A Message For The NHL’s 2012 Playoff TV Ratings Critics
If there’s one thing that chaps me about the NHL’s critics, it’s their constant evaluation of playoff ratings, and assessment of hockey being “boring” because of low TV numbers.
The Los Angeles Kings/New Jersey Devils Stanley Cup Final isn’t producing the numbers that Boston/Vancouver did last year, and it’s not beating the NBA’s ratings either (this year’s game 6 ratings were actually better than last year, and the LA Kings owned social media interaction, but those are just details).
Well boo f’n hoo.
Look, I get it — the NHL is a business that sells the product of hockey to fans, advertisers, TV networks and the rest, and thusly it has to put a show on TV that a lot of people watch in order to swoon money away from all the afore mentioned parties. Fine.
Back in the day, the league scrambled to regain its post-lockout fan base, and was desperate to lure them back. Fans, viewers, and advertisers alike drooled over the “new NHL” that they were rewarded with, and ever since the NHL has seen its ratings and fan base grow exponentially. New rules were put in place to allow players more time and space to score, and impeding their progress was heavily penalized for the slightest obstructions. Players were paraded to the penalty box, and special teams dominated ice time. Goalies had their pad size decreased, got confined to a trapezoid shape around their net, and rightfully started getting lit up. Fighting became increasingly criticized, and thusly enforcers who contributed nothing besides their fists were put on notice that their services were far less necessary. Fans who came to see boxing matches were disappointed when the only thing that broke out was a hockey game.
Supposedly, the game was fun to watch “again” (it never wasn’t), and everyone seemed happy — except for goalies, tough-guys, all non-elite scorers who had to make defensive adjustments in their game to survive in the league, and also some elite players that took the retirement option rather than the adjustment one – well, everyone except most of the players, that is. So basically no one in the game was better for it, but all in the name of increased ratings and entertainment; everyone from the ground up made adjustments to produce a more entertaining on-ice product because the agreed consensus was it was a necessary evil.
But here’s the thing: you can modify the rules of the game and try to weed certain aspects/players out all you want, but eventually hockey players will adapt, survive, and thrive. Very few players really care if you find them entertaining or not (save for Sean Avery, et al), they just want to play the game they love, not get cut, make tons of money, and win. But they are aware of how their inflated salaries are funded.
Goalies are probably the best example of all – in the 80’s, scoring was probably at an all-time high, as Wayne Gretzky and others were making a mockery of modern goaltending by scoring 200 points in single seasons. Eventually, goalies got hip to it, bought bigger pads, invested themselves in honing their craft, and developed new styles of goaltending (see: Patrick Roy) that became the standard to learn from. Goaltenders even started handling the puck as well as some players, and scored goals (see: Martin Brodeur, Ron Rextall, etc).
In short, goalies got really good at stopping the puck, and scoring went down. Goalies were so good, people started to prefix Gretzky’s scoring triumphs with an asterix, because apparently they were achieved under crooked terms (despite the fact that legends like Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau and Rocket Richard scored and set records on even worse goalies).
Talented goalies became a “threat” to the product of hockey; so almost as a punishment for getting so good at their position, goalies had to downsize their equipment, stay in a smaller space, and endure ongoing threats of making their nets bigger and other absurdities. All in the name of entertainment.
So they made the adjustments, scoring went up, and everyone was happy — for a while. That is, until goaltenders like Jonathan Quick, Pekke Rinne, Tim Thomas, and an apparently ageless Martin Brodeur were able to adapt, survive, and thrive — and stop a lot of goals from going in.
And once again, people complain that hockey is boring because they don’t get to see 20 goals go in every night – the same thing they criticize the last generation for being able to do — despite the fact that the stars of this generation like Sidney Crosby, Alex Oveckin, Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux and others still score the way Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman, and Hull were able to in the previous one. Either you want today’s elite to score 50 goals in 50 games, or you don’t, pick your side.
