October 4, 2007

Give the NHL Some Love Too, Sport Fans

Print More

If you’ve been wandering around in a “Hunt for October” induced daze (I have), wondering why you feel like you’re forgetting something — scratch your confused head no more. What’s been nagging so persistently at your baseball-and-football-suffused conscious is exciting, especially for dejected Mets fans who have nothing to look forward to as far as October baseball is concerned (uh-oh). The best part is, you’re going to kick yourself when I tell you…
It’s hockey season … DUH.
That’s right, after about three weeks of preseason games that went unnoticed by many “hockey fans,” the season began yesterday, overshadowed by the thrilling quest for the postseason in the National League and the start of postseason as a whole.
I’m just as pumped up about October baseball (Go Phils!) as everyone else (except for Mets fans), but let’s not forget the sport that will occupy your weeknights and weekends until next June. And, for all you Buffalo fans who somehow forgot your beloved Sabres, Briere wears a Flyers jersey now, oh, and Drury plays for the Rangers (ahem, good luck).
In truth, it’s not really funny that so many people have forgotten or ignored or overlooked the fact that it’s hockey season. After last year’s Stanley Cup finals, which had the lowest ratings, maybe ever, the NHL is desperate to compete or at least get some minimal recognition amidst all the hullabaloo surrounding the MLB and the NFL.
The problem is, you can’t compete in the big leagues if you can’t even get your scheduling down. On NHL.com, the regular season schedule started on Oct. 3rd. This came as a shock to those who did follow preseason or are keeping track of their fantasy hockey team, since many people thought the London games counted toward the regular season. If you take a minute to check out the standings, you’ll see there are no “standings” yet, so all the games played across the Atlantic must be preseason games. Good sleuthing, but the thing is, you shouldn’t have to sleuth, it should be painfully obvious to everyone when the season starts, not guesswork.
The NHL dropped the ball (or the puck, I guess) because better advertising campaigns and coverage should have made it clear as day which games counted toward the regular season. On top of that, they should have created more excitement around opening day. Not only would more fans be watching their team’s season opener but there would be no confusion for anyone about which contests truly matter. There are plenty of exciting moments and players, (Crosby, Ovechkin, Malkin, etc.) that could help create a bigger buzz about the season. If the NHL wants big time ratings and support, they’ve got to get the job done, not discredit the players and annoy the fans by taking silly shortcuts.
Still, the ignorance is somewhat shocking considering hockey is one of the most exciting sports to spectate. What’s more, it’s one of the most exciting sports to watch on TV. However, even though hockey is my favorite sport, I’m not naïve enough to disregard what has really put so many people off about the NHL in recent years. The lockout in 2004-05, which (tragically) cancelled what should have been the NHL’s 88th season, effectively alienated many hockey fans that could/cannot forgive the players or the owners for the money motivated debacle.
Well, to all you lapsed hockey fans, it’s time to get off your high horse and let your anger dissipate; there are bigger fish to fry. Professional sports will always be marred and mishandled by cash-hungry owners and players; that’s the nature of the business. That doesn’t mean you should stop loving the game.
There are other reasons why some ex-fans or semi-fans are not as hyped about the season, as say, me. In the aftermath of that fateful year some of the rules affecting the speed of the game and a lot of rules affecting penalties changed in an effort to make the game faster paced and higher scoring. Some of the new rules have been great, like eliminating the two-line pass rule, but other reforms, especially those pertaining to checking and fighting, have been met with some disdain (to put it nicely) from fans.
Let’s be honest: who doesn’t love it when one player cunningly knocks an opposing players skates out or tries to get away with a particularly unsportsmanlike cross-check from behind and suddenly two tough guys throw their sticks to the ice, stare each other down for a moment, then violently try to dislodge the other’s helmet and pull his jersey over his head.
Hooking, slashing, tripping, interference, roughing and cross-checking are some of the defining characteristics about hockey, and many people can’t stand that players who make a living in the penalty box are being forced to clean up their acts. By saying this I may incur the wrath of many blood-thirsty macho men, but maybe, just maybe we should give the new “improvements” a chance. Anyway, in a few years beer induced memory lapses will kick in and you won’t know any better so why not shut up, sit down, and start following the sport again.
Despite all this contempt for the lockout and fear of change, there is still one pervasive issue that makes it understandable that so many fans simply forgot that the season started. The NHL doesn’t have a contract with ESPN (yet), and as long as it doesn’t, hockey will never get the coverage it so desperately needs. And, yes, I am reiterating the “desperate” part. The Stanley Cup Finals netted the same national ratings (1.1) for NBC as a rerun of the “West Wing.” That’s not just sad and embarrassing, it’s downright humiliating — just think of poor old Lord Stanley.
Considering I watched almost every single playoff game and the Stanley Cup finals, I cannot explain why people were not glued to their sofas. However, it may have had something to do with the fact that many playoff games were broadcasted on OLN, a channel that not everyone receives as part of their standard cable. Whatever the reason, clearly OLN does not attract the same, uh, following as ESPN and two brief minutes of precious commentary by Barry Melrose (and his infamous hair-do) on SportsCenter every night is just not enough (more mullet, please!).
It’s definitely fair to say that the NHL is a far cry from perfection but then again, other professional sports area not handling themselves much better (i.e. Michael Vick et al) — they just have sweet ESPN contracts. And, for what it’s worth, it seems as though some effort, however minimal and disorganized, is being made at improvement. But, since being fan should always be about pure love for the sport, I think it’s for everyone who neglected to pull their hockey jerseys out of storage in preparation this year, no matter what your excuse, to make sure you’ve got OLN on your channel listings and get ready…