much momentum that Sports Illustrated actually ran a cover story about the NHL becoming bigger than the NBA. As a fan of the NHL right before this time, I felt like people were finally getting it.

Then the unthinkable happened, the Owners locked out the players. All the momentum was lost. Many would-be fans never watched another game and even though there was a shortened season that year, that Stanley Cup felt a little tarnished. To further the downfall, the team that won used a sufficating style which, when played correctly, virtually guaranteed low scores and likely a win. The Devils didn't invent the trap, but they played it to perfection. Add to it a goaltender like Brodeur who would thrive in any situation (He may be the best to ever play - yes even better than Patrick Roy when all is said and done). But lousy teams would employ a similar tactic and rather than pounce on turnovers, teams seemed to be content to play not-to-lose. After a while people forgot about the lockout a little and viewers began to watch a little more (Notibly after the Red Wings won using a much more offensive style).

But many teams (as the league expanded to add four more teams) still employed playing-not-to-lose tactics. The game was suffering and payrolls were going crazy. Revenue didn't keep up and there were talks of teams going bankrupt. Mario Lemiuex became a part owner of a franchise, not because he wanted to own the team, but because it was the only way they could afford to pay him owed money. The league was in major trouble and the new CBA negotiations were no were in sight. Another lockout. This time it cancelled the entire season. I, personally, was floored. I never thought the entire season would be cancelled. When the two sides started talking again, they hammered out a deal, but all a sudden, the sponsors, and TV deals were gone. When ESPN pulled out of the running for NHL broadcasts, I was legitimately worried about the future of the league. The fact that OLN (now Versus) won the contract didn't do anything to assuage my fears. Last season went off surprisingly well, and the game was a lot stronger. But the viewers still stayed away.

I read a lot of Bill Simmons on ESPN and I like what he has to say, but was really dishearted by a quote he had the other day. "I'm excluding the NHL because it held its All-Star Game on a Wednesday on a network called Versus. If we included hockey, we'd have to include Arena Football, MLS, National Lacrosse League, "Pros vs. Joes" and "Real World/Road Rules Challenge." (Thanks Chris for reminding me that I wanted to write about this). At first, I was outraged, but then I realized, he was right. Whoever decided to make this game in the middle of the week on a network that has a very small footprint compared to a national network is an idiot. The ratings were horrible. Down over 70% from the previous All Star Game.

So where does that leave the league. Well, the game is better than it's been in years. There are no more ties and the shootout is exciting (though I'd personally like to see 10 minutes of 4-on-4 followed by 10 minutes of 3-on-3 before we went to a skills competition to decide the games). Games are going to start showing up on NBC now that Football season is over and it will be a good stretch until the playoffs. But this is an extremely uphill battle. There needs to be something done to legitimize this league - to put it back as one of the big four. Some have suggested that contraction is the key. I don't argue that it might help the overall level of play, but which teams to cut? Allienating fans will not endear the league to people. Keeping the players visible as they have been is key. Market the youngest stars (like Crosby and Ovechkin) and getting more exposure on ESPN (allow it to carry in-progress highlights) might all be ways to make this league what it once was. Otherwise, there is a chance it could just remain a tier-two sports league.

1 comment:

rus said...

I am one of those sports fans for whom hockey is so far behind the top three, it barely registers. I mean, I hope the Stars do well and keep and eye on their scores, but you get past Turco and Modano, I don't even know plays for them. The other day, I read about a game and had never heard of the guys who scored. I live within 10 miles of the arena that argueably the best team in hockey plays, and I've never even watched them on TV. I am the sports fan that the NHL has got to get to survive beyond the fringe, but I don't know what they could do to get it done.