Four years ago David Hill, the president of Fox Sports, admitted to an interviewer that the great Fox hockey experiment had been a flop. "We don't know what's wrong. We still believe in hockey, but we've got to figure out why people aren't watching like they used to."
The "used to" reveals part of the problem here. The truth is that Americans have never watched professional hockey in great numbers, though it was a bit puzzling that even fewer had watched the games on Fox after a $155 million, five-year push. For the most part, the answer was simple: People didn't watch Fox hockey telecasts because Fox hockey telecasts were telecasting hockey. The more hockey Americans saw, the less hockey they wanted to see. Steven Solomon, the NHL senior vice president, called the 1998 ratings "a one-year blip." What he should have said was that hockey's entire history on television was a half-century blip.
That even fewer people watched the telecasts on Fox highlighted a phenomenon that the NHL discovers every time it attempts to broaden the appeal of its product and go big time: It actually loses some of its hardcore audience. You know where I'm going, don't you? Is there any discussion about big time Hokkai that doesn't sooner or later dovetail into a discussion of ... fighting?
But fighting really isn't the word for what we're talking about here, is it? Hockey, like football, isn't a "contact" sport -- basketball is a contact sport. (Just ask Jason Kidd.) Hockey and football are collision sports, which means that violence is built into them by their very nature. But you don't see football players stopping the game by beating up on each other, do you? Well, I guess you do sometimes, but it looks really stupid, doesn't it -- those 280-pound guys slapping each other, trying to find weak spots in all that body armor. In truth, hockey fights look pretty dumb, too. If you ever needed more graphic proof that white people can't fight, all you need to do is turn to hockey highlights, where you can see a couple of doofuses trying to find weaknesses in each other's body armor while trying to balance on skates. My favorite part is always when one of the two morons pulls off his helmet and challenges somebody to fight. Myself, the first thing I'd do to respond to a guy who took his helmet off would be to make sure that mine was securely fastened.
But I digress. The NHL's real dilemma is not fighting, it's violence. The truth is, and everyone knows it, that the NHL could stop fighting overnight if it really wanted to. Everyone knows that the NHL really doesn't want to, and that the majority of its hardcore fans -- the ones who stopped watching those Fox hockey telecasts when the cameras were pulled away from the fights -- certainly don't want them to stop either. OK, so let the morons fight. They can't really hurt each other anyway. The real issue is the kind of goonishness displayed by players like the Maple Leafs' Darcy Tucker, when he took out the Islanders' Michael Peca by blowing out his knee. Peca will be out for at least nine to 10 months, may not ever be 100 percent after that and is a good bet to be walking with a cane 15 years from now. Or, my personal favorite, Boston's Kyle McLaren, simply smashing his elbow into the face of Montreal's Richard Zednick, shattering his cheekbone and giving him a concussion. This wasn't "fighting," it was simple assault. It had nothing to do with hockey; it was more akin to the battle scenes in "Braveheart."
It's simple brutality, and it gets worse at playoff time. Why? Because any lamebrain knows that the best way to win a big game is to knock your opponent's best players out of the lineup. (That the other team is going to retaliate by doing the same thing to your best players never seems to occur to anyone.) So not only do you have the worst brutality occurring in the most crucial games, you often have climactic series in which the key players, the ones you came to watch in the first place, are either knocked out of the lineup or are hobbling through the games at half-speed.
It's ridiculous for the NHL to pretend it has no control over such things. How many yearlong suspensions without pay do you think it would take to cure this kind of thuggishness? Three? Two? I think one would do nicely.
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If you missed Richard Sandomir's excellent article in the Tuesday, May 14, New York Times sports section on the Seattle Mariners and their cable TV appeal, I suggest you look it up because it's a head-turner. Apparently the Mariners are the biggest TV draw in the entire Northwest, not only bigger than any other sports team available on TV but bigger also than "West Wing" or "Frasier." Moreover, the Mariners may well be the biggest cable audience-drawing team in baseball, bigger even than the New York Yankees.
This suggests all kinds of questions and possibilities for Major League Baseball. For years, the NFL and NBA coasted on the popularity of a few key teams -- the 49ers and Cowboys in football, the Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers in basketball. It has always been assumed that baseball's appeal was too local to nationally market any team, but how do we really know that this is true? If the Atlanta Braves (thanks to Turner Broadcasting) sometimes challenge the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs in the Midwest and Southwest markets, why can't the Seattle Mariners challenge the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets in the East? And if this has occurred to me, it certainly has to have occurred to executives of Major League Baseball.
This story has been corrected.