The casual fan that the NHL tries so hard to entice into becoming a viewer/customer doesn’t get that every level of hockey player would kill to crack an NHL lineup, if only as a fourth line player whose job description is limited to getting the puck over the center line and dumping it in the other team’s zone and changing. They don’t get that playing defensive and positional hockey is as important as scoring goals in some scenarios,
They don’t get that the players they view as “boring” have been playing the game since they were able to walk, travelled a million miles through every small town in the world, had coaches bench them, been told they weren’t good enough, been cut from teams, put in 1000’s of hours in the gym, spent 1000’s of dollars on equipment and training, gave up summers to devote to self-improvement, studied the game, learned to get better at their position, fought, injured every bone and muscle in their body, and have basically done everything it takes to just be a “boring” player. Casual fans don’t understand why every player isn’t as flashy as Crosby or Ovechkin. They don’t get the thrill of skating down open ice on a breakaway, making a crisp pass that sticks where it’s supposed to, making a big body check, having anywhere from 20 to 20,000 people cheering or booing you, or just how electrifying it is to be better than the other 11 players on the ice for one brief moment and score a goal.
And they’re shocked and appalled when playoff hockey success becomes defined by grit, toughness, and will, rather than the finesse and freewheeling they see all year. They don’t like that prominent regular season scorers like the Sedin’s get roughed up in the playoffs and can’t score as often. This is the way the NHL has always been, and always will be. Through all the concessions of tweaks and modifications they make, the league works hard to protect its roots. The NHL’s regular season is a show, the playoffs are a showdown. Playoff hockey is the real version of hockey, played in the key that every young player was taught by every coach they ever had. Playoff hockey is about two teams battling through everything the other throws at them, and scoring more goals than them by any means necessary. Every pro, college, junior, and minor hockey player know that a switch gets flipped come playoff time.
They want more penalties called because they think it’ll make the game faster and improve its flow – because, you know, nothing keeps the game moving like 50 stoppages of play per game to call penalties. And if they don’t see the penalties called that they are assessing from the comfort of their couch, some have the audacity to claim hockey is rigged. Come on.
Casual fans don’t get it because they’ve never done it. They’ve never been in those situations, and likely never will. Heck, I’d wager a good number of people calling hockey boring can’t even stand up on skates. The NHL isn’t trying to appeal solely to former players, it’s just that people who’ve played know what’s really going on out there, and have a better grasp on how to emotionally engage the game.
To be fair, there are some great minds in hockey that never did ever lace up in the NHL – Bob McKenzie, Darren Dreger, James Duthie, Elliotte Friedman, and plenty others like them know their stats and inside information, no question – but the thing about stats and averages is that they may tell a good story, they can’t ever fully predict the happenings of a game as unpredictable as hockey is from shift to shift. Again, hats off to the insiders, but guys that have been on the ice immersed in those situations insiders try to predict the outcome of – guys like Ray Ferraro, Kelly Hrudey, Jeremy Roenick, Nick Kypreos, and up and comers like Justin Bourne – are the ones I’m going to lend my ear to when I really want to know what’s going through players’ heads. But that’s just me.
Inclusion may be the root of the entire problem – hockey is far more difficult to get involved in than other sports; you have to buy a lot of pricy equipment, plus facility and registration fees are high, whereas participation in sports like soccer and others require very little besides a ball and a sunny day. If there were as many grassroots hockey players worldwide as there are soccer players, maybe we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
So many exciting storylines have developed through these playoffs: LA entered as an eighth seed and dominated top teams, their incredible road victory record, the emergence of Jonathan Quick as an elite goaltender, Dustin Brown’s prominence and then disappearance, Dustin Penner’s redemption, the Radulov and Kostitsyn debacle in Nashville, Phoenix going farther than its franchise ever has and the fall out of their elimination, Martin Brodeur being 40 years old and still making ridiculous saves, Washington’s ongoing Ovechkin/coaching saga, Claude Giroux leading the playoffs in scoring while his team was eliminated for an entire round, every Tortorella post-game interview, and many more beyond those.
In the finals themselves, the first two games were decided in overtime, saw Kopitar score exciting goals, and now is featuring aNew Jerseycomeback when it seemed at first sight that LA was going to sweep the series. If overtime isn’t exciting enough for you, there’s even a plethora of Hollywood stars and other famous people attending games if straight-up hockey isn’t good enough for you – heck, even TMZ is covering stars attending Kings games/events.
But beyond all that still, you have two teams of players and coaches who are playing through pain and doing whatever it takes to accomplish what they’ve wanted to do since they were kids: win the Stanley Cup. It’s still the most difficult trophy to win in sports, and the lifelong goal of every person who’s laced up a pair of skates. To capture it is nothing short of a feat.
Anyone who doesn’t find entertainment in this extravaganza just doesn’t get hockey, and probably never will. The NHL wouldn’t agree with this, but if you’re reading this and are still one of the people calling hockey boring, please by all means, go watch basketball.