Monday, January 14, 2013

The Sheep Return To The Fold

“The Shepherd always tries to persuade the sheep that their interests and his own are the same.”

So, Hockey’s back! A truncated season of 48 games. Games that will only be played between teams of the same conference to save on travel and stoke local rivalries, whether or not they actually exist.

10% Vancouver’s games will be played against Calgary. They won’t visit or be visited by 4 of their fellow Canadian teams and won’t encounter the league’s biggest stars or their own storied rivals.

The New York Rangers will travel to 45% of their road games in less than an hour –- and by bus. Meanwhile, last year’s Stanley Cup Champions won’t be seen in either America’s biggest media market nor face-off against the team they beat in the finals.

There will be no exhibition games in which unknown players can make a name for themselves and six day training camps mean most attending rookies will be back with their farm team by the weekend, leaving teams staffed by most of the same guys they had last year.

It’s a recipe that promises bland and familiar.

But Gary Bettman is “Sorry” and “The teams are waiting for you with open arms”. Although you can be sure neither will escort you to a seat unless you cough up the requisite cash.

Much was written during the lockout about the suffering beyond their ranks that the NHL had caused. Food vendors and ticket takers at the rinks. Guys selling League merchandise or running bars on Main Street. The sports networks and the CBC.

If you ask me, all of them should know better by now. This labor squabble, like the last two, has been about one thing, Bettman’s strategy of putting teams in markets with little interest in hockey.

That process has reduced the pot of money available to all teams and thus made those who are profitable even less willing to revenue share with the ones who aren’t.

That means they need to claw back from the players while reducing as much of their other expenditures as they can.

During the first Strike in 1994, I happened to visit Las Vegas, turning up at a pool patio wearing an NHLPA T-shirt. The bartender stared at me in disbelief. “What’re you guys doin’? The fans are gonna hate you for this!” I shrugged off the obviously lucid reaction.

I also told him I was Doug Gilmour and spent a great afternoon drinking free Mai-Tai’s and signing autographs for people who had clearly never seen a hockey game.

I was almost outed by a guy from Calgary, who stared at me for a long time through an alcohol haze before asserting that it didn’t appear moving to Toronto had been very good for me.

The fans did eventually come back. But much as the talking heads on CBC and TSN trumpet the growing excitement in the land, I don’t see it this time.

In an odd way, the lack of hockey has led media outlets desperate to fan any remaining embers of interest to release information about players that probably hurts more than it helps.

Today alone, I learned that the Sedin Twins have declined to appear as witnesses in Scott Moore’s $60 Million lawsuit against their former Canuck teammate Todd Bertuzzi, because they might be required to reveal what was said in the Canucks’ dressing room prior to the game.

And that would break part of hockey’s unwritten “code” –- even though said code brutally ended the career of a fellow player.

No wonder fewer and fewer people think of hockey players as “heroes”…

I also learned that Sydney Crosby spent some of his lockout downtime at a Justin Beiber concert.

Although, honestly, does the fact that Syd’s becoming more of a whiney teenage girl with every season really surprise anybody?

So far, in an informal poll I’ve been taking, not one of my research subjects has indicated a burning desire to get back on the couch for “Hockey Night In Canada”.

Most will, like me, be sitting this season out. We’ve all found something else to do during the past few months. And it’ll take more than a hollow “sorry” to convince me any continued interest benefits me even a fraction as much as it will the NHL.

I’ve also decided that, for the first time in seven years, I won’t be hosting the “Infamous Writers Hockey Pool” on this site come the play-offs.

If somebody wants to take it over, let me know and I’ll give you all you need to set it up. But I don’t have any interest.

And the hard reality is that the media and the League need us far, far more than we need them. We’re the ones who buy the seats and the Bud Light. We make up the ratings numbers that drive license fees and advertising rates. We’re the people who convince our kids they’d rather have a Stamkos jersey than one for Man United.

And if you dig a little, you’ll discover some of the NHL’s own partners are not as committed to them as they’d like you to believe.

Much has been said about an American network, NBC, coming aboard this season to finally offer US fans access to NHL games.

But a quick peek at the NBC schedule indicates that not only will those viewers not see a single Canadian team, they won’t see any games involving the small market teams in their own country.

No Nashville. No Phoenix. No Anaheim, Carolina, Colorado, Columbus, Dallas, Florida, Minnesota, San Jose or Tampa Bay. Not even a single NY Islanders game, even though they’re playing in Manhattan this season.

In other words, unless they subscribe to specialty cable channels, American “Fans” won’t see 2/3 of the teams in the NHL and two more, including the 2011 Cup winner, only once.

What’s more, 41 of the 70 games to which NBC has rights will be broadcast on NBC’s Sports Network, an outfit doing so badly that last month they didn’t have a single show that attracted more than 200,000 viewers.

The Shepherd needs you –- for shearing. It’s not because he really cares…


John McFetridge said...

It's too bad about the NHL, it was theirs to lose. So, now MLS soccer will move up another rank in the USA:

Hey, TFC have a new president and a new coach, they might start to turn things around this year...

Anonymous said...

Bit of a nit: I don't think the Islanders are moving for a few years, but knowing what we know about that franchise, I wouldn't believe anything they say anyway.