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July 22, 2005

Letter from an irritated NHL fan

by Michael Bushnell, Page Editor
Look, America's sportswriters. I know you don't care about hockey. I know you hoped the NHL lockout would cause the league to have to fold up like a $10 poker table. But now that it's back I'm asking for a favor.

Just let me enjoy the games, okay?

Skip Bayless of ESPN is normally a fantastic columnist and has accomplished more in this industry than I could ever imagine to. But he was nothing but a contrarian shill at best and a fool at worst when he penned a column last winter that's lead read, "I hate hockey." Great, Mr. Bayless. You hate it so much that you spent 1,200 words writing about it? What's the point of that?

Look, I hate watching reruns of "General Hospital." But I'm not going to write a full-blown column about it. If the NHL is irrelevant, then why are so many columnists writing about it?

The NHL is finally back after 301 days in the labor strife wilderness, and I want to read about what could potentially be the most exciting free agency period in any major (yes, major) sport ever. Because the lockout wiped off a year of players' contracts, over 55 percent of the league is without a contract for next season.

The Boston Bruins, for example, have 19 NHL roster spots left to fill. When the Free Agency period starts in a week or two, we will witness the real life version of a fantasy draft.

Also, the league appears ready to introduce a horde of rule changes that will most certainly make the NHL a better product than it has been in many years. Now that the labor deal is done, we're on the verge of an exhilarating time to be a hockey fan.

When the deal was finished last week, all I heard on sports talk radio was how nobody cared about the NHL. I give the media the benefit of the doubt often, but I think they really are unfair in this assessment.

Everyone is writing the same things over again and passing them off as original thoughts: nobody cares about hockey, but lower ticket prices, lower everything, goal line this, red line that. Truth is, the NHL's least-important problem is drawing fans to its arenas.

In the 2004 season, 20 million fans attended NHL games. 20 million! That's over 16,000 fans per game, or over 80 percent capacity for the average hockey arena. According to the smart and hockey-wise Greg Wyshynski of Sports Fan Magazine, 25 of the 30 teams in the league drew over 14,000 fans. This all while the league was on television about seven times with no clue how to market itself.

I also don't think that putting the NHL in non-hockey markets is a bad idea. Hockey is a great game, and up north fans this past winter could still have gotten their fix of the game from the collegiate, high school and minor league levels. South of the Mason-Dixon line, it's NHL or nothing.

Hockey fans may not be as large in number as baseball fans, but they are far more devoted. I will bet you that, if the NHL becomes more fun to watch next year, the gate sales will go up from 2004, irrespective of the work stoppage. The real issue is with television ratings, and those will go up if there's a better product than the lousy one we saw the last few years.

Ten years from now, we will look back at this lockout and say it was worth it. The league got cost certainty not just a nice buzzword, but fiscal control that will make sure that every team makes money. If the league is going to be able to successfully market itself, it needs all 30 teams to chip in. Teams will be able to market themselves more effectively if they end the season $12 million in the black instead of $20 million in the red.

Hopefully this stoppage has finally opened up Commissioner Gary Bettman's eyes to the sorry state of his product. When, in the 1990s, violence and speed sold everything in sports (see NASCAR's boom in popularity), the NHL became the league of clutching-and-grabbing, while trying to discourage the rough play that made the game what it was in its 1980s heyday.

Bettman appears ready to speed up the game that had slowed down by getting rid of the center line and bringing back tag up offsides, while also making goalie pads smaller (11 inches instead of 12). More and more houses are getting HDTVs, which really do wonders for the sport in conveying hockey's speed and how the plays develop.

If the NHL does become a better product, there's no reason why it can't become a major sport nationally. Canadians already love the game, and Americans will take to anything that's fast and fun to watch. NASCAR has outgrown its Carolina roots and become national because of better exposure on TV, and because races are more fun to watch than they were 20 years ago.

When NASCAR went on Fox in 2001, it finally had a regular home for the sport on broadcast TV, and announcers like Darrell Waltrip, who had a passion for each race. If television can portray the speed of 43 cars on a two-mile long NASCAR track, then why not ten skaters on a surface 100 times smaller?

If the league is smart, it'll court TNT, which is supposedly interested in sitting down and doing a deal with the NHL. In the long run, they could be the best home imaginable for hockey on cable. They have the high-definition channel the NHL wants, and, at least in the case of the NBA, their production is starkly better than that of ESPN.

HBO has thrown out the idea of utilizing their censorship-exempt status by producing certain playoff games, and putting mics on the star players. Hearing the stars of the NHL cuss out the referees would be really cool. HBO Sports loves to brag about how great their boxing coverage is, and they have the Emmy Awards to back it up. Why couldn't they bring some extra heat to the NHL?

