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.