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Why Hockey Is Pucked

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  • Why Hockey Is Pucked

    Lack of Love

    Hockey goes into the playoffs on a wave of apathy. Could soccer one day supplant the game as America's fourth sport?

    April 8 - In the fall of 1969 I was a full-time graduate student working two part-time jobs, so both time and money were sparse. But from the day of my arrival in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had marked one night on my calendar with a red circle, damn the expense or the work/study obligations.

    That was the night the Boston Bruins came to town to play the nascent Oakland Seals, soon to be the California Golden Seals and soon after that to be extinct. The Bruins by contrast were a beloved Boston institution. Let the bluebloods hang at Fenway. The Bruins were more a reflection of the city's gritty, blue-collar persona, more Mystic River than Charles. And this '69-'70 version was a burgeoning powerhouse, a team both flashy and nasty and led by the NHL's new golden boy, Bobby Orr. It would go on to capture the Stanley Cup, winning both the conference and championship finals in four-game sweeps.

    In truth, I felt some trepidation about venturing into enemy territory to embrace the big, bad Bruins. Visitors to the old Boston Garden weren't always treated gently. But I was young and foolish so when the Bruins skated onto the East Bay ice I rose cloaked in my black-and-gold colors for all to see. And so, of course, did absolutely everyone else in the sold-out arena. As I soon realized, there was really no such thing as a Seals fan, only Bruins fans transplanted to the other coast.

    I recall those glory days this week, as the 2004 Stanley Cup begins, because I worry that it is the Seals not the Bruins that are the historical metaphor conjured up by today's NHL. When I tuned in, not all that frequently, to my hometown team this past season, I was struck not by the level of excitement, but by the primo seats that were unoccupied in Boston's Fleet Center. And any mention of the Bruins with my gang of obsessive Boston sports fans produces a collective yawn. Even as the NHL race heated up this past month, they preferred to replay the Patriots champion season, to discuss the Red Sox prospects of catching the Yankees and even to chat about the thoroughly inept Celtics, their ruination apparently being far more intriguing than the Bruins rejuvenation.

    Now mind you this is not sour grapes at the close of a sorry season. The Bruins won their division and finished second in the Eastern Conference. The team had what was, at least on paper, a thrilling year; they tied 30 games, an NHL record for overtime contests, and, on the final day of the season, could have finished anywhere from second to sixth. It is regarded as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. So don't confuse Boston with another formerly great hockey town, Chicago, where the team is pathetic and virtually all talk about the franchise is X-rated.

    No, the disinterest here and most everywhere, except Detroit, Canada and maybe a few other places, is all too genuine. It stems from the game's familiar afflictions: too few skilled players, not enough scoring, oppressively dull strategies and too much mindless thuggery. And there is also the conviction among NHL fans that while making the playoffs does count for something, home-ice advantage is a relatively meager, even meaningless, reward after 82 games—certainly when compared to the NBA. (The Bruins are one of four NHL playoff teams that actually have better road records than home records; no NBA team can make that claim.) One TV wit—I think it was Stuart Scott—put the problem succinctly. After the recent mayhem in which one player mugged another and fractured his neck, he said: "If we're talking about the NHL, and it's not yet the Stanley Cup playoffs, then you can be assured it's something bad."

    This Stanley Cup, which is almost always engaging, may provide a brief reprieve from this generally dismal public and press perception. But the NHL is on the precipice of its most dramatic change since it first expanded from the original six franchises almost 40 years ago. That was the beginning of the league's aspirations, or perhaps pretensions, to becoming America's fourth major sport. And that's pretty much how the NFL has been viewed, deservedly or not, as it has grown into a national venture with 30 teams across North America. Money does talk and NHL salaries are decidedly big-league; the average player earns $1.8 million, which is about halfway between the NFL and Major League Baseball.

