Thursday, February 08, 2007

What's Wrong With The NHL?

Hey Peeps and anyone else checking in. A special "Hey" goes out to Hazel Mae.

A question often discussed with hockey fans these days is "What's wrong with the NHL?" We all have our thoughts and ideas and we all think we have the solution.

I want to address the issue from a different viewpoint, one that isn't brought up nearly enough - how about the people covering it? Before I go into this, I am acutely aware that in addition to "informing" their readers and viewers about what happens with the on ice product - they are also paid to be provocative and stimulate discussion.

What's wrong with the NHL? I'll submit that it is the media's coverage of the game.

In newer NHL markets, where hockey isn't as well understood or appreciated, the media focuses on game recaps, offering very little insight into the game. Given that the NHL is a ticket based league, most of the people who read these columns were more than likely in attendance at the game or watched it on television (for the hardcore American hockey fan), so theydon't reach a lot of potential hockey fans. These writers don't really help or hurt the game.

In established markets such as Toronto, you have some beat writers and television reporters that delve a little deeper into the game and provide you with a more critical analysis of how the hometown team is doing - but their coverage tends to be on the more favourable aspects of the hometown team.

Then you have writers like Damien Cox of the Toronto Star, who have made a very good living under the guise of "objective criticism of the hometown team" - which amounts to be critical of the Toronto Maple Leafs 80% of the time. Cox looks at the inner workings of Maple Leafs Sports Entertainment and their on ice product through the eyes of a disgruntled fan who takes more pleasure in the team's shortcomings and failures, than they would if the team was to win it all - it would give him nothing to talk about, nothing to distinguish himself from the rest of the media in hockey crazed Toronto. New England fans might equate football writer Ron Borges to Cox - and they would be right.

While most would think that these would be the people most qualified to provide an informed assessment on the state of the game, I beg to differ. These people are paid to cover the hometown team - their time is spent watching the team (games, practices, news conferences), they don't have time (or likely the inclination) to watch the league as a whole; other than to check the stats of their team's next opponent. They may watch Hazel on NESN, or Sportscenter on ESPN or TSN (in Canada) to see the night's highlights - but do they see enough of the NHL to offer a comment on it? The simple answer is no - which brings me (in my typical longwinded fashion) to the point of this entry.

The media's view of the state of the game is one of the primary reasons why the game is in so much trouble. Case in point, in quick check of NESN this morning, there was a video clip of SportsPlus, with host Tom Caron speaking to Senior Hockey Writer for the Boston Globe Kevin Paul Dupont, and Globe columnist Jackie McMullan. The clip was title "What's wrong with the NHL."

Dupont's contribution to the discussion started out with a very good point about attendance problems in the NHL being related to market forces - essentially saying that it is tough to draw fans when you have a bad team that is out of playoff contention and shows no promise. Good point - Tom Caron should have thanked him and sent him on his way, because the rest of his commentary was not befitting someone who has supposedly been a fan of the game for life and covering the hometown team for years. Dupont went into stereotyping NHL fans as Neanderthals that go to the games to watch fights - maybe in the days of the Big Bad Bruins Kevin, but that was almost 30 years ago.

To have a writer from "the hub of hockey" come off as being so clueless about the game itself is an embarrassment to an Original Six city, as well as to his employer and Hazel's employer who gave him airtime.

When asked what he would do if he were Commissioner of the NHL - Dupont made some statements that at best were uninformed and without merit and at worst asinine.

Dupont's view was that the NHL made a mistake in moving away from ESPN - fine. But to wax on about how the sport is never going to get more than a 0.4 or 0.6 rating doesn't really address "growing the ratings". There was no substance, no opinion, no vision about how to grow ratings - he just suggested the NHL resign itself to the fact that ratings would never be very good. Way to go there Commish. There was no thought given to the NHL offering cable subscribers cheaper rates on the NHL package, or making it available for free for a time. No thought given to producing and developing weekly highlight shows a la "Red Sox Rewind" or "The Buzz" and selling it as a damn infomercial in the US if they had to. No thought to how a "This Week in Baseball" or "NFL Films" concept could help market the league.

