HOCKEY ON SPORTS TALK RADIO: Bring Something to the Table, Please!

I think this particular pet peeve started sometime around 1979. There was no such thing as sports radio — and I think that might have been the year of ESPN’s inception. There were, in fact, no national radio shows. Maybe Larry King was on in the wee hours. But otherwise, it was all local, with feeds at the top of the hour from CBS.

But CBS also furnished 2-3 minute sports briefs for the bottom of the hour to their stations. And these were hosted by Brent Musburger, who, on a daily basis, I came to see as more and more evil.

Even before there was someone named LeBron, the man would fill his time with the same old predictable NBA filler every day, completely ignoring hockey as though it were a willful exercise. I’m trying to remember if he even acknowledged the 1980 Olympic team. I do recall him treating the Stanley Cup Playoffs with as much regard as the national Badminton championships. Yes it was that maddening.

All these years later, the situation has not improved. Or at least in any substantive way. CBS still has a sizable footprint in the sports radio arena and its hosts still routinely jump through hoops — pun intended — to ignore the NHL.

On those rare occasions that your ears perk up when scanning the dial because you heard a word that makes you think that maybe — nah — whoa, maybe hockey is a topic of discussion, when you get a little excited that maybe the fix isn’t in anymore, inevitably the discussion tracks down the same dispiriting course: Hockey’s not very popular, hockey isn’t good for ratings on a national show, blah, blah, blah, gag, gag, gag.

The truth is probably somewhere in between that and the fact that the hosts are too lazy to educate themselves on one of the sports which sells out its buildings every bit as frequently as the NBA does. And after all — they’re paid to move their mouths in such a way that “LeBron” comes out as many times as it can between commercials.

So, little-by-little, through the years, I’ve tried to piece together why this abomination never changes.

My conclusions, while not exonerating the indolent radio personalities, also, I’m afraid, must lay a fair amount of blame at the feet of hockey fans.

Not only, it turns out, are all politics local. It’s inescapable that all hockey is too.

Now this might be a chicken or egg scenario. If the media covered the sport more actively, then the passive elements of the public would become more educated about it and gradually fold it into their sports-viewing habits.

It’s here, however, that I’m going to lay out numerous reasons why the NHL will never enjoy strong ratings. And they all have to do with how great the game is.

Unlike every other televised sport, you are not at liberty when watching a hockey game to divide your attention. In the other three majors, you can pretty much time your focus to match the action as it ramps up. Baseball — late innings, runners on. Football — the progression of a drive. Basketball — two minutes left in the game or less.

But hockey gives you decidedly less freedom to be casual with your viewing. Hell, sometimes you can’t even risk talking during the action or you’ll miss a phenomenal save or an odd-man rush. Both of which could have everything to do with the outcome of the game

This is not a kick back and veg out viewing experience. You need to time your bathroom breaks. If you’re going to cook dinner, you’d better make sure you get your food prep done between periods 1 and 2 and the oven is preheated by the time second intermission rolls around.

Already, by sheer virtue of this necessity to pay rapt attention, hockey has probably already lost 75% of its prospective audience. Hockey is intense to watch. It is most certainly not relaxing. At the end of a workday, only rabid sports fans are looking to ramp up the intensity in their lives.

Or the gamblers. And for bettor or worse, hockey is a game you don’t want to touch, given the fact that spreads are often decided by empty net goals. Very few feel confident about beating hockey lines, no matter how expert they might be as sports bettors.

So now the casual viewer and the betting public are eliminated from the field of potential viewers. In the world of sports audeinces this takes a big bite out of the whole pie.

But this leads us to the final piece of the puzzle, and it’s one that pains me greatly.

Going back to my earlier premise, hockey fans seem to abandon their sport in droves once their favorite team is eliminated. Does the interest in the sport for most of them derive solely from tribal impulses? Is the hate of all things not the home team so compulsive that engagement in the remaining playoff matches fails to excite?

It’s all mystifying to me. When the Islanders got eliminated on the last day of the season, I couldn’t wait for the playoffs to start, even without them. And here we are, just halfway through to the Cup and I feel — as I do every year — that I’ve witnessed the finest drama that sports can offer, and it happens unrelentingly, night after night. How is it that so few others get it?

There is likely a transition going on in the hockey world from one iteration of fans to the next. With the decision having been made that the embarrassing spectacle of brawls on the ice is not good for the long-term outlook of the sport, I sense many fans have lost their reason to watch games that don’t involve their own team. Their loss, obviously.

