Hockey raises its visibility, and high-def helps

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As we watch – or don’t – the Stanley Cup Final between the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers, it’s an appropriate time to ponder hockey’s status as an American spectator sport.

This is a final between the USA’s two largest cities — no Canada.   An opportunity for our country, represented by 10 of its own, including LA’s aptly named goaltender Jonathan Quick, to make its biggest impression on the world hockey stage since the Miracle on Ice at 1980 Lake Placid.  It would help if the Rangers could do their part and provide a competitive series, rather than stumbling to a 0-3 start.

For at least the past five decades, hockey was thought to be on the cusp of taking a prominent place in U.S. sports, alongside football, baseball and basketball.   It would be a ticket Americans of all regions would trample one another to grab, whether or not they had an icy pond in the neighborhood.   Atlanta was going to love it because it had violence and speed like football and stock cars.

In pockets of the USA it has caught on, Atlanta resolutely being not one of them.   Since the 1920s the sport has been wildly popular in New York, Boston, Chicago and Detroit. In the mid-70s the hockey rage spread to Philadelphia.   But who would have thought, back in the day of the Broad Street Bullies, that we’d see two NHL teams housed in LA?  At the same time there’s no NFL team there.

One fourth of NHL players are Americans, including some of the very best, such as Quick, Chicago’s Patrick Kane and the Rangers’ fast-closing defenseman Ryan McDonagh.

Thanks considerably to Wayne Gretzky playing eight years for the Kings, hockey rooted itself into SoCal, thereby drawing close to the nerve center of pop culture.  Even Northern Cal is developing hockey players.  The Game 7 overtime goal that landed the Kings in the Final was scored by Alec Martinez, who was born in hockey hotbed Michigan but played his early years in Santa Clara and San Jose.

This is a sport that can attract a new following, and rapidly.  Because it’s that good a sport.  Once people attend a game, they like it.

But even where it’s a capacity attraction (half of the NHL teams sold out all their games this season), hockey has lagged basketball in television viewership.   The Stanley Cup Playoffs this year have been out-rating Major League Baseball games, but they only get a fifth of the audience of the NBA playoffs.

TV is the bugaboo of hockey.   When I was a newspaper reporter covering the NHL – in Atlanta, where it has failed twice – I constantly heard from editors that interest in hockey was limited to a hard-core 20,000 because “nobody watches it on TV.  They can’t see the puck.”

The Atlanta Journal’s iconic sports columnist Furman Bisher proclaimed, often:  “I’ve never seen a hockey goal.”

He was exaggerating, but he hit close to an uncomfortable truth:  It was difficult to follow the puck.   Especially on television.   It was like trying to track a mosquito darting across the screen.

Even if you’re playing in the game, most of the goals are something of a mystery. Consider this from Martinez after his shot knocked off Cup holder Chicago:  “I really didn’t see it go in.  I know it went off a couple bodies.”

Hockey will always be faulted for not being visible enough.  So what?   It’s wonderful in spite of and because of so much going on you can’t see it all:  players skating faster than humans can run, and tumbling onto the ice and popping back up, deftly passing the puck, forehand or backhand.  The snap of the goalie’s glove or the kick of his foot to stop a 90 mph puck.  You saw that, didn’t you?

How about sound effects?   I’ll take the scraping of ice, the thump of bodies against boards over squeaky sneakers on a wooden floor and the incessant shriek of whistles. 

And hey, the visibility is improving.   The best thing to happen to the NHL in the past decade, apart from legalizing the two-line pass, is the rise of high-definition television.   Displayed in 50-inch LED, a hockey game is as viewable as if you’re sitting at mid-ice, fifth row.   I’m glued, for as long as eight minutes at a time with no play stoppage.   I don’t think sports-watching can get much better than this.

Which is not to say hockey fever is about to sweep through the Lower Forty-Eight.   It seems this game always will be at a technological disadvantage.  It fits the big screen; I don’t expect many to watch it on a smart-phone the way they do the Heat and Spurs, King James vs. Old Man River Walk, these two giants easy to see on pocket TV.

More than the image on the screen, hockey has a problem with the values it projects.  The NHL condones fist-fighting (“a safety valve for blowing off steam”) and delivers light punishment for bashing faces with sticks.

Players flail at each other while the refs stand back, helplessly, and the crowd stands, enraptured.  The sport has a WWF taint, although there’s little thuggery in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Here the athletes care about one thing:  winning the game.

While hockey has the potential to compete head to head with basketball for the entertainment megadollar, it has never found a way to clean up its image and market itself the way the NBA has done so brilliantly since the early ’80s.

Commissioner Gary Bettman served David Stern for 12 years but mostly as legal counsel.  He apparently didn’t learn much marketing from the master of the craft.

Bettman had a reputation in basketball as being expert at labor relations.   But he has presided over four work stoppages in his 20 years of leading the NHL.

Nor has he done much better at television negotiations.   I don’t know how many games I’ve missed because they’re so difficult to find among the hundreds of cable channels.  Is it on NHL Network ?  Or NBC Sports Network?   Or CNBC after the Kudlow Report?   Can’t we get a few playoff games on Disney?

Bettman rejected an offer from ESPN in favor of a lesser network, Comcast/Versus.   Apparently he didn’t consider how ESPN with all its talk shows and blogs could have done much to turn hockey mainstream in the U.S.

Even with sleepy leadership from Bettman and his predecessors, this is a sport that’s steadily gaining converts.   A hell of a lot slower than it should.

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