Monday, January 28, 2008

Canadian Philosophical Question

If an NHL All-Star game falls in the forest but nobody watches it, does it make a sound?

Though I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be, an "NHL fanatic", I've seen my fair share of games. Sure, I more or less stopped watching after Messier left, Gretzky retired, and the Rangers franchise slid into an unwatchable funk. But over the past few years, the NHL has made the occasional blip on my radar screen.

So while I'm not NHL Fan #1, it was with some surprise that I learned last evening that the NHL was, in fact, holding their annual All-Star game. (Don't ask me where -- I never got that far.) It was about 8:00 when I clicked on SI.com and read the headline, "East Leads West 5-3". My first reaction was, "East who?" so I clicked on the link for the story.

Though I'm sure there were those who did know, the fact that a casual fan like me didn't know the game was this weekend speaks volumes about the problems the current NHL faces. Worse yet, was what happened next.

Eager to watch the third period of action in what was a close game, I turned on TV and tuned into NBC. I figured since NBC had partnered with the NHL on the New Year's Day game, they would be the logical outlet for the All-Star game. Nope. Okay, how about ABC? I recall they carried hockey at some point. Wrong again. What about FOX? Not since the glowing puck, apparently. No EPSN or ESPN2, and now I'm at a total loss. Buzz the program guide.

After what seemed like an eternity, I finally located the game: on Versus, channel 146 on my cable system. And to sprinkle in a little more bad luck, it was smack dab in the middle of intermission, so instead of slap shots and glove saves, I was treated to the R&B stylings of Ne-Yo at center ice. (Because when you think hockey, you think Ne-Yo, don't yo'?) This, unfortunately, held zero interest for me so I turned the channel and never returned.

This whole situation perplexed me. How can a league so desperate for publicity, so desperate to recruit new fans to the game, leave the casual fan in the dark that an All-Star game was taking place? And at the same time compound the problem by relegating their most fan-friendly event to a second-tier outpost on the edge of space?

Yes, I know, the NHL has to practically pay to get its product on the air. So why not? NBC got great ratings (relatively speaking) for the Outdoor Classic on New Year's Day so the onus was on the NHL to make their case. The timing was perfect, with the NFL's off-weekend and continuing Writer's Strike rendering the broadcast landscape wide-open. Joe-Fan, looking for something to satiate his sporting appetite and bored with another Tiger runaway or a meaningless January NBA exercise, might stumble upon the most skilled players in the hockey world, plying their craft in an end-to-end, no-restrictions shoot-out, showcasing much of what the NHL has to offer in an easy-to-digest package. Instead, anyone lucky enough to find out about the game is reduced to a remote-controlled scavenger hunt.

Down the stretch, I'm sure I'll catch a few periods of Rangers' hockey as they make their push for the playoffs. And should they qualify, I'll probably tune in to see if they advance. But I just can't help but wonder how many other people like myself might be seeking out an NHL fix had they gotten a taste of what the NHL has to offer.

1 comment:

Outsider said...

First of all, how did I not know that you're a Pats fan? And how did that happen? I mean, Harry Carson was at your wedding! (Look, I just gave you tons of street cred.)

As for the NHL All-Star game, I'll assume that when the league signed its contract with Versus (then OLN), and later with NBC, the terms stipulated that Versus gets the mid-season showcase. Since OLN was the only willing to pay for broadcast rights at the time, they pretty much called the shots. And they just renewed through 2011 with an "exclusive" deal. I hope that's the meaningless media version of exclusive and there's still a way to bring ESPN back into the fold.

Anyway, I'm starting to think that it's time for the NHL to STOP pursuing the casual fan because it's not working and that pursuit often seems to alienate the passionate fans.

By the way, a few days ago I saw a headline stating that the starters for the All-Star game had just been named. I thought, "That's strange--the game is this weekend and the starters were named a few weeks ago." Then I realized: "Oh, NBA." It all depends on your perspective.