Sunday, April 17, 2005

Frustrated 101

It's a mid-April weekend.
In addition to washing the boss's car and mowing the lawn, I should be tracking the approach to one of my most favorite times of the year... the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Instead, I'm really suffering through hockey withdrawal.
Almost no games on TV here. I'm left with the odd trip to an AHL game or an ECHL game.
And I blame, first and foremost, Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL, for my current painful state.
Yes, players are overpaid. In many cases, they are grossly overpaid. But the mismanagement of the league is a major reason for its decline.
First off, the league's talent is too diluted. Too rapid of an expansion means too many guys who are really marginal major leaguers have regular jobs. That means that coaches -- who are under pressure to win NOW -- have to adopt increasingly more defensive systems because not enough of their players have the creativity and offensive skills to be able to win by outscoring people.
Second, there are teams in places where they don't belong. Their struggles should have come as no surprise at all. You don't allow a team to move into a market where it is the seventh (!!) ticket on the priority list for the average sports fan. That's Carolina, where in winter, North Carolina, Duke and N.C. State basketball rules (men's first, then women's). Hockey is next. You don't leave a city where hockey rules (Winnipeg) for a city where ice occurs only in freezers (Phoenix).
Third, the sport is poorly marketed on the league level. Come on, you've got some great talent out there, but it's not being sold. Jarome Iginla in Calgary is by all accounts a genuinely nice guy, and I've seen him play. He's a monster talent. Who knows about him? Guys who can sell the game and can still play, like Brett Hull (even at 8,000 years old) and Jeremy Roenick (at about 7,000) are assets who aren't utilized at all. Bettman was supposed to be the marketer who took the NHL to NBA status. Hasn't happened. Hasn't come close to happening. It's gone in reverse, in fact.
Finally, you don't build your product by withholding it for a year. You've lost a lot of the casual fans, and some of us diehards are beginning to rethink our positions.
The Frozen Four (the NCAA hockey championships) helped a little bit. Maybe our local cable outfit will put some Phantoms hockey on during the AHL playoffs.
But, Mr. Bettman, you owe me -- and a lot of other folks like me -- more than a smirking apology.
You owe us the best hockey in the world.
I, for one, don't think you can deliver the goods any more.