Thursday, January 01, 2009

Is Professional Hockey Worth Saving?

I say let the market decide. Others are hoping for a federal bailout.

Most winters were very cold when I was young, just like this year but not quite so severe so early. There was usually lot of snow unlike the past few decades. The vacant lot across the street from my parent’s house was low lying and would hold the water from late autumn rains. When it froze over we strapped on skates and played hockey.

Our little neighborhood events were nothing organized and the lot resembled anything but a hockey rink, just some rocks or logs to form the outline of two goals, no nets. The dirt edge of the temporary frozen pond served as the out-of-bounds. A stick was cheap and so was the puck but we would use a rock if we lost the puck and wanted to play. Think urban alley stick-ball in a frozen, vacant, suburban lot. The local park district flooded an area for a skating rink but hockey playing was not allowed in the park. That was the extent of my hockey career, a few weeks or maybe a month out of the year. If I had the opportunity to play in a real rink with a organized team my interest in the sport may have been different.

I attended Chicago Blackhawk games at the old Chicago Stadium when I was young in the late 60’s and 70's. Never being much of a hockey fan I found going to a live game to be very exciting. The place was old and it smelled, the crowd was raucous and along with the organ music it led me to believe this is what baseball at old Comiskey Park would be like if it had a roof. We saw Hull, Makita, Howe, Orr, Esposito, Sanderson and other greats play the game live. The last game I attended in the old stadium was against the Edmonton Oilers with Wayne Gretzky. He was the best I ever saw if that means anything. When he got the puck he would effortlessly skate away from the others and just score. Man, could that guy fly on the ice.

My interest in pro hockey was short lived. It was easier to find a place to play baseball, basketball and football as a kid. These sports had more cachet, and enforced rules. Hockey is organized mayhem. I say that because when two players drop the gloves and sticks referees will circle around the fistfight and wait for the outcome. The more blood on the ice, the better for the hockey fan base. It’s what they sell, just like pro wrestling. The movie “Slap Shot” was not too far from the truth. Get rid of the gratuitous fist fighting and I just might be interested again.

Hockey players are famous for toothless smiles, mullets and scars.

Hockey fans are famous for toothless smiles, mullets, scars and cheap nylon windbreakers with a tavern name on the back and that’s just the women.

Fan fights in a hockey stadium are as frequent as the ones on the ice. Hockey is more like wrestling than it is like soccer, which is similar in play. In soccer, the fights are strictly limited to the seating area.

Since they recognize that pro hockey is a stagnant and even a dying sport the NHL started something a little different not long ago. They were looking to create some sort of special national NHL attraction other than the Stanley Cup, the All-Star game or players beating the sh!t out of each other (as if that isn’t enough). Each New Year’s day the NHL will be playing a nationally televised regular season game set in an outdoor stadium on New Year’s Day. They have named it the NHL Winter Classic and hope it will generate national interest in a locally popular (Canada) professional sport.

An estimated crowd of 71,217 packed Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium as the Buffalo Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins on New Year's Day 2008 for the first annual Winter Classic. I watched it last year and found it interesting. Not the hockey so much but playing the game outdoors was something I could relate to. It interested me for about ten minutes before I switched back to a college football bowl game.

This year the NHL Winter Classic will be played in Chicago at Wrigley Field where the Chicago Blackhawks will host the Detroit Redwings on January 1, 2009 at noon, that’s today. What’s special about this? It’s being played in Wrigley Field. The local Chicago media has been drooling over this event. It helps that John McDonough, ex-director of marketing for the Cubs was hired by the Blackhawks to generate interest in their franchise. It took a whole lot of genius (wink-wink) to think of using Wrigley.

The NHL along with The Chicago Blackhawks are counting on that old Wrigley summer magic to get national attention on New Year’s Day. Look, when your team sucks for decades nobody shows up anyway unless the team name is the Cubs. But that name was already taken. So the NHL is borrowing the hallowed venue. Would anyone show up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a demolition derby? A few I guess.

Soldier Field with it’s superior sight lines and proportionate playing surface would have been a much better venue and well suited for watching a hockey game live. But this is a promotional stunt, nothing more, nothing less. There are no good seats under the upper deck at Clark and Addison but the Wrigley zombies will pay big bucks for front row just to say they were there.

Televising a burning a sh!tpile in Wrigley will sell-out the gate and gain a national television audience. How else would you explain the popularity of the Cubs? Silly me, fans don’t show up to watch a ballgame at Wrigley so why show up to watch a hockey game there? It's the venue, stoopid. Watch for Wrigley to surrender ¾ of the fans to the local bars after the first period. The ones left seated will be real hockey fans. Their mullets and cheap windbreakers will give them away before then.

Hockey is not a game that looks good or is easily followed on television. The side boards hide a lot of the action. The tiny puck is hard to track. FOX Sports tried to generate interest in NHL Hockey about five years ago by making the puck glow so it became visible when it disappeared behind the boards or under a pile of bloody fighting players. Nice try. Didn’t work. The small number of true American and Canadian hockey fans hated it.

Not many young men get the opportunity to play the game due to the necessary ice rink and incredible expense of reserving time at a frozen rink, if you can find one locally. Not many grow up with a passion for playing the game in a frozen vacant lot south of Minneapolis. But up north there are many outdoor hockey rinks for the youngsters to enjoy. It’s about the only thing that keeps hockey alive.

Hockey has such odd rules, time clock and strategies only the superior intelligence of a backwoods Canuck gets it, eh? Body checking, power plays and penalties? Three quarters? On television? Yawn.

Will I watch this overachievement on ice? Maybe for a few minutes during the football bowl game commercials. The local media will declare it a huge success and cover it like white on (r)ice. Anything that has to do with Wrigley Field will generate local TV interest with sportscaster boobs drooling all over their parkas during pre and post-game on-location news reports. I heard one local NBC sports caster refer to this as a "Super Bowl" atmosphere. Gag me with a slab of back bacon, eh?

About the only thing that would make this event more interesting to me is if Sarah Palin dropped the puck wearing a Hooter's outfit. Now that would be a real spectacle.

Give the NHL credit for doing everything possible to save their dying sport. Non-fans may watch out of curiosity, others just because it is in Wrigley. I will watch a bit just because I can connect with playing the sport outdoors in the cold. That alone can be more brutal than a fist fight.

This thing starts soon. Right about now I’m sure many Canadians are twisting open a cold Molson, frying up some back bacon and finishing off a box of Tim Horton’s donuts in anticipation. Me? I’m watching the Iowa Hawkeyes take a 24-0 lead over the South Carolina Game Cocks (love that name) in the Outback Bowl over some Bailey’s and coffee. Looks like a blowout in the making. Go Penn State at 4pm!

That’s about all I have to say about NHL hockey. Good luck to ya'. You betcha'.

1 comment:

Dan from Madison said...

Just watched it for a few minutes. Not impressed. The fans are SO far away it is incredible.