Posted: Thursday February 17, 2005 3:07PM; Updated: Thursday February 17, 2005 4:38PM
When hockey comes back, they will have to do a lot of work to win back fans.
As NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced Wednesday that the 2004-05 season was officially dead and gone, millions of loyal hockey fans in traditional hotbeds like Columbus, Nashville and Raleigh felt a profound sense of loss and wondered how they would ever survive until next fall without their beloved sport.
Canadians wept openly at the news, before returning to ice fishing. In Detroit, fans were ready to drop the city's "Hockeytown" nickname, until they started to look at the viable alternatives. Bettman himself confessed to feeling "terrible," although not so bad that he was ready to put a cap on his own salary. R.I.P. hockey. See you next year. Maybe.
Yes, hockey is gone, but Bettman's press conference included one ray of optimism. When asked what impact the canceled campaign might have on the fans' interest and loyalty, Bettman said it might take a few years for them to come back. A few years? No wonder Bettman couldn't make a deal with the players. He's living in a state of delusion so advanced he makes new Vikings owner Reggie Fowler's resume look accurate.
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Here is a man who presided over a ridiculous expansion of a league that had little or no widespread interest to begin with. While the NHL (Suggested Motto: "The Best Thing On Ice Since Curling") was adding teams in Atlanta and Tampa, it was moving clubs out of Canada, rather than doing everything possible to keep them there. Talk about poor business sense. Under the Bettman model, NASCAR would be holding races in San Francisco and the Bronx and recruiting Tim Robbins and Barbara Streisand to be team owners.
Bettman's league is so marginalized in American culture that its TV package belongs on the Outdoor Life Network, as a lead-in to bull riding. Ratings on ESPN were so low last year that the folks in Bristol were toying with moving the '04-05 broadcast schedule to their new ESPNobodycares channel. Even before the labor pains, the NHL was losing ground to golf, auto racing, dog shows and the WB's prime-time lineup. So Bettman thinks the sport will rebound in a couple years? Rebound to what, WNBA levels?
The good news for the NHL is that El Hombre has some answers. No, he can't solve the monetary morass, although a salary cap is definitely the long-term answer, even if it is ridiculous that owners are trying to undo their idiocy ($9 million a year for a hockey player?!?!) with draconian measures at the players' expense, while the players' "no cap, yes cap" tactic was right out of the Neville Chamberlain negotiating playbook. But El Hombre can offer some ways to make the game more enjoyable once everybody heads back to the ice. After baseball's '94 strike, the game rebounded in style, thanks to home run binges, magical playoff pairings and a run of civic extortion that led to a spate of cozy new ballparks. Hockey can experience a similar renaissance by implementing some of the following wise suggestions:
Pump it up: Hockey's going to need some more action and excitement, so let's take a page from baseball's playbook. Juice up the pucks. Put a super ball in the middle of them. Dip 'em in Red Bull. And how about a little cork in those sticks? Imagine the extra velocity that could be had on a slap shot.