Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Crosby is brandondubinsky-ed. Carey Price is kreidered. The NHL must decide to protect, promote its stars.

Great article on all the hacking and slashing and goonery Sidney Crosby has to put up with, linking it with Mario Lemieux's famous call to end the clutch and grab and violence.

I think the Carey Price takeout, twinned with the abuse Sid the Kid had to endure from Brandon Dubinsky, may be a seminal moment in the NHL.  Sure, there are lots of the usual suspects who say it's just the normal playoff warfare, but a significant chorus of dissenters is being heard.

Jason Botchford of the Vancouver Province was forceful in his denunciation of the play, and the effect it has had in the series and playoffs in general.  He makes the very cogent point that what could have been a memorable series between two high-profile goalies at the top of their game was taken away from fans, from customers.  He said his interest in the series is now nil, the result a foregone conclusion.

The Canadiens may be the least desirable team of the four remaining in contention in terms of the American marketplace, but the strongest the league could have hoped for in terms of the 'smaller' markets (better than Ottawa, Winnipeg, Columbus, Carolina, ...).  The MontrĂ©al Canadiens have an appeal as a glorious franchise and an Original Six team, they're an easy sell.

Hockey is often described as a 'local' sport, whereby fans tune in to watch their team in the playoffs, but then lose interest once it's eliminated.  Part of the blame goes to scheduling and a overly long season, people prefer being outside in May and June.

Compare that to football, where people watch the NFL playoffs because there will be exciting games, no matter the participants.  Even when the Detroit Lions are eliminated, the Detroit market will still tune in.  You don't need to be a Patriots or Broncos fan to enjoy a game featuring Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.

The ratings this year were very strong from Wildcard weekend on, aided by the buzz generated by amazing games.  The NFL is not local, it's national, fans from all markets watch right to the end, when literally everyone watches the Super Bowl.

One way for the NHL to approach this level of success is to have stories to tell, stars to showcase.  More than a decade after he's retired, Wayne Gretzky is possibly the best-known hockey player in the U.S.  That's the fault of the suits in New York, who allow Mike Milbury to set the tone,. Grinding and checking take precedence over creating stars.  The NBA are all in on LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, whereas the NHL allow stifling defensive play, thuggery and Brad Marchand to succeed.

So yes, the NHL may have its dream L.A.-New York series as a final, but it also could have generated huge buzz with a Western Final pitting the Blackhawks, the current Stanley Cup winners from the third-largest market, against the Kings, and an Eastern Final between the glitzy Rangers and the storied Habitants, featuring the two marketable star goalies, King Henrik and Olympic gold medalist Carey Price.  It could have had huge ratings for the semis AND the finals, had Carey Price not been knocked out of the series on an unpenalized play.

But the NHL suicidally, boneheadedly deprived itself of that, and I hope that it registers in the, uh, cash registers, and that there's enough bad publicity about what can be characterized as a shrewd contract hit on one of its stars, that it will rouse the NHL from its slumber, and force it to act.  Before Nathan McKinnon is knee-on-kneed by Raffi Torres or elbowed by Jordin Tootoo and loses half a season or more.

I can only hope that the criticism is heard loud and clear at NHL head offices, and that there is a tangible effect on ratings, that show up on Gary Bettman's spreadsheet.  If there's a clear drop in viewership, less revenue flowing in, maybe it'll spur him to act, not for love of the game, but out of the fear of lost profit.

The NHL has already wasted the Wayne Gretzky-Mario Lemieux era, and is well on its way to doing the same with what should have been another golden age, the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin rivalry years.  Maybe it can get its frigging house in order, and we can enjoy the next decade as the McKinnon-Drouin-McDavid hockey explosion.  And not see them fall to unfortunate 'accidents' and 'heat-of-the-moment' regrettable plays, and we instead rue what might have been.

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