I used to love the NHL. In the mid and late 90s, I could tell you the front lines of most of the Western Conference and always knew who the leading scorers and best goaltenders were. I could even identify the bruisers for most of the teams. Now I occasionally look at the standings, only follow one team, and am very rarely aware of when it is on TV. and I know I'm not alone in that transition.
Most of this stems from a number of missteps by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. After the 1994 finals between New York and Vancouver, the league was ready to take on the NBA as an equal for Winter sports. But instead, there was a half season lockout (followed by a full season lockout in '05). The league has also consistently failed to market its teams and stars. The fact that Sidney Crosby is not a household name is a tragedy.
And of course the latest was the outdoor game yesterday between Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Played in a snowstorm before 71,000 fans, it was a well played game. Great hits, awesome saves, a 1-1 tie, and the aforementioned Crosby with some amazing moves and the game winner in a shootout. This was one of the most exciting regular-season games I've seen.
So why am I pissed at Bettman? Because he took a great idea and ruined it. He scheduled the game at 1:00 eastern time on New Years Day! You could ask anyone in the country, even non sports fans, what sport is played on New Years Day, and about 95% would know its college football. That day is, and has always been, a day for College Football. There were three games on opposite the outside hockey game and those games featured the tiny colleges of Texas Tech, Virginia, Michigan, Florida, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Sounds like about half the country geographically, and of course teams like Florida, Michigan, and Tennessee have fans (or haters) reaching far outside their geographical area. So I'm sure most people just left the games they were watching to catch a couple minutes of the hockey game, thought, "oh, that's kinda cool," then went back to the bowl games. That is assuming they even knew the game was on because the NHL advertising is almost non-existent.
Think of the days in the near future they could have played this game and dominated the headlines for the day - the week between the AFC/NFC Championship Games and the Super Bowl. Or even the morning of the Super Bowl. The NBA usually uses that morning to play some of their premier teams. Imagine how cool it would be to have a day showing the best that the NFL, NBA, and NHL have to offer.
This scheduling reminds me of the first time baseball was trying interleague play. Back then, Bud Selig was seriously trying to beat Gary Bettman for the worst commissioner of all time. Somehow Selig woke up around 2001 and decided maybe he should, I don't know, try to allow baseball to succeed, but that's a topic for another blog. Anyway, the first time MLB tried interleague play, they scheduled it the same week as the NBA Finals. That's a little more forgivable than the New years Day thing because the NBA Finals aren't on the same day every year. So is they had waited one more week, they would have dominated the headlines, but instead they had to share. The following year, they adjusted it later in the month of June.
So the question will be whether Gary Bettman will learn and move the outdoor game (you know they will continue with these, and they should as it is a good idea) to another date or keep it opposite huge college football games. Or a better option might be to fire him and let someone else move the game, but I've been rooting for that for 14 years, so I'm not going to hold my breath.