By Jim Sankey
Allied News Sports Columnist
THERE’S A REASON why professional hockey is again only the sixth most popular sport in this year’s survey of the annual Harris Poll that asks fans ages 18 and over about their favorite sport.
The NFL leads (35 percent), followed by major-league baseball (14), college football, (11) auto racing (7), and the NBA (6). Hockey comes in at five percent, just two percent ahead of college basketball.
Although hockey’s “playoffs” began last Wednesday, the playoffs are, in reality, the start of the “regular season,” which drags on for two intolerable months in which more than half of the teams participate.
With only 14 of the 32 NHL teams left out of the post-season that consists of four best-of-seven series, you have to be really bad to miss the chase for the Stanley Cup. So what the NHL calls the seven-month, 82-game “regular season” is in effect is “pre-season” action, designed merely to allow teams to jockey for seeding for a possible 28 post-season games.
Once televised only on networks that nobody ever heard of, the NHL still has problems getting recognized nationally. Despite the best national telecasts in years, the figures still pale those of other sports.
And despite what a few hockey-crazed Pittsburgh sportscasters would have us believe, if the Penguins did not have the two best hockey players in the world, the small but vocal and rabid groupies in Pittsburgh would have no outlet.
Make no mistake about it: The fans in Pittsburgh are PENGUINS fans, not hockey fans. Do you ever hear two of them drooling over a Carolina-San Jose match? After the Pens are eliminated, for most of us Pens fans, it’s as though the NHL stutters its doors until the Pens begin training in September.
Tune in a sports talk show almost anywhere outside of Pittsburgh and try to find hockey talk; it’s like an NBA fan trying to find basketball talk on 93.7 The Fan.
In an effort to get the other 95 percent to notice it, the NHL has turned to gimmicks like expanding its Winter Classic game into six games this year, played in outdoor stadiums. So if these outdoor games are so appealing, why waste hundreds of millions of dollars building new indoor arenas. Let’s play ‘em all outdoors.
The league has also allowed itself to kowtow to the International Olympic Committee by shutting down for almost three weeks every four years. Unlike no other sport, professional hockey shuts down to lend some of its players—151 this year — to the Olympics.
Imagine the NFL taking three weeks off in mid-season. It’s bad enough that Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig’s contrived World Baseball Classic interrupts the first few weeks of spring training every four years.
I’m with Ed Snider, owner of the Philadelphia Flyers, who told Ken Campbell of “The Hockey News” that it’s ridiculous.
“I hate [the Olympics],” Snider said. “I think it's ridiculous to take three weeks off in the middle of the season. No other league does it. Why should we? There's no benefit to us whatsoever. If anything, I can only see negatives.”
Like loads of injuries.
The Pens’ Paul Martin just returned to play earlier this month after being injured in this year’s Olympics. Other injuries were worse:
ä Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg had back surgery due to an injury.
ä New York Islanders’ John Tavares suffered a torn MCL.
ä New York Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello fractured his hand.
And for what?
“First and foremost,” Pittsburgh sports writer Bob Smizik wrote in February, “the NHL looks like a garage league by closing down … just so a small percentage of its players can go off to compete for their respective countries. The NHL is either saying a gold medal is more important than the Stanley Cup or indicating it is so desperate it will do anything for a little attention.”
If the NHL wants to be taken seriously outside of Pittsburgh, dump the outdoor games and let the Olympics return to the “Miracle on Ice” days.
Jim Sankey is a sports columnist for The Allied News.