Dupont's view to "put hockey in the markets where it belongs" , where there is enough corporate sponsorship and enough fan interest - citing Nashville and Tampa Bay as examples where hockey isn't working. Thanks for that outstanding assessment - Canadians and most informed NHL fans have known that for years - any ideas "where it belongs?". There are more "fish out of water" in the NHL than there are "big ponds" waiting to take them in. A very simplistic answer to a major problem. The NHL has been loathe to tinker with the idea of selling advertising on their jerseys and equipment - a la European hockey and soccer teams - but it would be one way of increasing revenues and promoting the game. Companies who were buying the rights to paste their logo on a team's gear would be pushing that team in nationwide advertising. I'm not suggesting changing the team's logos or nicknames - but would it kill the NHL to put a company's logo under the player's number on the back of the jersey? Hey, at least its an idea. It was more than the esteemed writer from the hub of hockey put out.

Dupont talked about how what bites the fans' rear end was that they the NHL's Salary Cap was supposed to put a cap on ticket prices or even decrease them. That proves out uninformed and out of touch he is with the game he is supposed to be covering. After signing the CBA, owners came out strong saying that a salary cap wouldn't result in lower ticket prices - rather that it was a way for them to guarantee themselves that they would make money. The NHL was strong in saying that fans shouldn't expect a reduction or status quo in terms of ticket prices. This point is so ridiculous that it doesn't even warrant discussion. The owners wouldn't reduce ticket prices and the players' union (who salaries depend on the revenue generated ie. Ticket prices) would never go for it. They would never reduce prices in the hopes that it would attract a few more fans - Dupont said it himself in the point before, with hockey being in non-traditional markets, you aren't going to get the fans. The other argument that makes Dupont's point look foolish is that the NHL is on record as saying they consider themselves as one of the big four sports and as such will price tickets accordingly. They may be wrong in this view - but they are going to stick to it, reducing ticket prices would be one step closer to Arena Football for the NHL.

Again Dupont didn't have much to say on the topic - there isn't much to say on this one. The NHL isn't going to cut down on the number of regular season games played - their revenue is primarily based on gate receipts, so they aren't going to give up that cash. Dupont correctly stated that they had to make the schedule more interesting - but offered up no suggestions. From my perspective, the only way to truly make it "work" would be to actually add 4 games to the schedule - yes, I know I said ADD. I see an 86 game schedule with the focus taken off divisional play and put on conference play. Each team plays 4 games against every other team in the conference - and a home and home with every team in the other conference. This would serve two important purposes - 1) every NHL city gets to see every NHL team, which has been a bone of contention for some fans; 2) conference play would prevent teams from inflating their records and improving their conference seeds by virtue of being in a bad division - last year's Detroit Red Wings come to mind; it would also serve the purpose of being an accurate reflection of where everyone stands in the conference. Just my opinion.

Dupont's comment "No one scores, no one fights" - again, nothing substantive to say. If Kevin bothered to consult NHL statistics, he would see that both hits and fights are up this year - what he is doing is spouting off the same garbage every uninformed fan talks about. Dupont likely basis his statement on the fact that the "old time enforcer" is a dying breed in the NHL - you have to bring more than fighting as part of your game. So while the traditional heavyweights aren't dropping the gloves - there is a new breed of middleweight that is dropping his gloves when called up.

What you are seeing more of in today's NHL is multi-fight games - teams may go a few games without having a fight and then see a game where there they have a few fights. A lot of this has to do with scheduling - when you play teams in your division every second night, there is bound to be some animosity that gets built up and spills over into a game. However, when you play a team once a month, or even twice a season - it is hard for players to develop hard feelings unless something major happens in a game. The grind of an 82 game schedule means guys don't want to drop their gloves every night - so hence the middleweights.

Want to know what's wrong with the NHL? Its guys like Kevin Paul Dupont who go on NESN to talk complain about the NHL when they clearly have very little understanding of the game. What would Kevin do as Commissioner of the NHL? Absolutely nothing - and the sad thing is he doesn't even realize that he has nothing to offer to make the game better...but the Boston Globe and NESN give him a forum to reach millions of people with his ignorance.

I'm calling out NESN on this one too...they should had Hazel on that panel.

Hazel, I hope things are groovy in your world...if you are checking in, apologies if this one doesn't sit well with you.


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