If a professional sporting event takes place, but ESPN refuses to report it, did it actually happen? An NHL hockey game was played last night. Did you know this? It's true. I promise. While most of America was either watching the Bills and Raiders choke away sure victories in the closing moments of their respective Monday Night Football games; or watching Dirty Dancing on a continuous loop in honor of Patrick Swayze; or watching Tim Lincecum pitch the Giants back into the NL Wild Card Race; or watching Racist Kanye West read the half-assed apology that his publicist wrote, on the Jay Leno show, an NHL Hockey game, was in fact played. Fans showed up (approximately 4,000 of them). The Islanders and the Canucks showed up. And Vancouver won 2-1. All this did happen last night. But did you know about it? And tonight, 6 more NHL pre-season games are being played, including the Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Oh, but it's pre-season, you say.
I am pretty sure, in fact, I am 100% certain, that in roughly a month, ESPN will show highlights of NBA pre-season games. And in August, they showed highlights (and even televised) NFL pre-season games. And in March, MLB Spring Training is front and center on Sportscenter. So what gives with hockey? Does ESPN and Fox Sports and any other Sports Channel you can find this side of the NHL Network and VS. just ignore hockey? It would appear so. But don't hold the networks solely accountable for keeping hockey out of your homes.
When the NHL came back from its year-long hiatus (you call it a lock out, I call it a hiatus), Gary Bettman quite arrogantly shunned ESPN and FOX, opting instead for an exclusive deal with VS. and NBC. Three out of five American homes don't even get the VS. channel.....and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals games are contractually obligated to be broadcast exclusively on VS. Let me say that another way - 60% of Americans canNOT watch 2 of the NHL's Championship games....the most important games of the season. That's a problem.
When the hiatus ended in 2005, Bettman and his henchmen (he calls them Marketing gurus) traveled around to the 30 teams to speak to their front offices and fans. It was a decent gesture of goodwill. He was trying to reach out to the communities to assure them the game was headed in the right direction. Somebody should have prepped him. Or written out his answers for him. Or he should have sent Bozo the Clown in his place. All would have been more appealing options. I was working in the Front Office of the Phoenix Coyotes at the time (I'll wait to continue until you stop laughing. No seriously, stop laughing and keep reading. They really do play hockey in the desert. It's true. Nobody goes to the games. And nobody knows or cares about Wayne Gretzky - the team's part owner and head coach, and the greatest player of all time - but it's a real team. I swear.) Anyway, when Bettman addressed the front office and Coyotes season ticket holders (all 12 of them), one of the astute season ticket holders asked Bettman why he left the deal with ESPN and opted for VS. instead. Bettman's reply is one I will never forget. And I will never forget it for it's ignorance and arrogance. Four years later, I still shake my head over it. Bettman replied condescendingly, "We got a better deal from VS. [which was known as OLN in 2005 - the Outdoor Life Network]. It's an up and coming sports channel that will utilize the NHL as it's anchor to attract even more sports programming. I don't mind that they actually show Bull Riding and canoing now. I mean, look at ESPN. In the 1970s when they first started out, they were airing some pretty bad stuff, too."
Four years later, 60% of American homes still do not get VS. and it's not like ESPN has missed a beat without having hockey. It remains the most arrogant thing I have ever heard a sports commissioner say. And it has crushed his sport and rendered it essentially anonymous in the United States. The sport has grown by leaps and bounds on the ice. But for every one step forward on the ice, Bettman makes sure that the sport takes two steps back off the ice.
Six games are being played tonight....including one at storied Madison Square Garden in New York, between the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins. And in just a few minutes, the Pittsburgh Penguins will take the ice for the first time since they won the dramatic game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals against Detroit, 3 months and 3 days ago. But will anybody who isn't at these Arenas even notice?