The shame of it is that precisely because of the great reduction in fighting, the games themselves have become far more highly-skilled athletic contests. Rosters are no longer populated by 15 guys who can fight if called upon and three who would rather not. And yet, precisely because of this emphasis on speed and conditioning, the violent aspects of the game itself have only intensified.

With the red line eliminated on off-sides plays, players are both flying around the ice with more abandon and getting knocked to it from more forceful collisions. So what’s been lost in flagrant brutality has largely been replaced by collisions occurring at far higher speeds than in football, with demolition-derby-like outcomes.

But the old-guard fan might never forgive the league for purging the gratuitous violence. And a sizable portion of the sports audience who always reviled the fighting might not even be aware that it’s been significantly reduced. Or for them, perhaps, one fight that isn’t immediately broken up is one too many. That’s the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t tightrope the league must walk.

One thing for certain, however, is the games are now captivating enough to sell the sport on its merits. Spending caps have led to parity and parity has led to close games. It was those 8-3 blowouts that were hard to watch once the outcome was not in doubt. And those fans needed fights to look forward to.

I’d like to conclude that the NHL is occupying some in-between phase, where those who were most attracted to the sport for the fighting are succumbing to attrition and fans of often whistle-free, breakneck competition are taking their place. But as with everything else about this amazingly complex, chaotic sport, it’s never that simple.

Pro sports are now personality driven like never before. Columnists actually bemoan the fact that more players aren’t like Bryce Harper. Virtue is out, controversy is in. Problem is, hockey players are a humble, team-oriented lot, where egotistic behavior is thoroughly discouraged in the locker room.

Watch a hockey bench after a big goal. These guys, aside from the emotion they all convey, always look for the nearest teammate to embrace. Does this happen in dugouts after big home runs? On courtside benches following a clutch shot? See the contrast?

So all the teeth-gnashing about hockey players having no personality is not right. They just don’t have loathsome personalities.

But there’s also an indigenous aspect of the game that prevents players from becoming easily recognizable. Not only are they on the ice for a minute or so at the most until they’re off the ice again, but their contributions are frequently undetectable.

Sidney Crosby can have a goal and two assists in the game and if the goal came on a redirect from the slot and the assists were on putbacks into the corner, you’ll have no recollection of seeing Sidney Crosby dominate the game, though he might well have.

Forget about how hard it is to follow the puck on TV for a moment. I think that’s a simplistic take on why hockey fails to get a big viewing audience. The real reason is that the superstars do not regularly make your eyes bulge out of your head, or at the very least don’t do things which are easily absorbed by simply following the puck around.

The game is too much of a Rube Goldberg contraption to instantly make sense to anyone but the most intent of viewers. Since the casual fan is never going to be able to recite back to you the last 20 seconds of action if you put him on the spot, the casual fan is never going to feel comfortable watching hockey. In the end, it really is that simple.

But for the rest of us, this is a golden age. Not just for the quality of the games and the intensity of seven weeks of playoff competition. But also for the outstanding, straightforward, often-witty and literate presentation of the telecasts. From the studio personalities to the exceptionally deep roster of play-by-play announcers and analysts, you never feel you’re being played. That a player is being overmarketed or is made out to be better than they really are. There is no effort to discover the next Derek Sanderson and foist him on you as the face of the league.

Oddly, though, there is an iconography that is unmatched by other sports. The Stanley Cup is only the most visible symbol of hockey’s distinctiveness from other sports. No less intrinsic is the handshake line, where — again — we’re reminded of the camaraderie underlying all the fury. And, of course, fans from Sunrise, Fl. to Vancouver, B.C. are equally ready to doff their caps and part with them in honor of anyone on the home team who scores three goals in a game.

It’s a beautiful pristine sport in that way. The fans bond with the players. And at the completion of the season, the players salute them right back.

And maybe — just maybe — some people just don’t like to get that close.

