Herald Journal Columns
June 5, 2006, Herald Journal / Enterprise Dispatch

Where have all the hockey fans gone?

By Matt Kane

In case you didn’t realize it, it is still hockey season.

The Stanley Cup finals begin tonight between the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes, but, unfortunately, it seems nobody outside of the participating markets cares or even realizes this.

Here, we Minnesotans brag about being the State of Hockey, but I haven’t heard one question, comment or discussion concerning the NHL playoffs.

I take that back, my brother always brings me up to date on who is playing via phone calls, and every now and then there is a segment of hockey talk on the radio, but outside of those outlets I have heard nothing about hockey.

I am actually embarrassed for myself. Growing up in Minnesota, I always bragged about being a hockey guy when living in Florida, but now, since I have been back home, I have watched less hockey than when living in the Sunshine State.

I blame this on the lack of media coverage the sport has gotten since its return from a year-long strike.

This isn’t blaming my colleagues in the larger markets. I think the blame should go to the National Hockey League, itself.

When coming off a low point in the league’s history — the 2004 strike — one would think the NHL would do all it could to promote the product on the ice.

The NHL came out with new rules and orders to enforce more closely the already existing rules, and, from the games I have watched this season, these changes have been for the better.

Once again, we were able to see the true skills of veterans Jaromir Jagre (New York Rangers) and Teemu Selanne (Anaheim Mighty Ducks), and at the same time, we saw the offensive skill of the younger players like Pittsburgh’s Syndey Crosby and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin on display.

In recent years past, these offensive players would have been clutched and grabbed during their entire skate down the rink, leaving them no energy to put a double-deke on the goaltender on the other end.

We may not be in an era like the 1980s, when guys like Wayne Gretzkey, Brett Hull and Mario Lemieux were scoring 80-plus goals a year, but there were five 50-plus goal scorers in the regular season this year. And goal-scoring draws fans.

To the arena, that is.

Goals would also draw fans to their television sets, the only problem is they don’t know where to turn the channel to.

This was the biggest mistake made by the NHL in the post-strike season.

If it wanted to attract the fans back to the game, the league needed to offer everything it could to these fans. The biggest thing they could have done is put the games back on ESPN, where they had been played for years before the lost season.

Even if the league would have had to taken a financial hit immediately, just seeing the NHL on a major television station would have brought back the attention to hockey.

Instead, the games were played on the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), a channel not offered by a number of cable outlets.

Odds are, if I would have come across an NHL game on ESPN while channel surfing, I would have stopped to watch. That wasn’t the case this regular season.

I never remembered what channel number OLN was, and when searching for it, I was often attracted to another show I spotted en route to the hockey game.

I never used to be distracted during the NHL playoffs, and even remember staying up ‘til the wee hours of the morning watching a triple-overtime thriller. Maybe that’s what I need — just to sit down and watch a classic — to get me hooked again.

I hope I can get hooked on the Stanley Cup finals, for it is probably the most exciting postseason tournament in all of sports. I feel I owe it to myself as a hockey fan, but as a baseball fan, too, I am afraid an early-season Twins game will peak my interest more than the race for the cup.

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