x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Classic can't hide trouble on the ice

Today the National Hockey League will have it second "Winter Classic". It's hockey outdoors.

Today the National Hockey League will have it second "Winter Classic". It's hockey outdoors. This edition will be at Chicago's legendary Wrigley Field between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings; but the word is that the weather in Chicago is barely cold enough for the outdoor rink to stay solid. Now comes my obvious line?just like the NHL, the "Winter Classic" is on thin ice.

Last year the event was a television ratings winner for the struggling NHL. The 2008 version of the game scored a 2.6 television rating, the highest of any NHL game all season. Again, the outdoor match will duel college football's slew of bowl games also taking place today. The disturbing news for the NHL is that television ratings dropped 18 per cent from 2006-2007 and the future looks just as bleak.

The problem I have with the "Winter Classic" is that the top draw in your sport should not be a gimmick. The NFL never plays games in a cornfield. The NBA played a game outdoors this year, but it didn't outdraw the NBA finals. That being said, what else is there for hockey to do? This sport, which battled baseball, American football and basketball for fans in the 1980s and 90s has become a niche sport. I watch more Major League Soccer matches lately than NHL. I'm even to the point where I cannot find hockey games on TV. After the NHL was dropped by ESPN, the league dropped off the map.

"The general rule of thumb is that the NHL in the US ranks well below football [NFL, college] and baseball, and somewhere below basketball and NASCAR in terms of fan interest," John Rolfe, Sports Illustrated NHL editor said. "It's a niche sport, like soccer, golf or tennis, with a devoted if relatively small following. The NHL in recent years has mostly vanished onto the obscure cable channel Versus, with only the occasional network game on NBC."

The main question is, how did the NHL arrive at this state? You have to go back to 1979 when the legendary Wayne Gretzky broke on to the scene with the Edmonton Oilers. He instantly became the face of the growing league. He was the NHL's first megastar to capture Americans attention. With Gretzky came increased scoring and more exciting play. As he, and others like Mario Lemieux, led the NHL into the prosperous 1980s, expansion to the US followed. When Gretzky moved to theLA Kings in 1988, the NHL reached its zenith.

In 1979 there were 16 teams in the US When Gretzky retired in 1999, the NHL had added six more US teams. The league as a whole went from 21 teams in 1979 to 27 teams in 1999. This worked when Gretzky and Lemieux were entertaining the fans, but when they left, so did the viewers. You combine the loss of the biggest stars with an over- expansion to American cities with little hockey tradition, it was a disaster.

The networks have battled to improve the product, again with gimmicks of a lit up puck to help viewers follow the action. The NHL has always been a league better viewed in person than on TV. Where is the NHL now? It is a second-tier sport and the league has to embrace that. There are stars like Sidney Crosby who have become almost household names, but not even close to the level of Gretzky. The "Winter Classic" will capture some sports fans eyes for a few minutes, this fan included. The NHL is not in danger of falling off the sports map completely. At the same time, if you expect to see another Gretzky golden era, I have bad news for you. Wayne's son is playing high school football right now. Even he passed on hockey.