The Death of Hockey

The changes in the game that are turning it to slush

What if they gave a hockey season and nobody cared? What if the world's most exciting team sport had, over a span of only three or four years, mutated into a dull gray hash that not even the most avid hockey fan could get jazzed up about? Like the sound of a shot thudding against the boards in an empty rink, the problems that plagued the National Hockey League last season continue to echo through the current campaign. Rampant, wrongheaded, talent-diluting expansion . . . increasingly blatant clutch-and-grab tactics and a universal, stifling emphasis on defense . . . the abandonment of cozy, legendary old arenas for gigantic, sterile mega- stadiums . . . the jilting of loyal, knowledgeable fans in the game's traditional northern centers for the antic pursuit of theoretical fans in the hockey wasteland of the American Sun Belt.

All these things, and more, have returned the game to the marginality from which it emerged during its brief efflorescence as the "hot" sport of the mid '90s. Meanwhile, attendance dwindles (12 teams show a drop-off from last year) and TV ratings plummet (Fox NHL telecasts have lost a third of their viewers over the last three years while ESPN's audience declined 13 percent last year alone. Even among teenage males, viewership fell off by some 40 percent from '97 to '98). Now, word has begun filtering out of business offices that merchandising and licensing fees are also dropping like a stone. And while you're at it, pick up any daily paper in town and try finding the story on last night's Rangers game. It'll be short and buried deep inside, shoehorned in like an afterthought, even though the NBA lockout has left vast swaths of column inches vacant and available.

To gauge the cultural closet into which hockey is now bundled away, we must turn to that dependable barometer of public opinion: the late-night talk show. In this case, David Letterman on November 5.

After the monologue, Letterman goes into the audience to play "Know Your Current Events." The last contestant is a middle-aged guy originally from Pittsburgh, who's wearing a Penguins team jacket. Dave asks him how the Pens are doing. Not bad, says the guy, who quickly adds that he now lives in Atlanta and is looking forward to seeing the Thrashers— "named for the state bird!"— play.

"They're not playing yet, are they?" asks Dave, " 'Cuz Atlanta, I know, used to have the Flames. But they moved, to, ah, Calgary— right?"

"That's right," says the guy, "they start next year."

"So now you've got, what, minor league hockey?" And Dave turns variously to the camera and the audience and adds, "Minor league hockey . . . in Atlanta . . . whoo! That's a hot ticket!"

The crowd chuckles derisively, and Dave turns back to the guy, who's chuckling himself. "Uh, let's get to the game," says Dave. "And well! This should be right up your alley!"

An ice-level photo of the Rangers in action flashes onto the screen as Dave reads the quiz question: "With hockey now in its fourth week, it's time for hockey fans to do what?"

The guy has a reply in a split second— "Start watching college basketball?"

Dave takes a beat to react, then starts laughing himself. "No, but that's pretty good! The answer, though: 'With hockey now in its fourth week, it's time for hockey fans to do what?' Say, 'Wow, hockey started?' Biff, send him to dinner!"

That's what the NHL gets when it serves up a steady diet of Phoenix Coyotes vs. Carolina Hurricanes, allows the Stanley Cup playoffs to meander lazily into mid June, and permits the league to bloat to a ghastly 27 teams (30 by 2000­01!), so that a marginal forward like Todd Harvey can join the Rangers and seem like a Meaningful New Addition, and the Islanders can run up a halfway decent record with— quick! who's in their lineup? go ahead, name one New York Islander!— exactly nobody of note on the roster.

So while the league did make a few sensible off-season moves— goalies are no longer permitted to wear I-beam shoulder pads and size-64 muumuu-style sweaters (but the pads and gloves are still waaay too big), and new discipline czar Colie Campbell is truly cracking down on slew-footing (knocking an opponent's skates out from under him) and high-sticking— none really addresses the crisis that has befallen the game.

So far in 1998­99, play looks just as sluggish and dismal as ever, and scoring lags behind even last season's 40-year low— teams are combiningfor a paltry 5.1 goals per game, which projects to the lowest average figure since 1956. Until the league truly cleans up the endless obstruction fouls and violent play— instituting a genuine zero-tolerance policy on holding, hooking, and interference that would probably result in several weeks, and possibly several years, of three-on-three play and a waiting list at the penalty box— the slow dance of clutch-and-grab on the ice will drag on indefinitely. And what, pray tell, is the league going to do about the overlong schedule, the overlong playoffs, the overlarge league, and the disappearance of teams from real hockey cities and their replacement by teams in sunbaked Southern sprawls where the NHL fills the arena dates between tractor pulls?

But hockey fans should look on the bright side. At least Fox's glowing puck is dead.

Maybe the perception that hockey has gotten really dismal is fueled by the condition of our local teams. In fact, you could argue that the Rangers, Islanders, and Devils represent the current sad state of hockey in microcosm.

Consider: the Rangers are 6-9-7 as we write this, in last place in whatever the hell the old Patrick Division is being called these days. They have Wayne Gretzky, still fabulous at age 37 and in his 21st year as a pro— a bit too reluctant to shoot, perhaps, but nevertheless distributing impossibly creative passes to teammates who always, always, miss the puck entirely, bumble it away with hands of cement, or fire it wide, high, weakly, or not at all. Alas, the Rangers are old, boring, and populated by far too many nondescript types who, in any other era, would be playing in the Central Hockey League. They represent all that is wrong with the NHL today.

No, the Islanders represent all that is wrong with hockey today. Their owners have thrown an absurd, months-long tantrum over the lease for the "antiquated" 26-year-old Nassau Coliseum, and now the club that once won four straight Stanley Cups with perhaps the greatest lineup ever assembled, plays before vast seas of empty seats. Before long, they, too, may be headed for some horrible new destination. Jacksonville? San Antonio? Utah?

Actually, it's the Devils that represent all that is wrong with hockey today. If a fan were to remember that the Devils exist and glance at the standings, he or she would find that they are in first place with a healthy 13-7-1 record, are among the league leaders in defense— and are among the least productive on the attack. This exciting team has found success by scoring a whopping 2.45 goals per game. As so many Garden Staters know intuitively anyway, boredom, tedium, and, um, tedium are a winning formula in New Jersey.

Well, gotta run. Tampa Bay vs. San Jose is on the TV. Don't want to miss that one.

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