Monday, February 22, 2010

N-B-"See" it? Not hockey

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the "Miracle on Ice," undoubtedly the most important hockey game in U.S. history. One could argue that last night's 5-3 U.S. win over Canada was the 2nd most important. After all, the U.S. had not beaten the Canadians in the Olympics since 1960, and had not beaten them at all since the 1996 World Cup. Add that the heavily-favored Canadians had home-ice advantage and you have a win of monumental proportions. (Something similar to the CFL champions coming here and beating the Super Bowl champs).

On top of everything else, it was a terrific game, which at one point featured back-to-back-to-back breakaways in the second period. Broadcaster Mike Emrick (himself a gold medal performer) called it "mesmerizing;" parter Ed Olyczyk enthused it was "tremendously tremendous." The game was part of what many in Vancouver called "Super Sunday"-- a triple-header of international hockey rivalries that also included Russia vs. the Czechs (Russia won 4-2), and Finland vs. Sweden (won by Sweden, 3-0).

But on a Sunday that should have showcased the best of Olympic hockey, the games were seen by ... almost no one outside the arena. With the exception of the final few seconds of the U.S. and Canada, NBC chose not to put any of the games on its big network, instead shunting them off to poorly-watched sister station MSNBC. While Canada virtually shut down last night to watch the game, NBC figured it could get better ratings by showing taped-delayed alpine skiing and ice dancing.

It's a sad testament to the state of the NHL that ice dancing is now considered a bigger television draw than hockey, which is why, despite the presence of NHL superstars like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, hockey has been virtually invisible in these Olympics. Since the NHL's disastrous decision to move games from ESPN to the Versus network, the league has almost disappeared from American television. The NHL also continues to suffer from lack of support for several teams, most notably those in southern climates like Miami, Tampa and Phoenix; in other words, cities that had no business getting a hockey franchise.

But there are signs that hockey is making a bit of a comeback. The "Winter Classic" game on New Year's Day has become a popular tradition; ratings are up for the Sunday network games (on the very same NBC), and attendance is also up for most of the NHL. Young stars like Crosby and Ovechkin (who could meet in the Olympics if Canada plays Russia) have helped revitalize interest in the league.

30 years ago the "Miracle on Ice" (with major assists from Gretzky and Lemieux) helped rekindle American interest in hockey and led to a decade of prosperity for the NHL. The same could happen today, but only if NBC has the wisdom to put more of the games on the big network. The U.S. win has now sparked the interest; it's up to NBC to fan the flame.


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