    But next year the players face a lockout by owners, who claim to have lost hundreds of millions of dollars. Hockey's management and union dispute virtually everything and are so disconnected from each other's reality that they make baseball's owners and union look like happy bedfellows. While a shutdown of the league may ultimately lead to some cost containment, if not necessarily the hard salary cap owners want, it's hard to imagine that the NHL will ever return from any work stoppage with as much (or even as little) stature as it has now. Certainly no network will ever pay anything approaching prior contract levels for TV ratings that are a mere blip—a fraction higher than soccer, but not quite Arena Football—on the national sports scene. Hell, hockey can't even win the ice wars, where triple axels generate far bigger ratings than hat tricks.

    At best the NHL can hope to be first among "others" in the pantheon of sports leagues. But even that doesn't seem assured. Soccer buffs have long been predicting, hoping, praying that the world's game would finally take hold in this country. And now there's a glimmer of hope. First, last summer's World Cup stirred up genuine excitement, as the U.S. lads showed for the first time—beating Portugal and Mexico and, in defeat, outplaying megapower Germany—that they may soon be able to compete with anybody.

    And this past week saw the most excitement in the relatively brief history of Major League Soccer, the arrival of 14-year-old wunderkind Freddy Adu. Adu's debut with D.C. United was a sellout, attracted some 230 journalists and scored a 1.8 percent rating on ABC, 64 percent higher than last year's season kickoff and higher than the average NHL rating on the same network. A new ESPN poll indicates that 43 percent of those between ages 12 and 17 have an interest in the MLS, twice the level among Baby Boomers. And that higher number is mirrored by Hispanics, America's fastest-growing demographic.

    Right now the notion that soccer might overtake hockey may remain a stretch. But soccer has exactly the kind of fervent fans that the NHL has long boasted. And the NHL may be about to learn, as Major League Baseball did during the past decade, that absence in sports does not make the heart grow fonder. The NHL simply can't afford the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs to be crowning a champion for more than just one year's duration. If the NHL doesn't start watching its back, someday soon it could be goodbye Lemieux, hello Adu.


    Mr. G

  • #2
    Hockey as we know it is done.

    I played as a kid and it was expensive then. Now it is way beyond the reach of all but the rich.

    Soccer by contrast is inexpensive and fan (read parent) friendly. Soccer translates better on TV.

    The NHL has to go away for a while, re-draw it's rules, contract and start over.


    • #3
      Even if the NHL goes away, soccer will never be a favorite sport here. Unless of course, the US is overrun by poofs.


      • #4
        I actually think hockey is already below fourth. I think the rise of Tiger Woods over the last seven years has pushed golf past hockey. And if you consider auto racing a sport, NASCAR most definitely has surpassed hockey and probably surpassed everything but football.


        • #5
          Originally posted by devaskar@Apr 9 2004, 09:23 AM
          I actually think hockey is already below fourth. I think the rise of Tiger Woods over the last seven years has pushed golf past hockey. And if you consider auto racing a sport, NASCAR most definitely has surpassed hockey and probably surpassed everything but football.
          NASCAR's merchandising alone could womp all the NHL's combined revenues from all 30 teams.

          Official Lounge Sponsor of Lou Brock (really) and Ryan Franklin (really)*

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          • #6
            Read the article again. The demographic is changing. How will hockey appeal to kids named Hernandez and Lobovic?

            Take a guess at who is the favorite to win state in soccer this year? Chaminade? SLUH? Jeff City? No, Soldan, why? Because of the influx of Bosnian kids.

            Hockey will be pushed aside as a niche sport in ten years. It isn't even the national sport of Canada!!!


            • #7

              Hockey already is a niche sport. I've argued for years that a major reason why hockey isn't nearly as popular as basketball is because hockey is an elite sport that only the rich can afford to play, while basketball is a very cheap sport than anyone can play. The same could definitely be true for soccer in a few years, although I don't think enough Americans have the attention span to handle tons of 1-0 soccer games.

              Hockey isn't Canada's national sport but there's no doubt it is their passion.


              • #8
                You hit on what I was afraid to say, only the rich can afford to play hockey.

                I was wrong about the national sport of Canada. Hockey is the national sport but the most played is lacrosse.