At Last, A Failed Southern Strategy

In the sports section of a recent Sunday edition of the New York Times, a column noted the fading prospects for NHL hockey in non-traditional markets, that’s the American sunbelt of the south and southwest.

Despite three Stanley Cups won by expansion and relocated teams in the realm of the late Confederacy; Dallas, Carolina and Tampa Bay, the league’s “Southern Strategy” is beginning to look a bit like a lost gamble. Attendance in places like Nashville, Atlanta and Washington is down. TV ratings for hockey are below that of the cooking and home repair shows, and the Versus network, Comcast’s captive cable channel for national broadcasting of NHL hockey is still tough to find on most cable systems.

The business end of professional hockey in the U.S., unlike the always classy tone of the game itself, has a checkered past. Greed, megalomania, a player’s strike and lockout and some borderline criminality, (the fraud charges surrounding the Islanders almost change of ownership in the nineties) have helped burnish the NHL’s reputation as an essentially bush league operation.

When the team owners brought in Gary Bettman, with the grandiose hope of bringing the game up to popular parity with football, basketball and baseball, there were those among the hockey fan base who figured that the effort was doomed to failure. Gary Bettman was a big league businessman, a basketball guy with a proven track record. But he was not a hockey guy.

Bettman was a quick learn and in the crisis of the player strike and resultant lockout, he stayed the course, getting the salary cap that has turned out to be one of the best things to happen to NHL hockey since the influx of European players. The result has been something of a level ice surface, a thirty-team league absent the dismal competitive disparities of the past.

But hockey has proven a difficult almost recalcitrant sell in the non-traditional markets. They’ve added over-exposed cheerleaders, mascots, tried pitching it as a “family” entertainment experience and still, except for those “Cup” runs, hockey remains, beyond its geographic base, a cult phenomenon, and often within that base.

In “The Game,” probably the only hockey book of note, former Montreal goalie, Ken Dryden, reflected upon the problem of taking hockey out of Canada and the original Northern tier of the U.S. Dryden offered that it would always be difficult to promote the sport among a public that in the most part had never actually played the game. Wayne Gretzky’s defensive outbursts about hockey being “our (Canada’s) game” are not entirely without merit.

Virtually everyone drives a car. In those terms NASCAR becomes almost intelligible. Most American males have some rudimentary experience with throwing around a football, baseball or basketball. But the level of general public experience at attempting to survive on ice skates in a controlled competitive melee is almost as foreign as having played polo. I would offer that hockey is, and will remain, a minority sport for that specific reason, the one rooted in Ken Dryden’s astute observation. Unless you have played the game, it is not a spectator sport that easily rewards the casual viewer. The most common complaints heard in dismissing hockey are “I can’t follow the puck.” Or, “I just can’t make sense of what’s going on.” Given twenty or thirty years of diligent hockey viewing with lots of instant replays, those dissatisfactions can diminish a bit.

Baseball justifiably lays claim to its almost infinite depth of nuance, complexity and chess-like strategies. Ditto football on its strategic aspects. Hockey is akin to basketball and soccer in its format, but only if those sports were they played faster than any human can run, of if they were they played on ice skates, and better yet, played as a contact sport. Hockey experienced at its higher levels combines the violence of football, the beauty and grace of ballet and the real-time complexity of electronic circuitry.

Like the baseball exceptionalists, who are legion, we hockey exceptionalists can be insufferable, but we are few in number, generally dismissed as cranks and ultimately, we only annoy each other. Some years ago when France won a World Cup in soccer, Adam Gopnick writing in The New Yorker described the move made by the French forward who scored the winning goal, a move that had all of Europe dazzled. Gopnick conceded the audacity and beauty of “the move,” but noted that Mario Lemieux made such moves in his every game, if not his every shift on the ice.

In the United States, most hockey fans have not played the game. In the truest sense, I am one of those. But if you watch enough hockey, and how much is enough, you begin to understand what is happening without actually seeing what has happened. It’s a little like a boxer who intuits the incoming punch before he actually sees it, or the hitter knowing whether to swing at a pitch before it arrives.

I have found that hockey, like baseball, continues to unfold the more of it I watch. Each of the thousands and thousands of breakout plays I’ve seen is never exactly the same as any other. Each begins behind the defensive zone net with a defenseman’s outlet pass to a teammate on the forward line that has swung back and in unison transitioned in echelon, like a squadron of high-speed warships on the attack, and starts skating, flying down the ice toward the opposing team’s goal, all the while passing the puck back and forth to each other, criss-crossing the ice, weaving and… You get the picture.

It was difficult to believe that in this age of instant pleasures, of a public marketplace seemingly unwilling to work at “getting” anything, that something as wonderfully complex and as extraordinary as ice hockey, as it’s played at its highest level, would ever get the kind of serious examination it truly warrants. Before sending the league South I just wish Gary Bettman had called one of us. But then again, Gary isn’t really a hockey guy.


2 Responses to “At Last, A Failed Southern Strategy”

  1. 1 Vince February 13, 2008 at 5:02 am

    Amen. What a great post. Bettman just doesn’t understand the culture of hockey and is running the NHL into the ground.

  2. 2 petebyrne February 13, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    Hey Vince:

    Great site. I bookmarked it. Thanks for the comment. I just started doing this.

    The business side of sports is what it is. We’re lucky around Philly with Ed Snider, who is a “Hockey Guy.”

    An interstng note on Snider is the outdated deference he gets that began with his all-Canadian team back in the seventies. He still gets the honorific “Mr. Snider.” The guy’s name is Ed. Why not then “Mr. Ed?”

    Which brings up the idea that maybe the Canadians are to hockey what the Latinos are to baseball. They tend to defer to authority and don’t make waves. It took a Chicago boy, Chris Chelios to threaten Gary during the lockout.


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