Tonawanda News

May 18, 2006

TIM SCHMITT: NHL needs to stop tweaking, look in mirror

COMMENTARY

COLUMN: Tim Schmitt

Pardon the chip on my shoulder, but I’m sick of catering.

To NBC. To OLN.

To FLA.

Need a reason to get excited about the Eastern Conference finals, set to kick off on national television in the middle of what’s supposed to be a sunny Saturday afternoon?

Then you don’t live in Western New York.

This area is revved up and ready for a trip to Carolina, even if it means pushing lawn work back an afternoon or faking a Carolina accent while ordering away tickets. The rest of the country doesn’t seem to care whether Buffalo or Carolina reaches the Stanley Cup finals, but we do.

Bless the national networks who keep prodding and pushing, trying to force hockey into the American mainstream. Although NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman swears he’s not worried about OLN’s dreadful ratings, stories keep circulating that bad numbers mean bad news for the league.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Hockey is hot — just stop anyone on Third Street in the Falls or at Finnan’s on a Friday and ask. You’ll get an earful about Ryan Miller, Daniel Briere or a guy named Pominville who has quickly become part of Sabres lore.

The problem is the league consistently markets itself to a crowd that’s politely said no thank you. And to keep forcing it down its collective throat is sure to get an uglier reaction.

If hockey really wants to get serious about raising the fort walls, it should start by shoring up some internal business — moving the poorly-supported Florida Panthers to Winnipeg or Hartford and helping the Pittsburgh Penguins get a new arena.

Then, like all good competitors, it needs to break down some tape of its opponent.

Not highlights of LeBron and Steve Nash, but Nicole Lunders and Eva Bryan.

You remember Lunders, the girlfriend of NASCAR star Greg Biffle who tossed her water bottle in disgust after Bryan’s fiance, Kurt Busch, nudged her man from the track.

She was steaming. Viewers were thrilled.

While on ESPN’s Hot Seat on Wednesday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was asked if he thought the fight was a black eye for the sport. He laughed and spoke the truth that hockey’s higher-ups don’t want to hear — controversy is good. Controversy between a pair of attractive young females is even better.

NASCAR’s ratings keep climbing, not because TV has changed to colored boxes that follow each driver or special mascots, but because the audience that might be interested — car lovers — has gotten the message. Fast cars are fun. Fast cars, beer and 100,000 other car lovers is even better.

But hockey’s brass wants to think it’s better than grass roots marketing. Better than playing in Manitoba. Better than NASCAR.

Too bad. There’s a market for this game. Because of gimmicks and poor management, though, the masses can’t seem to find it.

Contact group sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, Ext. 2266 or tschmitt@gnnewspaper.com