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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Cold Hard Rants presents Back and Forth with Zac and Andrew

***For you, our valued reader, we have a special edition of Cold Hard Rants this week. Legendary fan of illegalcurve Zac Smith, has agreed to engage in a back and forth discussion with myself about the NHL, it's numerous problems, and the future of the NHL in the United States. We hope you enjoy this very special episode of Cold Hard Rants. ***

Part 1
I am a little confused, my name is Zac Smith here to rant back and forth with Andrew, but I am told this is for a hockey blog. Am I to believe that the lockout has ended? Really!?!? As a citizen of the United States, I had thought that the NHL had gone the way of Vince McMahon's XFL. And to some extent my suspicions would be valid.

I can't find many traces of the NHL in the mainstream of our media. In terms of relevant professional sports leagues in the United States, the NHL now ranks somewhere behind Nascar and the PGA and just barely above Mixed Martial Arts. Listen, I am not here to disrespect hockey. Hockey probably requires the greatest combination of athleticism and skill of any professional sport. Instead, I am here to examine why it is that I and my countrymen don't care much for hockey. There are a few obvious reasons we can examine.

The first is television coverage. One would argue that even if I wanted to watch the NHL I couldn't. No major network in the US carries regular season hockey games. Any regional sports network will choose to play the closest NBA team over the local hockey squad. However, even if I were able to watch hockey, would I? History would suggest that neither I nor the average Joe Blow American would. Rather, every attempt made by US networks to market hockey has failed and hockey was dropped from the lineup. Even when the NHL was on the major networks with the most resources to promote it, the ratings sagged. The problem may not be so much the product as how it is packaged. We lack a functioning knowledge of hockey that makes it difficult to follow on television. But how do the networks educate the new viewer without dumbing it down to a level that turns off the hockey fans that make up a majority of the viewers?

We identify hockey with Barry Melrose’s slicked back mullet rather than Ryan Smyth’s blue-collar work ethic. We like to feel like we know our sports inside and out. 90% of football fans think they know how to beat a Cover 2 because they can beat the Patriots on pro difficulty on Madden. Or they think they could be the general manager of their favourite team because they have been in the money the last three years in fantasy baseball. I have no idea how I would begin to gamble on hockey (assuming it were legal here). The NHL just doesn’t have that driving force to capture the imagination of the American public.

Part 2

Did I just read you correctly? Are you busting on the XFL? How dare you! The league that gave rise to the re-birth of Tommy Maddox’s NFL career, which for gambling purposes was lucrative pour moi. You best be stepping back from your XFL bashing sir, lest I have to get He Hate Me out to make you respect!

As usual, I digress.

(For the record, I would much rather be writing on an all XFL blog, but seeing as how that is unlikely to be possible, I suppose any forum for me to rant on will suffice.)

Anyways, after my second digression in the span of 3 paragraphs (impressive, I know) I say to you, my American counterpart, that the NHL is a dead proposition in the majority of U.S markets. Why is that, you query? Because in order to love hockey, you have to know hockey. And in order to know hockey it helps to have a knowledge of ice and snow and cold, because, they sort of are pre-requisites to be a hockey market. What the NHL has failed to realize, and why they have is beyond my comprehension, is that while you can make ice indoors, very few NHL players begin their hockey careers anywhere but outside on frozen ponds, and in climates that are able to say they experience a real winter. I don’t have the stats in front of me, nor do I care to have the stats in front of me lest they prove me wrong, but I am willing to bet all of my money versus all of your money that the majority of NHL players grow up in a place that actually knows about snow and wind chills. Why the NHL would abandon or ignore these markets (i.e. Winnipeg, Hartford, Quebec City, South-western Ontario) in the hopes of striking it rich in unfamiliar hockey markets like Nashville, Tampa, Carolina, and Miami, shows how strikingly incompetent NHL executives are. It is the catering to non-traditional NHL markets at the expense of actual markets that have the potential to succeed as hockey hotbeds, which account for the NHL’s primary failure in the U.S.

