Hockey still dead in America

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:53 AM ET

If you were covering hockey back when Gary Bettman was in university, you got to see the mistakes made by Bettman's predecessor as the head honcho of the National Hockey League, John Ziegler.

Had Bettman taken courses in the humanities back then, instead of law, he might have learned that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.

These days, every time you turn on a playoff telecast, you get to see Bettman as he travels from coast to coast telling everyone who will listen what a wonderful job he has done.

In Canada, we know this because we get to see the playoffs on accessible television. In the United States, no matter how Bettman tries to paint it, the status of hockey is abysmal.

Thanks to Bettman, only a small percentage of Americans can watch the playoffs. And thanks to Bettman, fewer still have any desire to do so.

RINKS FULL IN CANADA

In Canada, we fill the rinks, thereby allowing Bettman to say that the league is setting attendance records.

What he doesn't tell you is that knowledgeable people laugh when attendances are announced in American buildings; that many tickets are either given away outright or sold for a nominal fee; and that it is Canadian attendance which is propping up the league.

In Calgary, a section of the seating area that had been closed for years was reopened this year -- and sold out like the rest of the building. The mercurial fans of the Montreal Canadiens bought every available ticket to see their team. In Ottawa, thanks to the fine regular-season performance, attendance never has been higher.

For the most part, Bettman has destroyed the game in the U.S. and he did it by repeating one of the most disastrous mistakes (there were many to choose from) of Ziegler.

Hockey was starting to attract a following in the U.S. in the 1980s, in no small part because it got involved with ESPN on the ground floor. The network was relatively new and as it grew, hockey grew with it.

But Ziegler then decided to part ways with ESPN to go to SportsChannel America which simply was not available in most American homes. Many a hockey historian will contend that no decision in history did more to harm the NHL's evolution than that one.

Eventually, the NHL got back onto ESPN and was coming along nicely -- until Bettman staged his unnecessary season-long lockout, took the game out of the public's view for a year, and in the process, lost the ESPN contract.

Now, the NHL is on OLN. The average ratings for the season were 0.2, which, for those of you not arithmetically inclined, means OLN gets one viewer out of every 500. That's a 60% drop from the last season on ESPN.

The game is back and, thanks to new rules which Bettman finally allowed to be imposed after a decade of screaming from fans and media, is better than ever.

But in the U.S., it's virtually dead. And to make matters worse, the OLN contract is killing it in the few places where it was thriving.

In Denver, for instance, the Avalanche has had high ratings on Altitude, the local outlet. But for the playoffs, OLN takes over and most households do not have access to it.

Thanks to Bettman's TV policy, hockey no longer can be considered one of the top four sports in the United States. It may not be in the top dozen.

And without the ESPN contract, the sport doesn't get exposure to youngsters who are forming their sports loyalties. They're busy watching poker, college basketball and extreme sports.

As respected Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser wrote recently, "Hockey is so dead in America, the players may as well still be locked out."

His conclusion was, "Hockey didn't just lose last season. It appears to have lost its place."


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