October 17, 2006

NHL Still Struggling To Ensure Survival

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Barry Melrose’s mullet caught me off-guard. The NHL is back? Already? The lockout is over? There has already been a full season since then??? Wow, insignificant professional sports information overload, this is too much. I feel like Jack when the Others showed him the video of the Red Sox winning the World Series on Lost — utter disbelief.

Cheekiness aside, the National Hockey League is really back in action with its high scoring games, fast paced play and continued apathy from American sports fans.

Things used to be different. During the1995-96 season, I was a huge hockey fan. The Quebec Nordiques had just become the Colorado Avalanche, and my home state was humming with newfound hockey fervor. The Avs went on to take the Stanley Cup in their first year, and I felt like I had found yet another outlet for my sports addiction. But it was not to be.

Ten years later, things have changed drastically for me and legions of former hockey fans whose interest has dilapidated to practical nonexistence. Indeed, the NHL and I are no longer on speaking terms.

The diehards still exist, and they claim the NHL is back from the dead — I, for one, did not notice. These few remaining NHL fans (read: Canadians) always point to high attendance numbers in their efforts to stop the eulogizing of their league. This argument is backwards and reactionary — the NHL will, and should, always have great attendance, it is thrilling to watch live. But marketing the sport in other ways, especially through television, is a problem that the league has always had (remember the glow puck?), and it is only getting harder after the league slapped the fans in the face with the lockout. Other than the action packed thrill of attending a hockey game, the sport has always left something to be desired by the fans.

The rule changes to increase scoring were a start in winning back fans and salvaging the NHL, but they will not solve all the problems of a league that could possibly spiral towards bankruptcy in the near future.

Sadly, other NHL changes have also occurred, including the makeover of the Anaheim Ducks logo and uniforms, which means that former Cornell superstar David McKee ‘07, now a player in the Ducks system, will never get to don the outfit that fellow goaltender Greg Goldberg wore against international powerhouse Iceland in the Junior Goodwill Games. The Flying V is apparently dead.

But McKee’s legend on this campus is an example of the way in which college hockey is not necessarily suffering in the wake of the NHL’s death. As evidenced by yet another display of Cornell hockey passion with this past weekend’s participants in the Line and the brewing excitement over the completion of a refurbished Lynah Rink, hockey is very much alive in Ithaca. Because Ithaca’s winters are boring, live hockey is exciting, and the Red is always nationally competitive, Cornell and other similar college towns in the Northeast, which sustain a multitude of passionate hockey hardcores who, although they can remember numerous offensive taunts about Harvard, likely cannot name a single player on last year’s Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes. Cornell is, as Sun Senior Writer Bryan Pepper so accurately stated, Bizarro World.

But for the NHL, the future remains to be seen. In the past 15 years, the NBA and MLB have both recovered from similar lockout situations, with the NBA currently experiencing somewhat of a renaissance approximately eight years after the shortened 1998 season. But the NHL may not have a similar success story. For as long as I can remember, professional hockey has always occupied the bottom spot on the totem pole of the four major American sports, and it is now forced to try to rebuild its image with no help from the ESPN empire and with a league that seems genuinely foreign, in both senses of the word.

It’s likely too early to officially publish the autopsy, since the “new” league is still only in its second season and revival is not out of the question. But for the time being, the NHL exists as an afterthought — its season overlaps too much with the more popular sports. Furthermore, as many writers have noticed, parity in the league — because of the new collective bargaining agreement — pitted a team from the South (not exactly a hockey hotbed) and a team from Canada (where exactly is Edmonton?) into the competition for one of the world’s most storied trophies. Gone are the days when the NHL tried to commercialize its league with the erroneous and misguided phrase “Hockey: Made in America.” Not only does that phrase disregard obvious Canadian dominance in the sport, it just doesn’t make any sense — hockey is about as American as universal healthcare. And it may need that universal healthcare because, in case you were wondering, the NHL is currently on life support.

Patrick Blakemore is a Sun Staff Writer. Got Game? will appear every other Tuesday this semester.