For many years, the image of pro hockey and the NHL could be boiled down to this one-liner from the late, great Rodney Dangerfield: “I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out.”
For those who know and love the game, hockey has always been so much more than boxing on ice. First, I don’t think there has ever been enough appreciation for the fact that hockey players have to master an alien form of human transportation. If you thought Michael Jordan looked silly trying to hit a curveball for the White Sox in Class AA baseball, imagine him on skates trying to elude a 200-pound defenseman.
Second, like NFL football, the sport is equal parts artistry and ferocity. Which league’s players are toughest? That’s a debate better left for a venue with stools, taps and lots of TVs. But here’s one talking point: Hockey has no out of bounds. Any Franco Harrises need not apply.
Last, NHL players have always enjoyed a more down-to-earth image than other pro athletes. I’ve always thought the idea that hockey players work in “shifts” gives the sport more of a lunch-bucket feel.
But there is that other thing in hockey the others don’t have, and that’s legalized fighting. If an NBA player takes a swing at an opponent on the court, he’s looking at fines, suspensions and a possible onslaught of negative press. Same for a batter who charges the mound in baseball, or a football player who keeps hitting after the whistle.
When the New England Patriots’ Matt Light and the Miami Dolphins’ Channing Crowder squared off in a fight during a game in Miami this year, CBS’s Dan Dierdorf said, “When punches get traded in the National Football League, somebody’s leaving. … This is not tolerated. This is not hockey.”
He’s right. When punches get traded in the NHL, everyone goes home a little happier. Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL board of governors obviously realize that banning fighting would result in near total alienation of the sport’s traditional fan base. Therefore, the typical hockey fight still draws just major penalties and nothing more.
But something happened in the past month that has changed the public context of the NHL’s fighting debate. Don Sanderson, a 21-year-old player in Ontario’s Senior AAA amateur league, died Jan. 2 from injuries sustained during a hockey fight.
This tragedy may have strengthened opponents’ arguments, but it did nothing to quell passions on both sides. Those passions were evident in a between-periods debate during NBC’s regular-season NHL kickoff Jan. 18 between Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire. While the blog Awful Announcing saw some of it as “fake anger,” I saw it as two guys who love hockey getting genuinely heated over what’s best for the game.
Here are some highlights.
McGuire: “It’s about time that everybody gets their head out of the sand. Somebody is going to die. … Just evaluate how important fighting is to the well-being of the game.”
Milbury: “You’re just another guy who wants to pansify the sport, Pierre. … Hockey fights [take] about half the time you used to describe it and they’re twice as much fun. … I’m all about keeping the honorable fight in the sport. There’s no question, it’s about obeying rules of honor.” For good measure, Milbury (channeling Don Cherry?) called McGuire a “flower child” and suggested his “little spiel” would have been better with Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” as a soundtrack.
Just when it looked like Milbury was going to win on points, McGuire hit him with a haymaker. When Milbury went to an old favorite of traditionalists, “Nobody’s ever been killed in a fight in hockey,” McGuire jumped on him. “What? It just happened! What are you talking about? You’re wrong.” Milbury tried to clarify his comment with “professional hockey.”
Milbury later read NBC Sports’ poll results that showed fans supporting fighting 84 percent to 16 percent (or as he said, “dinosaur people over the granola people by a big margin.”) But it was McGuire’s words — “Somebody is going to die” — that lingered in this viewer’s mind. The hardest question for Milbury and other traditionalists to answer is this: Are they willing to see someone die for the right to defend their team’s honor by fighting on ice?
On his XM Satellite Radio show on Jan. 16 (heard via podcast), Bettman addressed the issue. “There’s never been an overwhelming consensus at the NHL level to support a fundamental change in terms of how this league has addressed the issue and dealt with fighting,” he said. But he quickly added he expected the issue to be re-evaluated in light of Sanderson’s death, albeit in a “very deliberative way.”
Campaign strategists and pollsters know that you don’t move voters from one position to another overnight. Typically, there is a stopover at “undecided.” How about the Lords of the Boards? With Sanderson’s death making the previously improbable suddenly seem very real, Bettman and NHL owners must acknowledge what a similarly tragic incident would mean for the league. NHL hockey, as we know it, would be as dead as the dinosaurs.
THE FAULT IS NOT IN OUR STARS: Last week in SportsBusiness Journal, Eric Fisher reported that Turner and Fox executives used MLB’s recent owners meetings to push the league for changes in MLB playoff coverage, with start times a prime topic. That’s welcome news.
But something that Fox’s Ed Goren also said was way off base. In the piece, Goren added, “People watch the Super Bowl regardless of who’s playing, and once upon a time, the same could be said for the World Series. So we’d like to see baseball build up more stars and national awareness.”
Marketing of baseball’s stars is not the World Series’ problem. Throughout the years, the World Series has made its own stars. MLB’s ratings problems have more to do with the pace of the game, completely at odds with the amped-up speed of today’s media world.
Fox is great at turning MLB’s slow pace into a positive in key moments, with crowd and dugout shots that build anticipation. But fans tuning in to a game want to see those stars do something more than fix their batting gloves and get in and out of the batter’s box.
Work together to speed up the game first, blame the marketing second.
Steve Bilafer is founding editor of SportsBusiness Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.