Sportswriters Size Up the NHL

ALTHOUGH hockey is the most international in makeup of all major-league team sports in North America, the National Hockey League does not enjoy an especially progressive image.

Many claim it still condones fighting, lags in marketing, and suffers from a shortsighted American TV deal that affords limited cable exposure. It's often perceived as out-of-touch when it comes to labor relations. In fact, players are threatening to walk out just as the league's 75th anniversary season ends and the playoffs are set to begin.

Recently, I phoned a group of seasoned NHL reporters and asked them to share their observations on the league and where it may be headed. Excerpts from separate interviews follow.

Is the NHL still a fighting, brawling league?

Kevin Paul Dupont (Boston Globe): It's cleaned up significantly. The big brawl is very much out of the norm now, but there are still one-on-one fights. I don't like it, but I think a lot of people do. And that's what probably prevents the league from outlawing it. To an extent they're giving people what they want.

Kevin Allen (USA Today): Actually, there were more brawls in baseball last year that emptied the benches than in hockey. Still, it is the only major sport that tolerates fighting.

Mark Spector (Edmonton [Alberta] Journal): There are a lot of factions in the NHL that would like to see fighting banned outright because they feel it's possibly standing in the way of the league getting a TV contract in the States.

Al Strachan (The Globe and Mail, Toronto): The penalties haven't been as severe in hockey as they have been in other sports, but every year they do get more severe. I think we'll see the time, within five years at most, when if you fight you get tossed out of the game.

How else has the NHL game changed?

Allen: It's a real high-level skill game played at a much faster pace. It's almost warp speed at times. They talk about how goaltenders used to play without masks, but players shoot so much harder now and skate so much faster. Back then, the puck was floating up there like a knuckleball. [Now,] skaters let go with 90-m.p.h. slap shots while skating at 25 m.p.h. It's pretty amazing.

NHL rosters are probably more multinational than those of any other league in North America. Has this helped?

Scott Morrison (Toronto Sun): It has allowed expansion over the years and the quality [of play] to stay high. It's opened up new reservoirs of talent.

Allen: The style in Europe produces more skilled players than we do [in North America], where there's so much banging. There's a bigger ice rink over there [editor's note: 17 feet wider], more skating, and they spend more time on individual skills than we do.

What is hockey's appeal?

Dupont: The sport itself is humbling. It's the hardest of the four [major] pro sports to play, given that you have to have great balance, great athleticism, and you have to do all this on blades.

Strachan: Hockey's got enough scoring to make it interesting, unlike soccer, but not so much scoring like basketball that it's just one endless parade of scoring. It's got bodily contact and it's got the best athletes of any sport as far as promoting their own sport and being accessible and accommodating and intelligent and articulate. Hockey players just seem to be genuine, down-to-earth, basic people, for the most part.

Hockey has a strong, loyal following, but a smaller one than other professional team sports. Is that changing?

Morrison: In the States, it's still regionalized. Where the NHL has made huge strides is in California.

Strachan: It's understood that the next expansion [beyond Ottawa, Ontario, and Tampa, Fla., next season] will be totally on the West Coast, almost certainly Seattle and San Diego. In a sense, the league is getting rid of its provincialism, but it's still a very high-profile sport in some areas and a no-profile sport in others.

Spector: It's a slow process to bring what is basically a foreign game into some places. But the image of the league is tied directly to its exposure and acceptance in the United States.

Does the thought of the league catering to the American public bother Canadians?

Spector: It's the rules of the financial game. In order to grow financially, you need TV money. And in order to get TV money you need to get into the States.

What could give the sport a wider audience?

Dupont: One significant change the league could make - but I don't think it really can - is to take the helmets away so that you could see who some of these players are.

Morrison: No question, the helmets and visors affect fan identification.

The absence of a major network TV contract seriously affects the league's US visibility. Does difficulty in following the puck make it a poor television sport?

Vartan Kupelian (Detroit News): I submit to you that hockey is no easier to watch live than it is on TV. You can follow the puck when it's in center ice or when somebody's carrying it or passing it, but when the puck gets along the boards it's tough to find.

And how often do people at the game actually see the puck going into the net? Ask observers where it went in, was it stick-side high or glove-side low, and they can't really tell you.

Strachan: With today's technology - sharper pictures and larger screens - hockey lends itself to TV more than it ever has.

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