NHL needs a trim

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:02 PM ET

You know what’s depressing, besides going to the bank, doctor, dentist, or any other place where the news, invariably, is going to be bad?

Reading Sports Illustrated if you're a hockey fan.

That’s not a shot at Michael Farber, the magazine’s main hockey writer, who does excellent work and is a good guy.

It’s just that the mag, in my opinion, treats the league and the sport as an afterthought.

But I don’t blame S.I. entirely for that.

I blame the NHL.

In fact, I blame the NHL for the constant, never-ending stream of negative publicity in the media, especially in the U.S. — which has, over time, sucked the life out of the league and created a negative stereotype about the game that is reaching the point of being irreversible.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more negative publicity the NHL gets, the less the fans will care. The less the fans care, the lower the attendance. The lower the attendance, the more negative publicity.

What other professional league in the world has to deal with media reports, year after year, about dying franchises?

There are some great stories in the NHL this season, but there are also too many stories about brutal attendance numbers in places such as Phoenix, Atlanta, Florida and Columbus.

My good friend Mike (Zize Matters) Zeisberger, touched on this in Sunday’s Sun.

Over time, all this negative publicity has greatly damaged the league.

Look at what’s happened on Long Island this season.

The Islanders, who have drawn flies for years at the crappy Nassau Coliseum, have resorted to having their games broadcast on Hofstra University’s radio station, which will include intermission coverage and sideline reporting done by Hofstra students.

Basically, it’s a college production.

How embarrassing is that? It’s bush league.

The game is too good for that.

With the American economy promising to stay in the tank for years to come (think massive federal debt), the NHL is in for more tough times if they insist on staying in non-hockey markets.

In fact, it’s only going to get worse.

But there is a solution ... and that is, well, you’ve heard it before.

It’s so simple.

The NHL, once and for all, has to get out of the markets where the game doesn’t matter.

It’s like a cancerous boil. You have to lance it.

The board of governors has to, for once, think outside the box.

In any viable market, in any sport, a team CAN go through some bad years and some rebuilding years and maintain a strong, loyal fan base.

Look at the Buffalo Bills.

The team’s been lousy forever, the owner seems to be completely out of it, and it’s a small market. Yet, the fan base is incredibly loyal and, until recently, continued to sell out every game.

Buffalo is an NFL market, without question.

After and before every Bills game, the talk on Buffalo radio, the coverage on TV and in the newspapers, is all Bills.

And then you look at Columbus. There are those who insist that Columbus is a decent hockey market, and the fans have turned away only because the team has been lousy over the years.

But I don’t buy it.

It’s not a hockey market.

A good hockey market is like Boston. When the team struggles, the attendance goes down, but there’s no talk of the team leaving. And when the team gets good, the place is packed again, or nearly so.

The daily newspaper in Columbus is the Dispatch.

On its website there are two categories you can click on for sports. The first one is “OSU sports”, Ohio State University. The second is “More sports”. The Blue Jackets coverage is under “More sports.”

What’s the point of being in these markets?

I mean really.

The NHL has to sit down with the owners with teams in cities that are constantly in trouble and figure out how to move their franchises to places like Quebec City. Or better, yet, talk about moving some teams to Europe, and start a European Division.

Just imagine the excitement, and consequently, the positive publicity, if the NHL somehow was able to become the first major pro league to establish divisions in North American and Europe?

Instead of playing in dead markets, you get to play in Stockholm, Helsinki and Prague.

It would be incredible.

I believe with a lot of imagination, it can be done. And clearly those cities would be great NHL markets.

The NHL would reinvent itself as a leading-edge professional league.

It would be hip, cool, and the S.I.’s of the world would have to take notice.

steve.buffery@sunmedia.ca


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