Monday, April 9, 2007

Pucks in Purgatory

by Sam Bergman

tap… tap tap… this thing on?

Excellent. Ahem… Ladies and gentlemen, we are pleased to announce that the NHL playoffs will begin later this week.

…I know. You’d think you would have heard something about that, wouldn’t ya? You being a casual hockey fan and all. I mean, no one expects you to follow every little development of the regular season like those of us who live and die with Canada’s game, but still, when the playoffs roll around, well, you’d just expect that someone over at a major TV sports network would feel compelled to let you know about it!

But apparently not. Due in small part to ESPN’s deliberate attempt to bury any league that isn’t carried over its air, and in large part to the NHL’s infuriating incompetence when it comes to electronic media, press relations, and fan accommodation, the post-lockout hockey playoffs arrive in the U.S. with all the fanfare of a crucial Pakistani cricket match. That’s a great shame, because the majority of American sports fans being what they are (which is to say, sheep) this kind of willful ignorance means that a postseason that promises to be the most entertaining in years could fly under the radar of the vast majority of sports fans, even here, in the much-ballyhooed State of Hockey.

(Perhaps you think we are being unfair by branding the mass of American sports fans as “sheep.” Perhaps you have not listened to the Jim Rome Show lately. The reality is that Americans have been so conditioned to regard seriously the bleating of various self-appointed mass media tastemakers that most of us will respond as directed on nearly any subject on which we do not already possess a passionate opinion. See also Rodriguez, Alex and Smith, Anna Nicole.)

So how did we reach this sad state of affairs? It seems pointless even to bother rehashing the lockout, partly because everyone already knows what damage a hockey-free year did to the sport’s popularity south of the 49th parallel, but also because the changes the lockout wrought to hockey’s inner workings should actually work in the sport’s favor eventually, provided NHL Commissioner Gary “Glowing Puck” Bettman doesn’t blow the whole thing up in his own hands first. (He probably will, actually, after which the league owners will show their displeasure by only granting Bettman a 3-year extension and 75% salary bump.)

Many hockey fans like to compare the game’s current state of affairs with baseball’s sorry condition following the cancellation of the ’94 World Series: the National Pasttime was as low as it had ever been, and yet, all it took was persistence, patience, and a monster season from McGwire and Sosa (pre-reality check) to set things back on track. And while it’s awfully tempting to believe that the NHL might follow a similar path in the near future (Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are every bit the offensive force that McGwire and Sosa were, and they have the added benefit of being on the front side of their respective careers, and also of not being ‘roided-up phonies,) there is one very, very big difference between pro baseball in 1995 and pro hockey in 2007. And that difference can be found in the rigid ideology currently guiding the leadership of the NHL.

Say what you will about Bud Selig (and we’ve said much in the past,) but as many mistakes as he has made while running MLB over the years, he has been a master at adjusting to the shifting realities of the American sports/entertainment landscape. Selig, for all his unpleasantries, is a savvy businessman who has proven adept at keeping his owners fat and happy, and the fans by and large just happy enough to avert open revolt. He has advocated for, and imposed, various controversial changes on the game he controls, but he has always been careful to ensure that he had a sizable base of support behind him, not just among the owners, but among the players and the media as well. Given that kind of backing, the diehard fans will usually come around eventually.

Gary Bettman, on the other hand, appears to have taken a cursory look at the NHL back when he was first appointed commissioner, and decided on a single, linear course of action which he has followed like a religion, refusing to deviate even one inch from the course lest someone question his commitment to his own vision. Remember that, in 1993, when Bettman came aboard, Wayne Gretzky was turning Los Angeles into a bona fide hockey town, Mario Lemieux was revitalizing one of the league’s moribund but vital markets (Pittsburgh,) and the game was finally beginning to get regular national exposure on American TV, courtesy of ESPN.

