Start fixing the winter sports

With a deafening silence and a thunderous roar of indifference the National Hockey League season has come to a merciful end. Which means, above all, that the National Basketball Association season, currently being played out in splendid isolation, can’t be far behind. For this, tens of millions will stand up and cheer.

It raises a classical question in a variation of that old existentialist dilemma about the fallen tree in the distant forest. If both of the winter sporting campaigns end and nobody notices does that mean they never really happened?

Two years from now how many people who do not live in Montreal, Toronto, or Anaheim will be able to answer the question, ‘‘Who won the 2007 Stanley Cup?’’ Or in even less time will there be general agreement that the Cleveland Cavaliers were the worst team ever to grace the NBA finals?

It may be the most important sports story of this year thus far and the fact that it is being so lightly discussed in the mainstream jock media seems a tad amazing. Are the two great winter games that have long been charter members of “the four majors” sliding toward irrelevance? Does anybody care anymore? The “numbers” say “No” and in this age wherein television ratings are considered the definitive measure of consumer interest and demand, it is always about the “numbers.”

In the NBA, shocking dips in the regular season figures led to alarming drops during the preliminary playoff rounds followed by an historic ratings humiliation in game one of the finals. Whereupon the Spurs-Cavs hassle faced the indignity of getting buried in a head-to-head match-up with the Sopranos in game two. When the crown jewel event of an institution as towering in stature as the NBA is horrified by the prospect of competing with a vulgar, soap opera that panders to the basest instincts and is polluted with gutter level violence you know something seismic is happening in the culture.

The upheaval has been building for years and the reasons are endless. Critics of the NBA’s plodding, predictable, style multiply annually. The college game shames the NBA. The league lacks personality. Marquee players are few. Too many have too much baggage. Traditional powers (like Boston) with the largest and most fervent followings are on the skids. The problems were exacerbated this year by the unattractive pairing in the Finals. Aside from the masterful Le-Bron James, every member of the Cavs’ squad is a complete stranger even to hoop junkies. San Antonio’s Spurs, the reigning titan and presumed titlist, are widely disliked. The scandal in the semi-finals when sheer thuggery committed by the Spurs was effectively rewarded by the league’s commissioner turned off many non-aligned and casual fans whose vast numbers are vital to the ratings. If his finals are bombing, David Stern can lay much of the blame on himself.

But the NBA is in hog heaven compared with its hockey brother, the NHL where what is happening is enough to make old-time believers in this wonderfully Spartan winter game -- and for the record I do count myself as one of them -- cringe in utter embarrassment. Internationally, hockey thrives on many levels. But as a largely American based sports entertainment venue represented by the inept National Hockey League it may be dead. Is that straight enough for you? Painful or otherwise this needs to be acknowledged, at long last.

The numbers this year were appalling. Buried on an obscure cable outlet that only a fifth of the nation’s homes receive the NHL becomes a national joke as regular offerings lag in viewers well behind poker, women’s basketball, college baseball and even logrolling and arm-wrestling. In a deeply agonizing incident, NBC bails out of a sizzling conference final between Buffalo and Ottawa during an intensely dramatic overtime in order to present and long and tedious pre-race preamble to the Preakness. The horse race proceeds to draw five times as many viewers as the Sabers-Senators match making hockey the laughingstock of the sporting world. But there’s worse to come. It seems the ultimate insult is finally realized when the first game of the Cup finals trails a Food Network show titled, “Building a Better Burger.” Wrong! In game two, 220,000 viewers are lost and hockey drops 30 more rungs on the ratings’ ladder. With barely a half million people in the entire nation watching, the series moves back to NBC where it achieves the worst rating for a sporting event in the history of that mighty and venerable network. The disaster is complete.

It’s too bad because in the midst of all this nonsense and confusion, some pretty nice sporting fare got overlooked or minimized. Once an almost cartoonish creation of the voracious Disney entertainment juggernaut, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks under GM Brian Burke and Coach Randy Carlyle have become a serious and mighty fine hockey team. While hardly great, the finals were spirited and often furious. Ottawa was worthy but the Ducks anchored by a couple of superb defensemen, Chris Pronger and Scott Neidermayer, were bigger, stronger, tougher, swifter, meaner, simply better, and even displayed more elan. In the end, it was a good show, albeit quite one-sided.

The Ducks were deserving. But Anaheim as the crown capital of the game of hockey? Even for a year? Give me a break! It had taken four full decades for the Stanley Cup to land on the West Coast. But it was nonetheless much, much too soon.

The Cup doesn’t belong in La La Land in the custody of a team called “the Ducks.” That’s why the vast majority of those pathetic few thousands scattered about the entire country who stayed with the chase throughout -- (ratings be danged) -- were pulling mightily for the Senators even though their roster was largely glutted with Swedes, Russians and American college kids. Ottawa should have won. Given the choice, I’d pull for a Canadian team every single time.

How to fix pro-basketball is well beyond my scope. But solutions for repairing hockey or at least stemming the hemorrhaging tumble freely for the issue really isn’t terribly complex.

First and foremost play hockey where it belongs, which is in places like Quebec City, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, or even Thunder Bay, but NOT in Nashville, Phoenix, Miami, Anaheim or even Columbus, Ohio. Back off this foolish notion that you can nationalize the game in the United States by subsidizing teams the length and breadth of the Sunbelt. You may be able to sellout a building in Dallas or Raleigh but you are never going to impact the culture of regions filled with people who have never played the game, owned a pair of skates, or seen a patch of ice. Quit trying to sell your soul for a national television contract. You can begin by slashing six teams immediately. But if you really want to get serious, 14 should go. In the meantime, let’s go back to having one referee. And then we’ll deal with the rulebook. All of this being, of course, just for openers.

Fat chance! There will be no change in policy and direction as long as Gary Bettman, the basketball man and ex-henchman of David Stern, remains the NHL czar. Case in point is the issue of what to do with the excellent but nearly bankrupt Nashville franchise whose owner is bummed out and determined to get out. A powerful and well-heeled Canadian businessman wants to buy the Predators and move them to the Hamilton-Kitchener area, a hockey hotbed just south of Toronto. But Bettman reportedly is determined to force a deal that would relocate the Preds in Kansas City where, as you know, everything is up to date but no one has played or seen a hockey game since the remnants of the last NHL franchise to fail there were carted off some 30 years ago.

It is an idiotic position that Bettman is taking. But then, you see, that is precisely the problem. We congratulate the Ducks. But we weep for their game.

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