Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Forward (II)

One of the most annoying sports clichés is “the game the way it was meant to be played.” It the believers of that phrase meant the raw and unadulterated way, then they may have found something special on New Year's Day. It wasn't a bowl game created for television or a redundant marathon of old-school boxing matches featuring Muhammad Ali. It was hockey... yes, Scribe is talking about that game on the ice with the pucks, sticks and Canadians.

NHL: Can we make them care? They’ve heard the slights for well over a decade now about the death of a league. The strike following the 2003-04 season relegated the league to minor-league status in the minds of anyone with a microphone, blog and newspaper column. Even worse are the snark-laden comments from people who go out of their way to slam the sport instead of reading the stories around it. Yet, though the fan base is the smallest of the major professional leagues, its core fans are equally as passionate about their sport as those for others.

The National Hockey League is well aware of the monumental challenges presented over the past decade-plus; the loss of Canadian teams because of poor economic decisions, the criticized additions of American teams (also for similar reasons), the lack of crossover appeal, a borderline-discriminatory backlash against the influx of European players, lack of racial diversity/interest and debates regarding fighting. Most of these issues can be attributed to any other league, yet because the NHL was never a behemoth across the United States, its struggles become punch lines instead of headlines.

The league opened the New Year with the Winter Classic, its second-ever outdoor game and the first in the U.S. The location couldn’t have been better, choosing hockey-happy Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium. Drifting snows, dropping temperatures and a plethora of college football bowl games couldn’t stop the crowd of just over 71,000 from enjoying the event. The fact that thousands more had been turned away is a testament to how deep passions run in hockey fans. Even better for the NHL were the once-mysterious television ratings. The game garnered a 2.6 rating (which calculates to just three million households) and a 5 share (meaning five percent of all homes with TVs in use at the time tuned to the game). This was a huge success for a sport which became accustomed to a fifth of the audience for nationally-televised games in the States. This was a huge success, even against the aforementioned bowl games that obviously trump everything in their sights. The game itself was no disappointment as the Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins went to a shootout. Unlike other sports where their superstars are seemingly set up for drama, somehow the shootout, Ryan Miller and Sidney Crosby wove naturally for the shining moment.

Of course, the question people have now: what’s next?

The answer: it’s up to you.

The Classic succeeded where other attempts of popularizing hockey failed because the NHL was willing to truly celebrate the roots of their game. So many of these athletes and fans played the game on some frozen pond or lake when they were kids. Not a knock on any other sport, but you’re not going to see a pro or college game at Rucker Park or a Field of Dreams in Iowa. Despite the loss, even the Sabres were ecstatic to have been a part of a special game instead of a gimmick. In a sports world that openly complains about the lack of fundamentals and innocence in the games, potential new fans were introduced to a game in a nearly-pure form. Outside of the frequently necessary clearing of snow on the ice, there had been few icing penalties, few penalties and no fights. For novice fans, they could become more intrigued to watching a traditional game indoors without FoxTrax to tick off the purists and constant clutches to turn casuals away.

The NHL adopted flex scheduling, borrowed from the NFL tactic that gives NBC the ‘premium matchups’ of the games with playoff and/or historical implications. Being a national broadcaster that begs for the best potential ratings, you shouldn’t be surprised to see the New York Rangers every Saturday if you live in suburban Minneapolis. However, considering that the Rangers, Penguins and many other teams across North America have pools of talent, flex scheduling maximizes exposure for stars around the league such as Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, Rick Nash of Columbus and the young Chicago Blackhawks. Since all of the Original Six teams are playing competitively at once for the first time in years, it benefits NBC’s ratings push into the late spring.

For a league that is criticized for being handcuffed by the purists, the NHL has not been completely assailed for opening the game to attract new crowds. In fact, no one is stopping them from doing so. Again, this is due to the fact that ESPN and its most ardent fans have told the sport to essentially ‘come back when you’re bigger’. Yet, there has been success in bringing back fans lost during the lockout. Now, they can focus on solving its other problems. One step at a time.

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