For a few blessed days during the Winter Olympics in Nagano, hockey was what it should be: a cult game viewed in the wee hours by a devoted bunch of nuts.
Of course, that’s not the way the Nagano experiment was supposed to go. In the months leading up to the so-called Dream Tournament, which featured-for the first time-National Hockey League players in the uniforms of their respective countries, N.H.L. commissioner Gary Bettman had touted the Games as a chance to showcase the sport. He also hoped to foster an advertising bonanza like the one that accompanied the National Basketball Association’s Dream Team in the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. That is, after all, his job-to increase interest in the game. Which is another way of saying that he was hired to help enrich franchise owners.
But not much in the way of enrichment took place in Nagano.
Instead, a series of foul-ups and unlucky breaks, some preventable, some not, turned the Dream Tournament experiment into a nightmare of bad ratings, poor public relations and, worst of all, tribal comeuppance. The fact that the games were good meant nothing, since (a) they were on TV after midnight, and (b) the wrong guys kept winning. Team U.S.A.’s brutes got whipped by the elegant and disciplined Slavs. They underachieved between the hours of midnight and 4 A.M., Eastern standard time, then graciously trashed furniture in the Olympic village, and thus turned off all those potential fans, advertisers and other potential sources of new revenue.
So it looks like another hockey boom has come to an end. And those of us who love the game ought to be thankful.
Mr. Bettman covets the big-money TV contracts of the N.B.A. and the National Football League; in fact, he would like to remake the N.H.L. in those leagues’ image. Until recently, hockey has managed to avoid being turned into a crass megabusinesses, filled with greedy athletes and advertisement-riddled broadcasts. Indeed, one of the game’s virtues has always been the modest prairie-boy integrity of its athletes and their childlike devotion to the game.
But this season, more than any other, the N.H.L. began to resemble its big-money rivals. Star contract holdouts (Sergei Federov, Paul Kariya), TV junk (Fox Sports’ clueless broadcasts) and dull clutch-and-grab contests have prompted even the stodgiest of hockey sages to consider drastic changes in the rules.
Fortunately, for all Mr. Bettman’s strenuous efforts to turn hockey into a hot commodity, the game remains a marginal form of entertainment, like cockfights or poetry. It’s a B-movie-with subtitles. There’s art in the gore, but you have to know where to look. Over the years, there have been times when new American fans caught on: 30 years ago, during the career of Bobby Orr; in the wake of Team U.S.A.’s victory in the 1980 Olympics; when Wayne Gretzky, the game’s tireless ambassador, went to play for the Los Angeles Kings; most recently, when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994. But such boomlets have never even come close to turning the game into the TV juggernaut its keepers would like it to be. Thus the game, to those who like it, has continued to be pleasantly immune to its era.
How many hockey-boom false alarms must we suffer through before the guardians of the game realize that the masses who pay attention to basketball games and stock-car races just can’t be tricked into caring about Canadians, Swedes, Russians and Southies whizzing around on skates?
Since Mr. Bettman, a former N.B.A. executive, took over in 1993, he has subjected the game to marketing experiments and revenue enhancements that have managed to drive the purists bonkers without really increasing the game’s profile-third jerseys, pucks that glow on TV, dancing robots. A good marketer can sell anything. A bad marketer will just drive everyone nuts.
Mr. Bettman’s central tenet is league expansion, especially in the Sun Belt. Next year there will be new teams in Nashville and in Columbus, Ohio. The owners slobber over the expansion fees, the league reaches into new TV markets, and the fans start wondering why there are so many crappy games on TV. At a time when nearly everyone (players, executives, fans) complains that the games have gotten dull, the league is threatening to make them even more so by diluting the talent even further.
In 1994, early in Mr. Bettman’s tenure, it looked like he might take the game to new heights. When the Rangers won the Stanley Cup that spring, hockey became the toast of the nation. All the stars were aligned. The N.H.L. had a champion based in the media capital, a hero with a great face (Mark Messier) and a rival league, the N.B.A., smarting from the temporary retirement of Michael Jordan. Sports Illustrated ran a cover with the line “Why the N.H.L.’s Hot and the N.B.A.’s Not.” But the following season opened with a labor lockout that lasted months. After play resumed in the winter of 1995, Michael Jordan came back and the New Jersey Devils, a dull and faceless team, emerged as the best team in the league. The Coolest Game on Earth had gone cold again.
Now the Rangers are having a miserable season, and the United States Olympic team, on whose shoulder pads so many hopes were heaped, not only lost, but lost sorely, endearing themselves to no one. Mr. Bettman’s latest campaign is now staggering. “The combination of the United States sucking and the Rangers sucking is a bad thing for hockey,” said one executive at IMG, the sports marketing firm.
But if you’re in the stands and not in the marketing business, bad means good, and good means bad.