Kukla's Korner

Kukla's Korner Hockey

Fact Versus Fiction

By George Malik:

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock raised an interesting point on Monday:

Babcock said, “Who sells hockey? To me, I don’t know. I don’t know for sure.”
After mentioning baseball, Babcock jumped to football and said the NFL markets its product well. He said he thought NFL games were much better to watch on television than in person.
“Our game’s just exactly the opposite,” Babcock said. “We gotta do a better job of the guy at home knowing how good the game actually is. How fast-paced, how physical, how great the athletes are, how hard they work.
“To me, we got a way better game than we sell. Somehow, we gotta figure that out and sell it.”

That’s an understatement.

I live 33 miles away from the Joe, but my cable system isn’t affiliated with Versus’ owner, Comcast, so I don’t receive the channel, nor do I have access to Center Ice. My condo complex has been glacially slow in approving my application to install a satellite dish, and my Comcast-subscribing friends were occupied on Monday, so I had a simple choice: go out to a sports bar, or listen to the game on the radio.

No big deal, right? This is Hockeytown, after all…

I decided to be adventurous and head to “Screwy Louie’s,” a lovely little establishment in South Lyon. I hadn’t visited the place before, but WRIF broadcasts from the restaurant/bar on occasion, so I assumed that Louie’s was a safe bet.

I left my place at 6:30 to get a nosh before the game, drove a short distance to Louie’s, and was reassured that I’d made the right bet by a banner on the wall advertising $2.25-a-bottle Miller Lite during Red Wings games.

No pregame meant some anxiety regarding the game’s availability, but Louie’s has a few satellite dish antennas outside, and when I asked the hostess whether they’d show the Wings game, she reassured me that they broadcast Wings games on all their TV’s.

At 7:02, I’m a happy camper. I’ve got a Diet Coke the size of a small lake, a gorgeously large bar burger and fries, and all is right with the world—except for the fact that there’s no Versus on. ESPN’s doing Monday Night Football pregame stuff, Fox Sports Detroit’s airing a Lions press conference, and ESPN2 is talking about football as well.

I politely asked the waitress if it’d be possible to change the channel to Versus, aka OLN, and she told me it’d be no problem.

The seconds start to pass like minutes as I know the puck’s dropping at 7:08, and at 7:10, the young lady comes back from the kitchen saying, “Sorry, hon, we don’t get OLN.”

The burger and fries disappear—fast. I ask for the bill, present my plastic money, and by 7:22, I’m in the Pacifica, driving east, cursing as Ken Kal describes the Wings’ shoddy first period on WXYT. If the holiday traffic wasn’t so heavy, I’d probably be doing 70 going east on Ten Mile, but my brain was busy wondering where Comcast’s coverage began. Novi seemed like a safe bet, so I pulled into a TGI Friday’s south of 12 Oaks, scurried in during the first intermission, and took a seat at the end of the bar.

One big-screen TV showed the game; the other two were tuned to Monday Night Football’s pregame show, which was still going strong at 7:50. I couldn’t hear the game over the restaurant’s blaring music, but I don’t need help to analyze the opposition’s forecheck.

The Wings played a lot better in the second period, slowly but surely crawling their way back into the game, but the boys took forever to establish possession and control in the Jax’ zone, so the offence was slipping into that awful, familiar “single shot, Jax clear the puck” routine.

As 9 PM hit, ESPN’s two-hour-long pregame routine ended, as did the ever-present music. Without asking customers what they preferred to watch, every big-screen TV was changed to ESPN, and the sound system’s suddenly blaring “WILL PEYTON MANNING EVER WIN ANYTHING? WILL PEYTON MANNING WIN THE SUPER BOWL? WHAT DID HE HAVE FOR LUNCH TODAY?”

Now I’m a one-sport guy—hockey, hockey, hockey, hockey, hockey all the time—so the lack of Center Ice, after enjoying it for a full season last year, is killing me. I cheer for Detroit’s other sports teams, but I don’t watch the Super Bowl, much less any other NFL game, and I’m sitting at the end of the bar, puzzled. The Indianapolis Colts are playing against the Cincinnati Bengals, and that’s receiving preferrential treatment over the hometown team.

Worse, as I glance between Versus, now 15 feet away from me on a small-screen TV, and ESPN, an uncomfortable difference sticks out like a sore thumb.

The NFL broadcast is showing carefully-orchestrated highlights, hyping storylines, selling players and cranking the drama up to eleven, and over on Versus…

Mark Messier’s giving Scott Niedermayer the monthly “Messier Award,” and there’s 30 seconds of rather bland footage of Niedermayer helping charities while wearing a Ducks jersey, and then Versus cuts back to Messier himself, talking to Bill Clement, for over two minutes. We see Bill Clement fawning over Messier, and Messier looking sharp in a mock turtleneck. More guys shooting the stuff. Clement guffaws some more, and then they cut to a commercial.

As ESPN comes back from their commercial, and ESPN’s showing what seems like a loop of the Knicks-Pacers brawl, and they’re going nuts because Carmello Anthony’s been suspended.
Versus returns from their commercial break to give us five minutes of their talking heads—Clement, Jones, Engblom, and Messier—literally talking to one another for five minutes. There’re short highlight clips here and there, but more than anything, you see the camera change from expert to expert, telling stories and smiling and laughing with one another’s jokes. It becomes painfully apparent that Versus’s sales pitch is based upon four guys in suits laughing at one another’s “in” jokes and comments the casual fan can’t relate to because there’s no visual stimuli to back up their storytelling.
I move down the bar to get closer to the TVs and watch the third period. I’m on my seventh glass of water after having a small chocolate milkshake (I was a bad boy on Monday), and I keep seeing the Wings pass up offensive chances and make Norenna look good by refusing to go to the slot for rebound opportunities, screen shots, or tip-ins. Once again, they’re going to put 40 shots on a goalie that will end up making five good saves.

Despite a late flurry of goals by Hudler and Lang, Vyborny gets loose for the third time along the right half boards, draws in three defenders, and slides over a pass to Fedorov, who scores his second one-timer goal. Game over. I mumble curses under my breath, wondering where the Wings’ backcheckers were, and why they didn’t make it down to Columbus with the rest of the team.

I glance over at the football game, and all of four minutes have gone off the clock. The talking heads are hyping something else while we see the scintillating excitement that is Peyton Manning standing on the sidelines, looking intensely at something or other, and as Versus comes back…

It’s more of the same. Five minutes of the talking heads swapping stories and shooting the “stuff.”

Two-and-a-half hours after I sat down at Screwy Louie’s, I’m $20 lighter in the wallet thanks to a burger, fries, a Diet Coke, a chocolate milkshake, some chicken tenders, and two sets of tips, I’ve just seen the Wings underestimate a team on the rebound after promising to not do the same against Chicago five days earlier, and I’m getting a headache because of the incessant blare of the Monday Night Football game over TGI Friday’s sound system.

Two-and-a-half hours later, the Wings game is over, there’s a Flames game on the way, and I can at least say that the Wings showed their team speed against a quick Jax team…

On the other TV’s, Monday Night Football is ten minutes into the first quarter after two hours of pre-game hype. There’ve been a few passes and a turn-over, but the football game has mostly included a lot of sideline shots and players standing around.

Here in Hockeytown, when the game’s on Versus, it doesn’t count because nobody knows that it’s even on, and even the mighty Red Wings must bow down before the great golden god that is Monday Night Football.

Something is definitely wrong here, and it has nothing to do with Colin Campbell’s ridiculous assertion that the NHL needs bigger nets (no way, says this goalie) because the game isn’t entertaining enough, and isn’t translating into TV ratings.

That’s what happens when you show more footage of Bill Clement and Brian Engblom swapping stories and laughing at each other’s jokes than building storylines or showing highlights of our great game, Collie. It’s not the goalies’ faults that coaches have learned how to trap without obstructing, and goalies sure as heck aren’t at fault for the fact that hockey’s marketed just as it was on ESPN—as a game where talking heads will swap stories that the average fan can’t or won’t follow because the networks see no need to “sell” the game to anyone, arrogantly assuming that anyone who tunes in will become an instant fan because of the on-ice product.

As I headed back home after chasing my simple desire to watch a Red Wings game in Metro Detroit on a network that’s ridiculously hard to find on any cable system, I wasn’t angry at Monday Night Football for its endless self-hype. I was and am angry at the NHL for making the game so very hard for its most dedicated fans to follow, all while Gary Bettman claims that six more Wings games against Columbus—with two more slated for the next week, sandwiching THREE STRAIGHT games against Minnesota—are what “fans want to see” instead of a game against the Thrashers, a home tilt against the Rags, a match-up with the Canes, or a litmus test against the surprisingly solid Islanders team.  Just because I don’t know J.P. Vigier very well doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see Marian Hossa or Ilya Kovalchuk.

Die-hard NHL fans have a hard time finding hockey on TV, we’re driven to distraction by a league that would rather have us see 12 minutes of Bill Clement during the intermission than a few feature stories, and the NHL’s schedule is as dreadfully monotonous the many teams that trap again these days, and as frustrating as the hooking and holding that’s crept back into the game.

The league needs to stop claiming that Crosby and Ovechkin will solve the league’s image problem. It needs to promote the league’s other 28 teams, 700+ players, 90-year history, and tremendous on-ice play and off-ice storylines, because the Wings-Jax game was an afterthought, even in Hockeytown, because it was aired on a network that took this fan 3 gallons of gas, $20 in food and tips, and two sports bars to simply find on somebody else’s TV screen.

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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

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