2017-05-11T14:07:47+00:00 May 11th, 2017|Uncategorized|5 Comments

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  1. Chris Moore May 11, 2017 at 12:58 pm - Reply

    Enjoyed that. Many valid points. In the simplest terms, it’s not easy at first. We as humans are less and less patient. We want to understand everything right away without working at it. It’s not that simple. Marketed stars propel the NBA and all know the real stars of the game. They, by the way, are able to prove they are real stars every night on the stat sheet. Our players often are not able to prove it that way. Since we are too lazy and distracted and fractured in our time, if they’re not Gretzky or Lemieux there is no wow factor and no recognition outside of a breakaway goal or a shootout goal, which are now so common they’ve become ho hum. The upsets in the playoffs each year (which are hardly upsets to knowledgable fans) make the game seem too random for some. Team with “best ” players often doesn’t win, making outsiders uncomfortable. Every team at every seed level believes they can win because history tells them again and again it’s possible. You don’t get much for a good regular season and I think that hurts too. The last thing is possession. In this sport a player never really “has” the puck for long. We roll lines, pairings and stars can get bottled up big time and not be able to show they are superior. QB’s, sluggers and NBA players are rarely invisible. Best part, those that love it love it….they are not going anywhere. It will maintain and survive if not grow the way some of us would like.

    • Robert B. May 11, 2017 at 2:13 pm - Reply

      Thanks Chris for sharing your perceptions. Everything you say rings true. Particularly the never-ending battle between the demands of enjoying hockey and human nature. They don’t align very well. But I share your coda. Obviously it pains me that the sport can never penetrate the sports fans’ consciousness on a mass level. But just as obviously, the game does sustain itself, if for no other reason, the players so clearly love what they’re doing — and that does rub off on the fans who are paying close attention.

  2. Kenn Beck May 13, 2017 at 7:17 pm - Reply

    Bob, I’m loving the site, and I love the passion that you have always shown for the sport. I have my own theories about the sport’s lack of popularity; it is, of the four “big” sports (the other three being baseball, football, basketball), the most difficult for someone to simply go outside and emulate. It requires far more equipment than just throwing a football around, and you can’t really play it alone, like basketball. It requires three insanely difficult skill sets (shooting, skating, and jostling with others at high speeds) be performed simultaneously.
    As far as overall popularity, it saddens me to say that the humility of the average hockey player may be part of why it suffers; in my nephew’s pee-wee football teams, the players routinely argued over who had the best TD celebrations, the most elaborate dances, the flashiest moves. Kids these days don’t talk about how well a QB can float a 7 yard pass over a receiver’s shoulder, they talk about how awesome it looked when the receiver pretended to perform CPR on the ball after he scored.
    I have also heard grown men talk about how the best part of hockey is the players looking to beat the tar out of each other. On the occasions (and there have been multiple) that I then questioned whether or not they were truly hockey fans, their first reaction was to threaten to fight me. Primitive base urges dominate the stupid, and hockey is not really a great sport for a stupid fan, especially with the fighting being toned way down.
    I myself never paid much attention to hockey until I met a buddy of mine in college. He was truly a student of the game, and he opened my mind up to it’s intricate beauty. I have followed the Islanders since then (’93), but the two labor strikes – in what, a four year span? – really sucked a lot of enjoyment of the sport out of me. Plus, I’m an Islander fan, so the season usually ends in April for me!
    I really think it comes down to this; hockey is too smart for the common idiot to truly grasp, and sadly, the idiots are outbreeding the intelligentsia.
    Keep on digging! Every insight is a score for the true fans!

  3. Marc Solomon May 15, 2017 at 11:58 am - Reply

    Perceptive rationales for the deep passions that undergird the limited appeal. These are immutable arguments. You can’t force them from the crease if the goal is to explain why the NHL has always been treated as soccer-on-ice by the American sports media.

    One additional log on the hockey-fans-are-born-not-made fire: that’s the pattern-resistant nature of the big mo. Momentum is reflected in the point totals in any other score-keeping competition. In hockey, the lopsided play in one zone can be forgotten in the blink of a line change or an inadvertent breakaway. It’s not uncommon for the superior team to win every face-off, only to be neutralized by the hot glove side of an indomitable goaltender.

    As the HGD editor rightly states, you can’t take the termperature of a hockey game from a remote set of climate controls. That’s the reason I tune into the Goaldigger Leaderboards before I can grasp the many fluid and demonstrable factors that contribute to the final score. The game’s deeper thinkers and abiding loyalists deserve nothing less.

    • Robert B. May 16, 2017 at 11:24 am - Reply

      Thanks for that Marc. You added several other angles I hadn’t considered. I love the soccer-on-ice analogy. Obviously not in practice, but the net result does seem to be the same. I would also suggest it’s like jazz on ice. And I say that as someone who doesn’t enjoy, understand or even appreciate jazz. But I do know that its appeal lies in the improvisational aspect of the form and in this it shares much with hockey. Thanks again for a great, thoughtful post.

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