Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What Game 7 Means For Hockey

Let's face it: since the lockout, things just haven't been the same for the NHL. To paraphrase from league commissioner and Cornell graduate (cough) Gary Bettman, the NHL needed a lockout because the league could not survive without making fundamental changes. When hockey returned it 2005, it reemerged better than it was before. But not without a cost. Loyal fans stuck around, and perhaps some new fans started paying attention. But the casual fan, a substantial demographic, was lost.

No loss was more detrimental to the NHL than that of #1 casual fan ESPN. After the lockout, America's biggest sports network decided not to renew its agreement with the NHL, forcing hockey to make its triumphant return on the not-so-triumphant Channel Formerly Known as Outdoor Life Network. Since then, the NHL has faced an uphill climb.

It's not just that ESPN stopped carrying games. Anyone (with the right cable provider) can still find a weeknight game on Versus, and NBC offers a nationally televised game each week. But when ESPN turned its back on hockey, they took away the hype. Instead of showing game highlights over the past six years, the network has opted for fluff pieces. Hell, yesterday Sports Center's game seven - game seven - preview lasted about as long as Herm Edwards' pep talk for LeBron James (who, last I checked, does not play football).

Still, hockey built some momentum two winters ago, when the United States and Canada went to sudden death overtime for the gold medal. Tonight, once again in Vancouver, we'll see one of the most compelling hockey games of our generation when the Bruins and Canucks go head-to-head in a "best of one" for the Stanley Cup. This series has had it all - constant scraps, big goals, overtime, biting, injuries, suspensions, unbelievable saves, guarantees, and a whole lot of outstanding hockey. Still, I'll be surprised - nay, shocked - if game seven isn't the best contest yet.

To say everyone will be watching would be a rash use of hyperbole. But to put it more truthfully: anyone who would consider tuning into a hockey game will catch at least part of the game tonight. There won't be a better game to watch for years. And this means big things for the NHL. If the Bruins and Canucks deliver, the NBC-Comcast merger leads to a better branded NBC Sports Network, and ESPN continues to ignore highlights and in favor of sports soap operas...who knows, we could have two competing national sports networks in just a few years' time.

Move over NFL labor dispute and Miami Heat fallout. Tonight, all eyes are on the NHL.

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