What are your thoughts on that, my American brother from a different mother?

Part 3
First off, as a Denver Broncos fan, it is my duty to resent anything that is Tommy Maddox related. I mean seriously. How dare Dan Reeves draft him! It’s the equivalent of the Colts taking Brian Brohm in the 08 draft. If McNabb was ticked off by the Kolb pick, imagine how Elway must have felt. And he was not nearly as injury prone as McNabb. I can’t even utter Tommy Maddox’s name without having to spit to get the taste out of my mouth. The only positive to come from the XFL is that it distracted Jesse Ventura from his mismanagement of the state of Minnesota. As long as we are on the subject though, professional wrestling is also more relevant than hockey here, but

You actually stole my next point. I had planned on pointing out how the NHL has insisted on placing teams in places where more people have played Jai Alai than have been on skates. Every time it snows in Dallas it causes a fifty-car pileup, yet they deserve the Northstars? It’s completely nonsensical. While I, like you, lack any statistical evidence, I would argue that Duluth, Minnesota would likely provide a more avid fan base than Tampa. Wait. I wanna retract that and say Carolina. I could never say anything bad about the franchise that launched the career of my on and off again girlfriend Erin Andrews (It’s complicated, she wants to be exclusive, I’m not sure if I am ready yet). My torrid romance with Ms. Andrews-Smith aside, I agree that the placement of NHL teams doesn’t make sense. In addition, as you pointed out, American kids just don’t play hockey.

Last time I recruited a class on NCAA football, it told me that the best athletes in our country come from Florida and California. I’m pretty sure there is not a sheet to be found in the average neighbourhood in either of those states. It’s hard to get behind a sport that lacks homegrown talent. The few NHL players I do follow played for the University of North Dakota, but are in fact natives of Winnipeg. Most NHL players have more consonants in their last name than a season’s worth of Sesame Street sponsors.

Why aren’t we developing more hockey players? The easiest answer is that hockey is not accessible as any of our other favourite sports. If a kid wants to play football all he needs is one friend with the pigskin. If he wants to play hockey, he needs skates, a stick, a puck, and some ice time. It’s also preferable that he brings his helmet, gloves, shoulder pads, and breezers. It’s too expensive a sport to play. Even when the dollar was worth way more than a loonie, it was still too expensive.

Part 4

Dan Reeves making a bad coaching decision? Heaven forbid! As history has shown his “legendary” coaching career featured more mis-steps than Mark Cuban’s performance on Dancing with the Stars. Granted, he didn’t force Eugene Robinson to go trolling for hookers on the eve of the Superbowl, but I do think it says something about his lack of coaching acumen that his players weren’t all but chained up to their hotel rooms on that night. And don’t even get me started on Ray Buchanan’s dog collar at Media Day of that Super Bowl. National Felon’s League indeed.

Guess what everybody? I digress!

I am 100 percent in agreement with your assessment as to the lack of a hockey culture in the U.S. We get indoctrinated into certain sports at our youth, and if hockey is ever to seriously take off in the U.S. the place that needs the most growth and development is in the minor hockey ranks. I am not talking about the United States Junior Hockey League (or whatever it is called), I am talking about hockey at the community club/house league level. That’s where kids get their first taste of hockey, and that’s where their seeds of love for hockey get sown. Unfortunately, as I previously mentioned, the pre-requisites for most affordable hockey is outdoor ice, certainly something that is not possible in most U.S. markets. Furthermore, the NHL and Hockey USA, if they are serious in their efforts to increase the popularity of the game at the grassroots level, must do something about the cost of hockey equipment. It’s prohibitively expensive to a large number of people, both in Canada and the U.S. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that soccer is the most popular game in the world, and also the most inexpensive to play.

Although, to be honest, I am not sure the NHL superiors are aware there game isn’t the most popular sport. Shows how delusional they are.

