New NHL to be fan friendly

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:29 AM ET

One of the intentions of the GNHL -- Gary's New Hockey League -- is to increase fans' insights into the game.

It's an excellent idea. Fans love to see themselves as insiders, familiar with the intricacies of the personnel.

They like to toss about the nicknames of prominent hockey executives -- people like Slats, Jimmy D, Riser, and so on -- and they like to hear the gossip that is going on around the league. They like to know about trades that are being explored, even if those trades never come to fruition.

The National Hockey League should encourage such behaviour because it creates a bond, a feeling of intimacy, which, in turn, creates a desire on the fan's part to follow the game even more closely. The bottom line in all this is that rabid fans are good for the profit margins.

MEDIA REPRESENTATION

But as far as many people in hockey are concerned, fans and their representatives -- the media -- are nothing more than a bother; attempts to expose the nuances of the game should be thwarted at all costs.

There are league-mandated media-availability rules, but not a single team adheres to all of them.

To the media, this attitude, while occasionally irksome, is not a major problem. They have to wait longer for access and they have to be a bit more devious in acquiring their information and sometimes, they have to fill their accounts with their own views rather than those of the players.

But mostly, it's the fans who are shortchanged when the hockey establishment decides that some players must be muzzled because they are too outspoken, or that long-range cameras showing players coming into the dressing rooms must be banned, or that the central figure in a controversial play need not explain his actions to the paying public.

For an excellent example, consider the last Stanley Cup final. The two coaches, John Tortorella of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Darryl Sutter of the Calgary Flames, took turns being as unresponsive as possible in their daily media conferences.

How does that help the NHL? Does either of them seriously think that the other isn't fully aware of the strategies in play? Couldn't those strategies be explained to the fans?

The excuse is, "We don't want to give them anything to put up on their board."

So let's get this straight. You're playing for the Stanley Cup and you think that the motivation of a newspaper clipping will make the difference? If that's so, then perhaps you should study your coaching methods.

But Tortorella and Sutter are just the tip of the iceberg. They are simply small examples of an attitude that permeates the entire NHL -- that as much as possible, fans must be kept in the dark.

It's not the same everywhere. In the National Football League, for instance, injury disclosure is mandatory and any attempt to deceive the public is a serious matter. In hockey, the "upper-body injury" explanation has evolved into a humorous catch-phrase, an indication that the reporting of hockey injuries is a joke.

In baseball, players will chat with the media until a few minutes before the game. There are hockey players, believe it or not, who say they can't answer questions on game day.

Look at it from the point of view of a television producer. In most sports, you can get all the clips you want. But on the morning of a hockey game, most coaches won't even tell you who their goalie is going to be that night. And if you do find out, the goalie probably isn't available anyway. How much hockey are you going to plug for your evening sports reel?

The NHL's general managers insist that all this is going to change. "Even the New Jersey Devils are going to obey the rules," said one.

It would be a great day for hockey if it were true. But as in the case of the crackdown on restraint, there's a pervasive sense of deja vu.


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