Fan Interference
Hockey Is Back. Can It Go Away Now?
By Bob Plain
Sep 29, 2005

So hockey is back. Uggh.

This past hockey-less year will be remembered decades from now as the Golden Age of sports. SportsCenter didn't waste half of its program covering games no one cared about and featuring players no one ever heard of. There was no NHL Tonight clogging up the airwaves. No broadcasters prefacing every sentence with an "eh." Life without hockey was good.

As all good things must come to an end, the NHL is finally revving up the Zamboni after a pointless 22-month lockout.

Life without hockey meant more time dedicated to sports people actually cared about, like football. Now instead of another 10 minutes on Chad Pennington's shoulder, we will soon be subjected to images of anonymous French Canadian and former Soviet Bloc hockey players chasing after an invisible puck.

Recently, a friend of mine asked me why I hated hockey. "Because it sucks. Duh," I thought.

The question sat with me, though. Why do I, and your average American sports fan, think hockey sucks? It's an extremely fast-paced, frenetic game played by highly skilled, extraordinarily tough athletes. The sport has a long, proud history filled with legendary names like Hull, Howe, Lemieux, Gretzky. Yet I couldn't care less about the game, and most American sports fans agree.

Like with geometry and the Lord of the Rings movies, my brain goes into hibernation the second I see 12 guys skating around a rink. There is something vaguely ... soccer-ish about hockey, the kiss of death for most red-blooded Americans such as myself. The endless back-and-forth nature of the game, combined with its total lack of scoring, makes for a very frustrating experience.

To the untrained eye, the game appears to have no structure or strategy. Guy hits puck, passes it to teammate. Teammate advances (dribbles?) puck, gets drilled into boards by three Russian goons. Puck pops out, mad scramble for invisible puck. Repeat sequence for 90 minutes.

The NHL could educate the ignorant about the game if it was on TV regularly ... except it's not. Wanna catch a hockey game on ESPN? Sorry, you can't. The network passed on renewing its contract with the ratings-killing league last summer. You can, thank god, catch the NHL this season on the Outdoor Life Network in between episodes of All Star BBQ Showdown.

While I'm sure they make a mean brisket on All Star BBQ Showdown, isn't the NHL slumming just a tad bit?

Unfortunately, when you're down on your luck, sometimes you have to downsize to a less-than-desirable neighborhood. Now that the NHL is living in the broadcast equivalent of Fallujah, you would think the league would do everything in its power to move back to Bel Air.

In some ways, the league is taking steps in the right direction. The NHL has gotten rid of the most anti-American aspect of the sport — ties — and has instituted a soccer-style shootout at the end of tie games. These shootouts will probably be more entertaining than the games themselves, prompting one to wonder why the entire match isn't a shootout.

The league has also instituted new rules that will keep the goon squads at bay. This is a huge step in the right direction, finally acknowledging that the WWE nature of hockey has turned away countless fans, including me.

Whoa, wait a minute, you say. Football is violent. Guys get hit — hard — on every play. Yet football is America's game. Why do we enjoy hard, bone-crushing hits in football so much but yawn when it happens on ice?

The reason is that the violence in hockey seems so pointless. In football, collisions are part of the game. The only way to stop a 230-pound running back from doing a jig in the end zone is to knock him on his butt.

In hockey, it seems like guys slam into each other for no reason other than, you know, "just cause."

There seems like there are better ways to keep a guy from scoring on you in hockey than slamming the opponent into the boards. You know, actually using some skill with your stick — not just whacking each other over the head with it.

To the NHL's credit, these new rules will open up play in the league. Because the rules are filled with words that make my eyes roll into the back of my head like "icing," "red line," and "neutral zone," I didn't quite catch the specifics. The general intent, I gather, is to make the league less like UFC and more like the NBA.

Which is a start. But what good is a new and improved league if nobody knows about it?

There has been a noticeable lack of fanfare promoting the league's return after a year-and-a-half absence. There have been no ubiquitous "I Love This Game!" TV ads. No NHL kickoff concerts in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. No oversized billboards of hockey's biggest "stars" in Times Square.

The biggest problem hockey has right now is that it has no idea how to sell itself to people like me. Marketing a league that has severe cash-flow issues is never an easy proposition. Actually playing games is a step in the right direction. Still, the NHL has to do something, anything to win over the casual fan.

Case in point: I don't think I could name you more than three active hockey players. Lets see there's Jeremy Roenick ... and Jeremy Roenick and Mario Lemieux ... is he still playing?

I might be completely ignorant about hockey but I also watch a lot of sports. You would think that a few of the NHL's rising stars would sink in, but they haven't.

The NHL needs to choose its top three or four rising stars, whomever they are, and spend whatever money it has left getting the word out about them. If hockey's top guy is named Ivan Drago, I want to see Ivan Drago's mug plastered on every billboard in town. I want to see his dark, pitiless face staring down at me as I drive drive the freeway, imploring me to take in a hockey game. Perhaps sheer intimidation will get a few more fans in the seats.

After figuring out how to market the sport, the NHL needs to make a few more drastic changes. The league finally got rid of ties. Good. Now get rid of some teams. At last count, the NHL has 30 teams. Thirty teams in a sport nobody cares about?!!! Apparently Columbus, Carolina, and that hotbed of hockey, Phoenix, all have teams. Why?

Even though it won the last Stanley Cup, I think, does Tampa Bay really need a hockey team? Really? Why not spread around the good players to places where they actually care about hockey, like Canada?

The NHL would be a much stronger product if it was whacked down to 15, 20 teams in the original, old-school cities. Places like Edmonton, Toronto, Detroit where the locals live and breath hockey. Ask 10 people in Tampa Bay who won the last Stanley Cup, and I guarantee nine will answer "Stanley who?" Aside from a few die-hards and French Canadian ex-pats, people in the South and Sunbelt don't care about hockey and never will. If the NHL wants to rebound in popularity, it needs to focus on its core group of supporters and not water down the league, expanding to places where the only place you see ice is in a Slurpee.

Of course, what the league could really use is a new Wayne Gretzky, the Michael Jordan/LeBron James of hockey. Maybe that savior is toiling somewhere in Canada, hopefully with a semi-pronounceable name, waiting to take the league by storm. The next "Great One" will transcend his sport and bring it to a whole new fan base.

Except for me. I might check out the highlights for a moment before shrugging my shoulders and switching to the Tuesday night WAC football game on ESPN 2. Because, you know, I like sports that are actually entertaining.

Fan Interference is a biweekly sports column.

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