Part 5
Before we go any further, I just want to point out that you somehow turned my own Microsoft Word against me. Now every time I want to type favourite, colour, or neighbourhood it tries to insert an unnecessary “u” into each. Say what you want about Canadians, but they are crafty with their subtle psychological warfare. The first time I saw my computer auto-correct to “favourite” I had the urge to call ham “bacon” and considered watching the Oilers and Avalanche tonight over the Nuggets and Celtics. Touché my friend. Dammit! You even have me speaking French now. Let’s wrap this up.

First I think you overlooked the main reason soccer is the world’s most popular sport: people love theatre. I mean short of Baron Davis’s flop (
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTdERYOtqsg ) the other night you have to go to a Jessica Alba movie to see the quality of acting a soccer game provides. Soccer hasn’t taken off here because we aren’t “cultured” enough to appreciate the performance art aspect of soccer. We prefer our athletes to be genuine. We want athletes who will be the first to praise God while simultaneously carrying on extramarital affairs. But since our asides could fill another Cold Hard Rant I will close with my thoughts on hockey.

The only solution I can think is to return some of the US franchises to Canada. Right now the country whose national sport is hockey has six franchises while the country where hockey ranks as the sixth or seventh relevant sport has 24. Our market is diluted with hockey teams in areas that don’t know the first thing about the sport. Leave us the Wild, Avalanche, Rangers, Bruins, Penguins, Red Wings, Flyers, Blackhawks, Sabres, and Devils and divide the rest amongst yourselves. That gives us ten franchises in locations that have generally experienced a real winter. It would also unite the hockey faithful in the areas where teams are contracted. Look at football fans in Baltimore and Cleveland. Nothing unites a fan base like taking away their team (unless they are LA fans). As a bonus, it would also allow some relocation to hockey hungry cities like Winnipeg. I think we solved it. Someone tear Gary Bettman away from his coloring books and get him on the phone.

Part 6

If you could keep that juicy piece of info about our psychological warfare to yourself, the entire country of Canada would appreciate it. So far only you, and my girlfriend (here on out known as The Kentucky Princess for her love of Tayshawn Prince), have stumbled upon our secret plan of world domination via Microsoft Word.

As for your closing point about relocation of NHL teams I wholeheartedly agree. I would leave the U.S. with 16 teams in total though. In addition to the cities you listed I would also give you teams in St. Louis, Columbus, Long Island, Dallas, Washington, Los Angeles (you HAVE to be in the 2nd largest U.S. market unless you are big enough to overcome not being there like the NFL is), Dallas, and I am a strong advocate for the return of the Whalers to Hartford. Any city that holds a parade for its team simply for taking Les Canadiens to 7 games is a hockey city in my books. Oh, and bye bye New Jersey for the only thing worse than the complete and total absence of publicity the NHL gets in the U.S. will the publicity they do get when the first fan is killed outside the Devil’s new arena in Newark. The only logic I see for putting an arena in Newark is that Kandahar and Kirkuk, Iraq already have arenas. Those 16 U.S. cities, coupled with new teams in Winnipeg and the Golden Horseshoe of south-western Ontario will result in a solid league of 24 markets, and as a result the quality of play will increase to 1980s levels, in which even the most embittered anti-hockey individual would admit was entertaining hockey. I for one look forward to the day when Crosby, Malkin, and Ovechkin can fly around the ice, and show off their talents in a manner to which Gretzky, Lemieux, Hawerchuk, and LaFleur were able to in what I call the golden era of the modern NHL. Of course, considering the dearth of intelligence in the NHL offices, I won’t be holding my breath for this to happen.

For Illegal Curve, along with my guest ranter Zac Smith, I am Andrew M.

About the writer: Formerly a speech writer for a Canadian Federal Politician, Andrew will be bringing his unique take on the hockey world to the illegal curve blog once a week, or more often if the rage needs to be released in a manner other than clobbering a referee over the head with a whiskey bottle. Mainly because he doesn’t have enough empty whiskey bottles at his disposal.

Ballhype: hype it up!

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