Friday, January 04, 2008

Now what?

So here we are, in Day 3 of the “Post Winter Classic” era.

If you read press releases, listen to TV and radio reports, and peruse the blogosphere, you will find heaps of praise ladled generously on the Winter Classic played in Buffalo on New Year’s Day.

It is deserved.

As theater, it was perhaps the single most important production for hockey since the invention of the cathode ray tube. Conjuring visions of youth and hockey played on ponds, with snow falling in what amounted to a four hour Hallmark moment, two teams clothed in old school back-to-their-origins jerseys and wearing grins like young boys that lit up the ice, a crowd that was enthusiastically involved in the contest from before the drop of the puck to well after the puck came to rest behind Ryan Miller in the shootout, and the league’s own poster boy – Sidney Crosby – providing the coup de grâce, it was an afternoon hockey executives and fans have prayed for since the end of the lockout.

Hockey was relevant again.

NBC reported television ratings in the U.S. better than those for any regular season telecast in almost 11 years. The game – and the sport – realized a rare penetration into print and electronic media that seem in recent years more devoted to running hockey off the sports landscape. Even the princes of ESPN – Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon (one a hockey basher of some note, the other primarily a basketball writer who dropped hockey in favor of soccer and NASCAR because of his crowded schedule) – lavished praise on the effort.

At the moment, it is the Era of Good Feeling in the world of hockey…thanks to one game played outdoors.

Well, folks, NHL hockey is not one game, and it is not played outdoors. It is a more-than-six-month regular season covering 82 games, and it is played indoors in 30 cities, some of which are having a hard time making a buck or drawing fans to the rink (the Caps, for instance, are on a pace to draw their smallest average attendance since the 1983-84 season).

And, for you students of history, the Era of Good Feeling of the early 18th century ultimately dissolved into division and conflict. The potential for that exists in the months and years to come with a labor agreement that could be dissolved less than two years from now*; the lingering separation of clubs into populations of “haves” and “haves not,” despite the cost-certainty realized from the current agreement; uncertainty with respect to expansion or relocation; and a persistent lack of attention (the Winter Classic, notwithstanding) given to the NHL in the U.S.

The Winter Classic was less a blessing than an opportunity, and the league needs to take advantage of it. How they do that is a remedy to the problem that I don’t have – if I did, I’d be happy to share it. But it is a remedy that must be found while this opportunity presents itself, because while the Winter Classic was a theatrical success, it is also a novelty. I would not expect the league to repeat its success, even if it becomes an annual event. Novelties wear off.

I’ve been a fan of the sport for more years than I care to admit. Literally the first thing I did upon moving to Washington, many years ago, was to purchase a Caps ticket plan. Having seen just about every team sport there is – live and/or on television – I can testify that there is nothing…absolutely nothing…to compare to the experience of watching a hockey game live. Whether you sit in the balcony of an arena watching the geometry of the game unfold before your eyes, or you sit near the glass and appreciate the raw speed and power of the game, it is an experience that can’t be matched by any other team sport. The Stanley Cup tournament is some of the most compelling sustained drama that one could ever hope to see in sport. That the National Hockey League has not found a way to convey this to the sports fan is, I believe, one of the great modern tragedies in sports.

I’m no different than any other hockey fan – talking up the sport, marveling at the goals or the saves or the hits, making extra tickets available to friends and potential fans. And maybe it’s the little things like that – not the big Cecil B. DeMille productions – that will make a difference in rebuilding the sport. We can only hope hockey fans everywhere are doing what they can do, just out of the enthusiasm for the sport they show, to make that come true.

Looking back at the game played on Tuesday and marveling at the attention it received does little good for the league and teams not in Buffalo or Pittsburgh in the long term. The trick is in figuring out a way to build on the success of the Winter Classic, looking ahead and figuring out a way to translate the success of a unique event into something that can be sustained in the regular grind of a long season. Because if the league can’t do that, then the Winter Classic will – as it recedes into memory – look more like a snow globe you take out from time to time to reminisce of a time long gone than a signal of a new dawn for the sport.

* Article 3, Section 3.1(b) of the collective bargaining agreement states, “notwithstanding anything to the contrary set forth in subparagraph 3.1(a), the NHL [Players Association] shall have the right: (i) to terminate this Agreement as of September 15, 2009 by delivery of written notice the NHL at least 120 days prior to September 15, 2009…”

1 comment:

DMG said...

I've seen a lot of post-Winter Classic articles and I think this is the best one. You really hit the nail on the head, Peerless.