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Old 01-21-2007, 11:44 AM   #634
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Default Hockey is skating on thin ice and losing grip as 'major' sport

The NHL is back and, actually, a much better game than before that nasty work stoppage, which stole a full season.

Scoring is actually up.

Attendance is technically up.

Sponsorship dollars are very much up.

Shhhhh, just nobody mention the gigantic elephant in the room, the one covered in fine print... that nobody seems to care.

Thriving hockey markets such as Dallas are suddenly finding themselves fighting indifference. And what is happening with the Stars isn't an anomaly.

Sidney Crosby -- an honest-to-goodness answer to the long-asked "Who is the next Gretzky?" question -- doesn't seem to capture the imaginations of casual fans.

Neither shootouts (a universal success) nor parity (a chance for every team to really have Stanley Cup aspirations) nor rule changes (fewer traps and more hat tricks) have led fans to spend more time watching, much less embracing hockey.

For all of the improvements, a league that used to sell itself as one of the "four majors" is in danger of becoming one of the "minors." No-shows belie the bloated attendance figures. News outlets cover it briefly, if at all. And the network the NHL calls its American flagship isn't as popular as the Food Channel -- and harder to find on the remote.

What is even more ironic is, amid this madness, NHL execs seem content to act as though "If we do not talk about the problems, they cease to exist," instead of aggressively searching for ways to make fans fall in love with hockey all over again.

Mavs owner Mark Cuban was bang-on when he said the NHL has an identity crisis. What it needs to do is sell what makes hockey great and fix what doesn't.

How is the NHL to know what to do? We talked to players, team execs, broadcasters and generally people who care desperately about the game of hockey for their solutions on how to bring hockey back.

Ken Hitchcock

Columbus coach

When Hitchcock coached the Stars, they were one of the hottest things in town. Stars, Stars and more Stars were what fans wanted. Games were sellouts, and hockey had established a pretty nice niche behind the Cowboys. Nowadays, in many cities games go half sold and hockey fights apathy, Hitch has an idea why: Nobody knows who they are rooting for.

Hitchcock's take: The thing that was the buzz in Dallas, for years, was the personalities of the players and the team. The characters of the game were embraced; [Craig] Ludwig and his shin pads or [Brett] Hull and what would he say next, or [Mike Modano] and when was he going to get married, or [Ed] Belfour and his idiosyncrasies. The players and the drama around the team made it very interesting. We sold ourselves, which, in the end, sold the game of hockey. That is something we should get back to. There is too much coachspeak now, same old, same old. All we talk about is the game, the game, the game, the game, the game. We don't talk about the people in the game.

Mike Modano

Stars center

Modano has been a vocal critic of his sport at times. He also has done more than almost anybody to help sell hockey. And while he likes this improved game, he would like to see Sidney Crosby come to Dallas more than once in a million years.

Modano's take: My biggest beef has been with the scheduling.

Go back to the old one. Play everybody in the East twice; once at home, once on the road. I think people are tired of seeing the Ducks or the Kings or the Sharks every other night. I mean, look at the top 10 scorers. They're all in the East. People never see these guys around here. The best players in the West are the goalies. The public has no understanding of who these guys [in the East] are. I'm talking about guys like Sidney, and [Alexander] Ovechkin and [Martin] St. Louis and [Vincent] Lecavalier. You go to Canada, and Sidney is on TV more than Peyton [Manning] is down here. It's amazing.

Brian Burke

Anaheim general manager

Burke remains somewhat of an anomaly in hockey in that he's willing to talk openly and honestly about his sport (in a sport so desperate for publicity, it's a problem in itself that so few seem willing to talk). He believes hockey needs... a better TV product.

Burke's take: To lose a whole season is pretty drastic and pretty damaging to your fan base. I think we brought them back nicely last year. And I think this game sells itself. My feeling is, if you get a person to buy a ticket once, you can probably get them to come back again. So we got to work on the TV product. We have to give a better TV product to grow the ratings. I think HDTV is going to help immensely... but right now a lot of people do not have HDTV and a lot of the games are not broadcast in HDTV. And that alone is not going to do it. We've got to look at where we put the cameras and put a better product on TV.

Bob McKenzie

The Hockey News editor

McKenzie chuckles when he hears folks talking about what bad shape the game is in, forgetting, of course, the ugly '80s, when teams were swapping cities and nobody was watching. But if McKenzie could go back, he would undo the deal with Versus.

McKenzie's take: The single most important thing for the NHL is to get the game to more people. I don't think you do that overnight. The whole OLN deal, I know why they took it. There was money on the table. That said, there better be strong evidence on the table that says they can grow their viewership. I'm going from hotel to hotel to try to find a game. You can't expect the NHL to increase its base if you can't find the game on TV.

Teemu Selanne

Ducks forward

Selanne is in his 15th NHL season, so he has seen both ends of the NHL spectrum. And if he had a magic wand to wave, he would remake the New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angels Kings into wildly competitive franchises.

Selanne's take: What I just think we need is for the big markets to have success now. If you look at the teams that won the last couple of years, Tampa and Carolina, they are not big-market teams. They had great teams and they deserved to win. But hockey needs the big franchises in the hockey cities to have success. I think that is the biggest thing.

Daryl Reaugh

Stars TV analyst

"Razor" Reaugh is best known for his witty Razor-isms. He also has plenty of ideas on how to "fix" hockey. A lot of them. Good and crazy ideas, too, about turning ice and boards blue while playing with a fluorescent orange puck and cutting the schedule and removing the netting. But if he were commish for a day, he would also employ a "foreigner" limit.

Reaugh's take: You cannot really fall in love with a league that 78 percent of its players are from a foreign country. If you don't know much about a sport but you know somebody who is in it, you watch. We get hurt by that. There should be a limit on Europeans. You can't tell me that some of the guys playing on fourth lines right now from Scandinavia are that much better than somebody coming out of Omaha, Neb., for the 4-6 minutes a night. Europeans are tough to sell from a marking perspective. Sports directors can't pronounce names so they say, 'We'll cover NASCAR.'

This fan's take

I was a hockey fan long before I was a sports columnist. I remember going to games at the Checkerdome in St. Louis and, later, as a college student, buying partial view tickets at Kiel Center because they were cheaper. I had a poster of Brett Hull hanging on my wall for a good portion of my youth. So I am a P1 for hockey, a loyal and semi-happy customer and, if I were commissioner for a day, I'd get a new commish. Yes, I'd fire Gary Bettman or at least send him away with a golden parachute.

This is the really, really big pink elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about, because Bettman actually did exactly what he was hired to do. He did what lawyers do, breaking the union and bringing financial stability and unparalleled player-owner cooperation to a league in desperate need of both.

What this league needs now is a marketer, somebody who believes in the product, somebody who lives and breathes and loves hockey, somebody not named Bettman.

My vote would be for Mark Cuban. Or Razor. Or both. Whomever the NHL chooses needs to be willing to listen to the Razors and McKenzies and Hitches and, yes, fans like me.
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