Sports Nut

Ice Guys Finish Last

Why the NHL should stop wooing America.

Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes and Steve Staios of the Edmonton Oilers

Manhattan’s Atomic Wings at the Blue Room seems like a pretty sweet spot to catch Game 1 of the NHL Finals. There are five televisions, and the bar is well-stocked with Labatt Blue, the “Official Beer Sponsor of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.” Still, no one cheers during the Carolina Hurricanes’stunning comeback. That’s because no one (except me) is even watching. Just one TV set is showing the cable channel OLN’s hockey coverage, and you have to turn your bar stool backward to see it.

Then again, finding any tube tuned to hockey is a Miracle on Ice. This intrepid puckhead had to hike 10 blocks along pub-lined Second Avenue to find a place that had the game on. All the other screens are showing the Yankees and Red Sox. “Is that even important?” one bar-going sports watcher recently asked as I ogled Lord Stanley’s Cup. “Sounds like some old Polish guy’s used jock strap.”

As a longtime hockey fan, I’m used to the abuse. Even in New York, one of the NHL’s Original Six cities, nobody cares unless the local teams are playing. This year’s playoff games on OLN have averaged a measly 0.4 rating. Not only has the NHL failed to fulfill Commissioner Gary Bettman’s pipe dream of becoming the nation’s fourth-favorite sport (behind football, baseball, and basketball), it’s now dropped below less obvious competitors such as NASCAR, professional wrestling, bowling, and poker. I say that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s time for NHL executives and fans to embrace the game’s position in the American sports landscape. Hockey is—and should be—a cult sport that non-Canucks don’t care about.

The NHL has always gotten into trouble when it tries to go mainstream. Since taking over in 1993, Bettman has pushed to extend the league’s reach into less naturally icy environs like Georgia and Tennessee. As the NHL expanded, so did the egos of both owners and skaters. Ticket prices and player salaries soared beyond what fledgling U.S. fandom could support.

The hockey brain trust got a reality check during last year’s season-canceling lockout. Americans, it seems, can adjust pretty easily to life without the NHL. Most people don’t realize the league has returned, post-strike, with new rules that have sped up the game and increased scoring. How can you know that hockey’s back if you didn’t know that it had left in the first place?

If you’re an American who’s still paying attention to the NHL playoffs, chances are you’re either a) a lower-rung staffer on the local sports desk, or b) an obsessive, possibly mulleted, devotee of a largely foreign pastime. Like me, for instance. (Well, minus the mullet.) Few could’ve predicted that a lanky kid raised in the hills of southern West Virginia—with no public skating rink for at least 100 miles—would one day become a hockey obsessive. Back in my day, there were no East Coast NHL franchises south of Washington, D.C. Yet sometime around 1986, a freak channel-surfing accident turned me on to the “Coolest Game on Earth.”

Life as a West Virginia hockey cultist was tough. Think you have a hard time because your cable provider doesn’t carry OLN? Try being a hockey fan during the SportsChannel era. The only game broadcast on ESPN, the Mountain State’s lone cable sports network, was the NCAA Finals. I memorized Harvard’s 1989 championship victory over Minnesota—the late Tom Mees calling the action, future NHLer Tom Chorske ringing the post on a breakaway, Harvard’s Ed Krayer scoring in overtime—because I taped it and watched it repeatedly to get my hockey fix.

And that’s the way it should be. Residents of Omaha, Neb., don’t have the inalienable right to watch Australian rules football, and a guy in West Virginia—or Raleigh, N.C., for that matter—shouldn’t be able to flip on the tube and watch hockey any ol’ time he pleases. He certainly shouldn’t be able to take a break from sipping on his sweet tea to go attend the Stanley Cup Finals. How many of the 18,928 so-called “Caniacs” who filled Raleigh’s RBC Center on Wednesday would be following this year’s Stanley Cup Finals if the Montreal Canadiens were playing the Oilers? I’m guessing six.

For too long, the NHL has tried to woo the disinterested masses. That needs to stop. Bettman’s decision to jump from ESPN to OLN is a good first step. By switching from the world’s No. 1 sports network to an obscure cable channel, the NHL has lowered expectations. In America, hockey will always be the ugly stepsister when it’s sitting alongside football, baseball, and basketball. But put the NHL on a channel that’s more commonly associated with hunting, fishing, and competitive barbecuing, and it actually stands out.

Unfortunately, because of a more typical Bettman move, the rest of this year’s NHL finals will appear on NBC. Which lucky team will get to hoist the Stanley Cup? It doesn’t matter. All America’s sportswriters will write about are the games’ inevitable low ratings. Of course the ratings are gonna suck. It’s hockey. That’s why the NHL needs to stick with OLN, which appreciates all the bum ratings it can get. Take the week of May 22, when OLN attracted a reported viewership of 426,355. That’s a terrible tally by NBC standards. OLN, on the other hand, crowed that this was its “most-watched week ever.”

Moving the sport from one network to another isn’t enough to cure pro hockey’s ills. If the league wants to get serious about its long-term survival, it should eliminate several teams. I propose that we say goodbye to the entire Southeast Division. So long, Florida Panthers, we hardly knew ye.

My experience in Manhattan notwithstanding, there are a lot more casual puck-watchers up north. During Carolina’s semifinal matchup against the Buffalo Sabres, hockey ratings in western New York were between three and seven times greater than in Raleigh. Ridding the league of the Hurricanes would keep those ratings-boosting Sabres fans in front of the tube. (Angry Hurricanes fans should note that I was conceived in Chapel Hill, N.C.) Then, maybe the hockey writers could find something else to write about. Like hockey.

Sure, contraction will alienate some fans. Those six Carolinians I mentioned earlier, for instance. But I’m not worried about the hockey diehards. Know someone with a fanatical devotion to English Premier League soccer? Then you appreciate that true fans will hunt to the ends of the earth to find a way to watch their sport. They might even record a game off TV and watch it until the tape wears out if absolutely necessary. And what of your everyday yahoo, the kind who shows up in Raleigh just to hear Ric Flair’s post-goal “Woooo!” on the Jumbotron? Well, when the hockey team skips town, he’ll just have to find a new pastime. There’s always pro wrestling, poker, and competitive barbecuing.