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Old 12-23-2006, 01:20 PM   #585
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Default NHL sorely needs the exposure

The ugly NBA fight last weekend between the Nuggets and Knicks brought up many questions, and one of them is this:

Where is the comparable moral outrage when similar melees erupt in hockey?

The NBA has swallowed the NHL whole when it comes to television exposure and media coverage. There could be a mass riot at an NHL game and few would notice because only the truly faithful are paying attention to the still-struggling league.

And even their patience is thinning.

The post-lockout honeymoon is over. The loyal diehards are turning away.

Gate receipts, hockey's financial lifeblood, are down. National television numbers are nonexistent. Even here in America's self-anointed Hockeytown, buzz has been replaced with more of a dispassionate snore. Despite the offense-friendly rule changes, scoring is down this year.Is this some residual Tigers fatigue? Or is Detroit becoming more of a basketball town?

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman might consider ditching the unbalanced schedule that results in the Wings playing the fabled Columbus Blue Jackets, what was it, six times this week? Even the most ardent Wings aficionado can take only so much of the St. Louis Blues over an extended period.

The NHL has made several missteps over the last two years. But the biggest mistake is that Bettman didn't do whatever it took to renew the NHL's relationship with ESPN after the lockout -- even if it meant paying the network for a limited schedule.

The communications monolith dictates the primary sports talking points of the day through its extensive television, radio and Internet services. And it will happily steer the discussion to sports properties with which it holds broadcast rights.

That's why it's all NFL and NBA at this time of year.

T.O. spits. Carmelo slaps. And it's all anybody talks about because it's all that anybody sees.

The NHL can't fight its way into the spotlight. Hockey would love a controversy that's debated and dissected in newspapers and chat rooms or on talk radio because it would at least prove the sport is still in the room.

It's outrageous that a regular-season matchup between the game's two biggest young guns -- Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin -- garnered only a 0.2 national TV rating earlier this month on Versus.

That's the equivalent of roughly 150,000 households nationwide.

Nobody watched because nobody knew it was even on television. Had the game been on ESPN, the network would have created a significant buildup to the matchup. It would have drilled home the point that viewers shouldn't miss a chance to see the next generation of hockey greatness.

That's how awareness is created. That's how a fan base is stimulated and expanded.

But magnified exposure equals magnified attention -- positive and negative. Maybe the apologists screaming about a racial double standard in how NBA fights are portrayed by the media as opposed to NHL ones should try to see what really prompted so much coverage in this instance.

It was celebrity -- the celebrity of the NBA players involved in the fight, and the celebrity of the sport itself. The NBA now dwarfs the NHL so much, there's little breathing room left for hockey's beauty, and even less for its blemishes.

The NHL would love to have people talking about a good, old-fashioned hockey fight because at least people would be talking about the NHL.
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