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The State of the NHL:
An Inside Look

Posted: Wed June 10, 1998

Sports Illustrated Has hockey blown its chance to become a major professional sport? The NHL's U.S. television ratings have taken a dive, and the Stanley Cup finals seem to be overshadowed by the NBA, baseball and even the World Cup. In this week's issue, Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Farber takes a hard look at the NHL's past, present and future. SI also commissioned a poll of sports fans, conducted by Yankelovich Partners, to try to gauge the public's perception of hockey. Click here for an exclusive look at the complete results.

CNN/SI talked with Farber about the story, which reaches newsstands and subscribers beginning today.

Is commissioner Gary Bettman doing a good job? (268K)
Did the midseason crackdown on obstruction make the league look foolish? (324K)

CNN/SI: Do you agree with Gary Bettman, who says this is just a down cycle, or do you feel the league has a more serious problem?

Farber: I think the NHL is starting to address the serious problem, which is the quality of the product. And they're doing that by enforcing old rules and adding some new ones. I'm not sure that all the new rules are going to work, especially having two referees on the ice, if that's adopted. But I think all these things are cyclical. I think hockey can come back—it all depends at what level you expect it to come back to. I don't think it will ever be more than No. 4 in any market, but as it grows I think the NHL is going to be a solid No. 4 league, as it already is.

CNN/SI: Which of the proposed rules changes do you think will be adopted?

Farber: I think most of them—perhaps not the two referees. I'm sure you'll see a shrinkage of the crease; I'm sure you'll see officials continue to crack down on obstruction; and the goals will be moved two feet farther from the boards. I think that'll be a fun change, because it'll give people more room; you'll see guys back there on power plays. It'll also change the makeup of some teams. Right now your fifth and sixth defensemen, your third pair, are usually big, banging guys. From now on you're going to look for smaller guys that can move the puck and that can go play somebody behind the net. I think that'll alter some of the way general managers and coaches look at their teams, build their teams.

CNN/SI: Are there other changes you personally would like to see implemented by the league?

Farber: I'd like to see players who commit stick fouls be forced to serve the full two minutes. This would discourage stick fouls, which I think are part of the dangerous play, and I think by raising the penalty—meaning a team can score a second power-play goal on it—I think it would help curb the problem, if not entirely stop it.

CNN/SI: Is there still a question around the league about how to go about marketing the game?

Farber: I think that's always a question. Personally, I think the NHL should undertake a marketing campaign called "Real People" because these are athletes you'd want for neighbors. These aren't the spoiled children of pro sports; these are nice guys. They may not look like nice guys when they're hitting each other behind the play, but these are the nicest group of athletes you're going to find. The public is so turned off by spoiled athletes that if the NHL could really show these guys to be, on the whole, the terrific group that it is, the league would benefit. The league has missed that terrific opportunity, just to market these players as people.

CNN/SI: One of the things always said about hockey is that it will never be more than a regional sport. Do you agree?

Farber: It can be more than a regional sport, if it's in enough regions. The game is drifting southward. And this is where in-line skating and roller hockey and street hockey come in, because unless you've actually played a game, it's tough to have a real feel for it. Every child in America has at one time shot a basket or thrown a baseball, but they haven't necessarily had any hockey experience, so the game, to some, remains foreign. But I think if in-line skating continues, the grass roots would be deeper, and that takes time. And I think Gary Bettman understands that. There were just so many missteps this season: the holdouts of several key players; injuries to many big-name talents; poor performances by big-market teams, which was reflected in the TV ratings; the problems at Nagano, which the NHL had nothing to do with other than letting the players go; the length of the season; and the fact that there were so many down days during the postseason that teams lost momentum. I think the play, especially in the early rounds, was much better than I anticipated—it was up-and-down, it was much faster, I thought the crackdown was working. Late in both conference finals I saw in the refereeing a regression to the old ways, so I'm curious to see how it's going to be in the Stanley Cup Final.

CNN/SI: Is the migration south, away from the traditional hockey areas in Canada, a good thing?

Farber: It's not necessarily a good thing. I know Bettman has worked hard in Canada, even though two franchises are gone, and it's great that there are more U.S. cities, but people actually like the game in Canada; you don't have to sell the game in the same way. And I think the NHL should do more with its assistance program for Canadian teams, because right now it's costing $1.45, $1.46 Canadian for a U.S. dollar. And even in a flush situation like Montreal, where you're putting 21,000 people in the building and the 130 or so luxury suites are leased, it's a tough go—that team should be making money. I thought Bettman was wrong to tell Canadians what to do about tax incentives and tax breaks for his clubs; I thought that was none of his business. I think that's a Canadian issue—having lived in Canada, I understand the sensitivity, even though I'm a U.S. citizen, of Canadians to that.

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