Bettman's strategy, then, involved rapid and extensive expansion to the larger cities in the American south, while simultaneously abandoning as many undersized markets as could be arranged, with the overall objective of putting as much quick cash as possible into the pockets of the league’s owners. In the fifteen years since, this plan has become the NHL’s Iraq policy, a woefully misguided (if originally well-intended) ideological line in the sand from which the commissioner refuses to back away even as the league shudders around him and fans in two countries beg him to recalibrate.

Point out the clear wrongheadedness of placing teams no one asked for in Tampa Bay, Phoenix, Raleigh, and Sunrise, Florida (Sunrise, for the love of God!) while allowing hockey-mad markets like Winnipeg, Quebec, and Minnesota to languish without teams, and you’ll get a regurgitated speech on how much better things are going in Raleigh these days. (Winning a fluky Cup does tend to boost one’s attendance figures for a year or so, yes, before everyone goes back to caring only about NASCAR and football.) Inquire into the wisdom of abandoning the unprecedented national reach of the sports juggernaut that is ESPN for an outlying cable channel that offered you a couple of extra million dollars, and you’ll get back a fascinating theory about the benefits of partnering with a channel that is truly devoted to your sport and only your sport. Which immediately begs the question: if a tree falls six miles away from a forest and makes no sound, does it matter to anyone in the forest how devoted the ferns growing at the tree’s base were to the tree?

There is certainly method to Bettman’s madness. He and those who follow his lead believe, correctly, that a league that caters only to its diehard base while ignoring the masses of casual fans who need some extra prodding to take an interest is a losing strategy. This is something baseball has understood for decades, and it’s the core reason behind such “improvements” as the designated hitter, the wild card system, and the absurd nationwide hyping of the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry.

But whereas baseball has usually eased into such changes, proclaiming every new innovation a “trial” while keeping one eye sharply cocked towards the core fan base, Bettman’s NHL has essentially told an entire nation, Canada, to shut up and be thankful they still have a few teams. It has told fans in southern New England that the Boston Bruins are quite enough team for the entire hockey-mad region, then allowed one of the worst owners in sports to run the once-proud franchise into the ground. It has manipulated attendance figures of its underperforming new teams throughout the Sun Belt, and then when called on the distortions, pointed to similarly slumping attendance in Original Six markets like Chicago, while conveniently ignoring the obvious truth that the Blackhawks are run by an owner so addled and out of touch that he doesn’t allow his team’s home games to be broadcast because he believes that TV holds down attendance! In short, Commissioner Bettman will not be moved from his absurd script by any reality, not even when his devotion to ideological purity is threatening to sink the sport he professes to care about.

This isn’t the article I intended to write when I sat down at the keyboard a few hours ago. I wanted to talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins’ miraculous resurrection at the hands of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. I wanted to zero in on the fascinating first-round playoff matchup of San Jose and Nashville, which will end with one of the three best teams in all of hockey being eliminated before the end of April. I wanted to touch on the Hollywood-couldn’t-have-scripted-it-any-better rise of Niklas Backstrom, the Minnesota goaltender who could well prove to be this year’s out-of-nowhere playoff hero. I planned to dwell at length on a Western Conference so loaded down with talent that only a single playoff team failed to reach the 100-point plateau.

But you know what? I already know all about that stuff, and so do all the other hockey diehards in Minnesota. A playoff preview should be about giving those casual fans that everyone is always chasing a reason to tune in, to take an interest, even if only for a few hours, even if only as a diversion on the nights that the Twins aren’t playing. And even though I believe with all my heart that the game of hockey is as vibrant and entertaining as it has ever been, I just can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t already believe the same being convinced to slog through the wasteland at the outer edge of his cable system to catch a glimpse of the action. Besides, even if he did, he likely wouldn’t be able to see Sid the Kid wind it up or Niklas Backstrom glove one down.

Not with that immovable elephant standing in the middle of the room, he wouldn’t.

1 comment:

TwinsJunkie said...

Phenomenal stuff. Kudos