Thursday, February 10, 2011

How to Fix Hockey: Chapter 9904

The Super Bowl is over.  Pitchers and catchers report next Monday.  Spring training games (meaningless) are a few weeks away.  Who really watches Daytona anymore (I don't)?  March Madness is wonderful - for a few days, then it's quiet, then a few days again.  A few other fringe things exist that, while they're nice little diversions, let's be real.  It's not going to catch on but it's fine if the beer tastes good.

So that leaves regular season college hoops, the NBA, and the NHL.

I'm here to talk about hockey.  Neil Keefe, writing for CBS New York, has the latest version of how to make hockey more popular.

I like most of what he is saying.  More aggression, more fighting, less policing, consistent penalties (from the league office), and a clear vengeance on Matt Cooke.  Yet it's so much more.  I've said it before.  I'll say it again.  STOP DUMBING DOWN THE GAME.

I think it's an insult to the fans - the true heart and soul people.  Yet even they're not the same (or they've disappeared and can't afford tickets anymore).    I've been told, and I've seen it for myself, that the denizens of Madison Square Garden have changed.  Those screaming "I am a RANGAH!" are the same ones who wouldn't know that Marv Albert was once a great hockey broadcaster for the Blueshirts.  Many of them don't have the first clue why they scream "Potvin SUCKS!" but they do it anyway.

Plus don't be fooled by the attendance.  The tickets might be sold, but the bodies aren't there.

I know, I'm sounding like I'm getting ready to discuss Eddie Shore, Toe Blake, and Dit Clapper.  You know...OLD TIME HOCKEY!

Neil Keefe is right in that there's no point in discussing each of Gary Bettman's mistakes (and yes, I'm looking the shootout square in the eye).  I don't care if the folks in the arena are on their feet screaming - they just want a win, and shall we really revisit the paragraph about dumbing down the game?  If I'm there, I'll be on my feet too, but really, what's the difference?  Sure I want the win, but my team has already picked up a point.

Of course, it's a problem when OLD TIME HOCKEY these days is - what? - 2003?

Truth is, we need more Matt Cooke's.  Seriously.  We need the black hats.  We need Tie Domi.  We need Dave Schultz.  But we also need - and nothing can be done about this - the major cities to win.  The Rangers.  The Blackhawks (last year, and that helped).  The Flyers.  The Bruins.

We need the Maple Leaf and Canadiens (oh it pains me to say this).  We especially need Montreal because, just as in baseball, two very distinct camps will return - those who LOVE the Habs and those who DESTEST the Habs (just as with the 27-time World Champion New York Yankees).

Some of the luster left as more Europeans came in with a finesse style, but it's to their credit.  They are here to stay.  Now they need to be markeatble.  The days of purely Canadian and American players is over.

The NHL wants to be fan-friendly?  Great!  Promote more.  Good personalities deserve lots of love.  Problem is - who is that personality?  Sidney Crosby?  Most people can't stand him.  Alex Ovechkin?  Not a pretty boy.  Nobody wants Wayne Gretzky's mantel.  More appearances are needed - not just for hockey fans, but cross-functioning.  When the Rangers won the Cup back in the 17th Century (or was it 1994?), they brought Lord Stanley to Yankee Stadium, with Leetch and Messier hanging out.  New Yorkers knew them (and really, knew them before the run to nirvana).

Now, New York, name me five Rangers.  GO!

I'm not directing this at Harold or his sister Mary.  Or Carrie.  Or Sean Kilkelly, Chris Kaelin, Paul Silverfarb, Richie Spezzano, Dave Fierro, and the others that I talk hockey with all the time.  These are the people that know the game.  Yet, I have other friends - sports fans - who couldn't name five.

The Rangers and Islanders of the late 70's drew me to the game.  It helped that my sister got me a Ron Duguay/Bryan Trottier poster that hung on my wall for years.  Truth be told, my sisters' coworker had the hots for Duguay, so she had him autograph the poster and I got it.  Sadly, it eventually got destroyed.

Ron Duguay signs a poster at the Dutchess Mall that ends up in my hands.  With that, I become a bigger fan.

A week or so back, Justin Bieber made big news by getting booed at the Garden.  OK, well the Knicks fans showed some good taste.  Regardless, sitting next to him was the closest thing New York has to a hockey star - Henrik Lundqvist.  The King should have (and maybe he did) try to get Biebs to come to a hockey game.  Make him an advocate for the sport.  Dear God, we talk about peer pressure all the time.  How about using some of the power of Justin Bieber (or somebody else) to promote the game?

Is hockey involved in schools?  I mean, in the classroom.  Get there.

The NFL had a show on Cartoon Network.  The NBA makes their presence known there also.  Get to the kids, people.  The kids will want to learn and bug their parents to go to games.

Instead of sending the Winter Classic to known "hockey areas", how about sending it somewhere else to spread the love?  Now that probably isn't possible in the south without some kind of dome involved, but still - the NHL needs to get creative.

This is what's needed.  At least part of what's needed.  It's a complex issue, involving TV rights (NBC has them for what that is worth), a fickle public, the sport itself, those who run it, and more.  Maybe ESPN (with their propensity to promote) needs to get hockey back.  How often is hockey the top story on "SportsCenter?"  It's not - ever.  But it's a grass roots thing, too.  My mother doesn't watch hockey, so I popped it on one night, and she cared.  She enjoyed it. 

We need to find a way to keep the new fans ("oooh, those fireworks are pretty!"), make more new fans, and mesh all of that with the old fans.  The NFL does it.  The NBA does it.  Even MLB does it.

Doesn't mean I like it, by the way.

The funny thing is, fixing the NHL seems complex.  Yet it seems almost easy.  It's not rocket science.

I welcome any thoughts, of course.  Seems like we - the fans - need to do it ourselves.

By the way, if you thought my naming this post "Chapter 9904" was significant, you're right.  Gretzky/Orr.  The new definition of OLD TIME HOCKEY!

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