Even in its state now, I love the game of hockey. The league has been given a rare chance to reinvent itself so that many millions more Americans will embrace it as well. There's no better time to acquaint yourself with the NHL than right now.

The fun ride of the re-born NHL begins this October. I can't wait.

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  • haha on July 22, 2005 at 3:44 PM
    nice article mike, but I got bored at "Boston Bruins." That's not a knock at you as a writer; it's a knock at hockey. Sure, 16,000 fans is great, but it can't compare to baseball/football numbers. There's a reason everyone's saying nobody cares. Nobody does.
  • John on July 24, 2005 at 11:49 AM
    You know, it's kinda hard to draw baseball/football numbers when you play in venues that can't hold that many people. Besides, there are more than a couple of baseball teams that would love a guaranteed 16,000 fans per game.
  • BlazerHockey (View Email) on July 25, 2005 at 4:25 PM
    yah finally their will be hockey. lets go caps
  • fh on July 27, 2005 at 5:39 PM
    Hockey still sucks, but BlazerHockey is the most genious team ever.
  • gottalovehockey (View Email) on July 29, 2005 at 5:06 PM
    I read the whole article and enjoyed it. I agree that this is a new starting point for the NHL. Even if ESPN doesn't want it for $60 mil some other network will pick it up and it will gain more popularity again. If they can air Dodgeball, Slamball, and Roller Derby, then there's definitely room for hockey. It'll come back strong. The people who don't like it just don't understand it and don't take the time to try. It's a fast, exciting, emotional sport. I love football, but what who wants to play for 8 seconds and then pause for another 30 to wait for the next play?

    Go Wild!
  • Nick Falgouts (View Email) on July 31, 2005 at 3:40 AM
    Bravo, Mike, and Amen. With a capital A.
  • Nick on July 31, 2005 at 2:57 PM
    Did I really type Falgouts? That's what I get for reading Chips at 4 in the morning.
  • YAY HOCKEY!!!! on August 15, 2005 at 8:05 PM
    to john: it's hard for the NHL to draw football/basketball/baseball crowds because it's not great to watch on TV (but it's amazing live), and company's don't buy as much advertising on tv. A pro sports team makes nearly all their money from tv viewing and advertisers, not concessions and ticket sales so it's hard to stay in business when you're only making money from ticket sales. Anyway, the Caps play at MCI Center (home of the Wizards), NY Rangers play at Madison Square Garden (where the Knicks play), and the New Jersey Devils play Brendan Byrne Arena (the Nets Stadium) all of these stadiums, and more hold a ton of people.
  • Michael Bushnell (View Email) on August 19, 2005 at 1:21 PM
    Props to yay hockey on the Brendan Byrne reference...nice...
  • Ben Green on September 3, 2005 at 10:22 PM
    I'm gonna love watching everybody on a different team...

    They really should do that every few years or so (without a lockout of course), but that's just me!
  • sarah on September 19, 2005 at 7:07 PM
    hockeys tight
  • nick guild (View Email) on December 7, 2005 at 1:46 PM
    i love hockey just as much as the next guy but the players are all self centered.

    if you think you should go on strike go for a good reason. its not like theyer saving lives
  • FirstBaseMan on May 15, 2006 at 11:00 AM
    Basketball isn't even a number one sport in any country. Why are we even comparing hockey to Football/Basketball? If you want to talk about popularity wise, Football and Baseball are the most popular.

    Really, who really gives a crap about the NBA? People only think they do because they do because ESPN tells em too. ESPN personalites are pretty unprofessional to say the least. Look at the crowds for the 76ers, Celtics, etc.. Pathetic.

    I used to be a hardcore hockey fan, but the league has been run in turmoil for the last 7 - 8 years. It seems like they have gotten their stuff together, the NBA is worthless pile of crap. A bunch of sissies WALKING up and down a court. People who call hockey boring are seriously lacking mentally. If they think getting baskets every two minutes so they can clap is fun, well good luck to them. They are missing the FASTEST game in the world. I am still a big football fan, and that is my heart and soul for sports, but I can see why you like Hockey, and it probably sucks that ignorance is hurting your opertunity to follow the game in piece. Doesn't matter though, places like New England, Detroit,NY state, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and even st louis will always be hockey hotbeds. Good Column. The NBA is for confused teenagers, Hockey is for men. Last but not least, I See european fans who hate hockey but love soccer bashing the sport. The most boring sport is soccer, and it is just as prissy as the NBA if not more.
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