Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Bring Back Hockey...But Fix It First

I was just listening to a segment on a local radio station about the anniversary of the "Miracle on Ice"...the US victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid. Wow!! Can it possibly be 25 years ago?

Look what has happened to hockey in that 25 years. Back in '80 it was a sport that had marginal to moderate interest in the United States and fanatical interest in Canada. It was played at the professional level in 16 or so cities in Canada and the midwest to northerneastern United States. It was a sport in which it was difficult to make a comfortable living if you were a player. Foreign players were almost non-existent in North American pro hockey. Fights in the game were not encouraged...but not really discouraged either-- (It put butts in the seats). The NHL was hardly on the radar screen of the majority of U.S. sports fans. Pro hockey fans were a loyal, hearty, fun-loving, fight-loving, and generally working-class bunch. The situation was OK as far as most people in the industry were concerned. Teams made money, players made some money, fans didn't pack arenas...but is that really the measure of the success of a sport?

By some ten years later, in 1990, the big contracts had become commonplace. Hockey player salaries rivaled those of their brethren in baseball and football. The NHL had moved into markets in the southern tier of the US...Dallas, Phoenix, Tampa..etc. Foreign players were beginning to populate...if not dominate...most rosters. Ticket prices had taken many of the sport's former fans out of the arena...and to a sports bar to watch the game. Superstar mentality began to reign with many rosters having one or two "marketable" players. Fan support was strong...but for how long?.

Now in 2005...there is no NHL...at least for the last 8 months. Player salaries are a higher percentage of operating costs of owners than in any other sport. There are 30 NHL teams. Most sports fans couldn't tell you that fact. Or where many of those teams are located. Canadian and US players have a hard time finding spots on NHL rosters. Hockey has disappeared from TV, radio and newpapers...with the exception of labor related news. The sport has been mostly cleansed of fighting. Who are the real hockey fans? Probably those who can't afford to buy a ticket. You could once again say that hockey is back to being a dim blip on the radar screen of most American sports fans. Canadians may soon be able to say the same.

Why? Ticket prices...ridiculous. Interest level...what interest level? Players...rich, aloof, too big for the ice surface, without personality, and worst of all..totally believing that they are entitled to the over-inflated salaries they make. League and Ownership...incapable of agreement, marketing...what marketing?, unable to fix the obvious problems with the game,
and unable to remember the kind of entertainment that got them to where they are now. The Game...plodding, boring, defense-dominated, bad on TV, need I say more?

The circle of life in hockey is beginning to become evident. Something must die...to become food for continuing life. What form will hockey's new life take? Could it be something like we had 25 years ago? One can only hope.