Although televised hockey is a regional force in strong markets--the Colorado Avalanche outdrew the Rockies and the Nuggets last season on Fox Sports Net Rocky Mountain--it has been a cipher nationally in the ratings, which unfortunately for the NHL measure eyeballs and not the passion of hockey fans. After the NHL turned in a 0.2 rating on ESPN2 last season, the replacement programming on the cable channel, primarily college basketball, has been getting a 0.4.
Schanzer says NBC "will promote the NHL to best showcase the game." The network plans to marry Hockey Night in Canada'sice-level camera angles with U.S.-style narrative, a broadcast mix it hopes will create stars in an almost faceless league and intrigue nonpuckheads. NBC announcers have been instructed not to focus on the movement of the puck as much as the game's overarching themes. The network also will station an analyst between the benches to give viewers NASCAR pit-row-style access, allowing viewers a better look at players who might look better in new Reebok sweaters.
Yes, the NHL is also planning a fashion overhaul. Overwhelmed by vintage NBA and baseball jerseys in recent years, hockey sweaters are neither hip nor hop. Reebok is, however, upbeat. Last year it purchased The Hockey Company, which is the official manufacturer of NHL uniforms, and plans to roll out new sweaters in 2006. Although Reebok was unwilling to preview the unis for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, a league official who has seen prototypes describes them as "sleek, something that implies motion even at rest, like a ski racer's uniform or Spiderman's costume."
Of course. The only thing that might save the NHL is a superhero.
At this point the promise of more scoring, HDTV and slick sweaters might be nothing more than smearing lipstick on a pig. Since blowing its chance to join the national conversation with its ill-timed lockout a decade ago, the NHL has consigned itself to being an oversized mom-and-pop league until hell, or at least the continental U.S., freezes over. If everyone suddenly had to skate to work, hockey would no longer seem faintly exotic outside its immediate markets. This is the NHL's problem in most of the U.S.: Everyone who has ever been in phys-ed class has shot a basketball and played a form of baseball or football--organic sports in the American experience--but probably never has tried hockey. The NHL starts 50 lengths back.
Now, the arrival of another Wayne Gretzky might make up ground--phenom Sidney Crosby, a 17-year-old who through Sunday had 50 goals and 75 assists in 50 games with Rimouski in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, already has NBC abuzz--but even Gretzky wouldn't have been Gretzky in this overcoached era of constipated hockey. To assume the NHL, with the same players and same coaching staffs, can revert to the rollicking offense-minded days of 1985--86 ( Ottawa's NHL-leading total of 262 goals last year would have ranked last in that 21-team league) is a reach beyond the powers of high-def.
Despite Dryden's admonition, the NHL has in the past had disturbingly loyal fans. Like holiday fruitcakes, they are hard to dispose of. After a 103-day lockout in 1994--95, attendance for the subsequent 48-game schedule improved by more than 1,000 fans per game over the previous season. Not even an alarming average ticket price--$43.60 last season--has been fatal. (In his worst public moment of the lockout, Bettman said last December that each franchise had to be free to set its own ticket prices. Salary cap, yes. Ticket cap, no.) Perhaps the loss of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second time in history--the 1919 final between Montreal and Seattle was canceled because of a flu epidemic--will cause a modicum of outrage, but certainly there has been little of the visceral fan anger that flared during the 1994 baseball strike. This surely represents apathy, unless you work for the NHL.
The good-news league reads it as implicit support for the disputatious Bettman, who, in the view of Ralph Mellanby, the former Hockey Night in Canada and Olympics producer, "is the guy who killed the game ... [because] he paid no attention to the product." In interviews conducted for the league by a Denver-based sports marketing firm, fans said they blame the players for the lockout and "will support the NHL in fixing the [labor] problem.... [The fans] will come back."
"By and large hockey has had its core audience, and that's it," Schanzer said. "Sports like baseball and basketball have a core audience, but they're able to attract so-called casual fans when aberrational events occur: McGwire-Sosa, the Cubs and Red Sox in the '03 playoffs, the Red Sox [winning the World Series] last year. Then when it goes back to the norm, you lose some of those fans. The adhesion is not as strong. In hockey's case the audience is strongly adhesive. When the sport comes back, the NHL is likely to face less [decline] than other sports."
Perhaps. But the NHL is now bobbing in unchartered waters--the league has already endured the longest in-season work stoppage in pro sports history. "Significant philosophical differences" have already maimed a league that wouldn't know John Locke from Bettman's Lockout, and suggests the eventual relaunch could determine its fate for generations. So which is it? Eternal ham-and-egg league or proud member of the Big Four? The NHL muffed a season. The Invisible League will have only one chance to score on the rebound. ?