Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Hockey Is Canadian, Eh?

My Ottawa Senators have finally made it to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in their modern-day history. I should be thrilled but I’m not. Instead I’m fuming about the indignities visited on us by the NHL and their incessant attempts to appeal to a largely disinterested American audience.

First of all, look who we’re up against in the final series. I was hoping that the Detroit Red Wings would win the Western Conference finals and we could play a team with a long, proud hockey history. A team that is so close to the Canadian border that many of us claim it as one of our own.

But no; we have to play the Anaheim Ducks. Even if Ottawa should win the Stanley Cup, how can we be taken seriously if we do it by defeating a team once called the Mighty Ducks? A team originally named after a Disney movie. A team that plays in a town where the only outdoor ice seen in wintertime are the cubes in the highballs served by the pool.

We Canadians live and breathe hockey. We love it. But the National Hockey League knows that and takes us for granted. Instead the league and its Commissioner, Gary Bettman, will do anything to make inroads in American markets.

For years the NHL. has bent over backwards to get network TV coverage of its product in the U. S., all to no avail. While Canadian television networks pay millions for rights to broadcast games, the NHL can barely give those rights away to American networks. In fact, they were so desperate this year that they handed playoff games to NBC for free.

Why the NHL bothered is beyond me since it was clear that NBC was barely interested. And why should they be when the ratings for televised hockey can’t even compete with poker or bowling? The importance of hockey to an American audience was underscored when Ottawa’s final game against Buffalo went into overtime and NBC switched to pre-race coverage of the Preakness.

By the way, that final game was on a Saturday afternoon. Not a Saturday night which is Canada’s traditional hockey night. And why? Because NBC insisted on it. The same NBC that paid nothing for the broadcast rights and yet couldn’t be bothered to televise an extra ten minutes of overtime play.

Even the upcoming Anaheim series highlights the second class nature of hockey in the American sports market. The Ottawa Senators have had to wait nine days since winning the Eastern Conference finals before playing their next game. All because Anaheim’s Honda Center has a figure skating show booked and it takes priority.

Don’t get me wrong. If there’s a market for hockey, I’m all too happy to share our Canadian game with anyone who loves it. That includes hockey towns like Boston, Buffalo and Detroit where the fans regularly sell out the local arena.

But Gary Bettman and his shameless hucksters insist on pushing hockey into towns where folks would rather watch professional paint drying contests. Check out the average attendance figures for NHL hockey in cities like Phoenix, Miami and Nashville. Chances are if you can’t skate on your local pond in the winter, you won’t be that interested in paying big bucks to watch grown men play hockey.

The NHL’s obsession with establishing an American fan base has accomplished little except to harm the Canadian market. Because the league will do anything to get a U. S. TV contract, it has made it difficult for smaller Canadian cities to acquire or maintain a franchise.

In the past, both Winnipeg and Quebec City had successful NHL teams. But they couldn’t compete financially and both franchises ended up following the money south to Phoenix and Denver. Given half a chance, those two cities could support an NHL team again, as could several other Canadian towns.

But as long as the NHL takes Canadian fans for granted and carries on like a Don Quixote on skates in its hopeless quest to convert American sports fans, those of us in the Great White North will continue to not only get the short end of the hockey stick but also the shaft.

No comments: