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NHL’s ‘classic’ was neat and all, but let’s be real about its value

Everything about “the hockey classic” down at the lyric little bandbox the other day was elegant and sweet except the curious notion that it took a gimmick concocted by a bevy of grasping Manhattan advertising hucksters conspiring with infamous network television hustlers to revive an affection for the game of hockey in the alleged Hub of Hockey.
Mind you I recognize the “”classic” is just swell. I doff my cap to the latter day Ziegfelds and Barnums who pulled off this lusty score. I’m happy for the Red Sox, who skated away with a windfall of a few million large at a time of the year when the entire staff is usually on sabbatical working on their Christmas cards. Staid old Boston was a winner, too, looking dandy across the continent for the holidays. Everybody got a cut, it seemed.
It was further fine to see the NHL, too often derided for its clumsiness, rise so nicely to the occasion and it was especially pleasing to see the hockey players command respect for being -- quite as usual -- the class acts of the sporting dodge. Most touching was the excuse it afforded for having Bobby Orr, 60 years old yet still the Byronic youth, do a twirl on the ice one more time. Not even the fact that he was obliged to share tube-time with that ancient rascal, Bobby Clarke, could diminish that a whit. There was little not to like, including the nifty ending.
Moreover, I am as much a sucker for the sentimental mush of sport as the next guy. The premise of the event -- smartly conceived by the promoters -- was built around our tender collective memory of being introduced to the game on long ago and frigid January Saturdays when we would glide along the local creek, reservoir, or bog holding hands when we weren’t bashing one another with our sticks. Currier and Ives could not have etched a more lilting reverie or one that paid more handsomely at the gate.
While not quite buying the idealism of the thing, I’ll go along with all that. I was still playing pond hockey when my boys were headed for college and I was gliding into my fifties. We begrudge no one a profitable gig; not even NBC; not in these tough times.
Still, the surpassing charm of “the Classic” notwithstanding, it’s fair to question how much good it will do the beleaguered NHL in the long run. While quaint and beguiling, the thing is no less simply a lark, a sporting curio, an old fashioned shtick.
Local media fell in love with the Fenway Frolic with hotshot columnists who otherwise stoop to attend about one Bruins game a year rhapsodizing about the Aristotleian simplicity of it all. How lovely! But in New York, the Times was reporting sharply on how much the NHL marketing guys, led by the fraud who serves as the league’s commissioner, were vesting in this glorified exhibition, which is above all a television event and network production.
Network hotshots, the Times reported, regard this now annual New Year’s Day outdoor festival as the NHL’s “signature event” and say it is “much more important” -- get this, mates – “than the Stanley Cup playoffs.” They say it has three times the ratings appeal and much more revenue potential. Madison Avenue and the Peacock are clamoring for more of these harmless little festivals but have no interest in anything else the game of hockey in general, and the NHL in particular, have to offer. Naturally, Czar Gary Bettman, who might trade his first-born for a wink and a nod from Keith Olbermann, is anxious to comply.
Poor hockey! To have an incidental regular season tilt floating through a holiday afternoon for the amusement of a nation that is half hung over and otherwise indifferent be regarded as the game’s “signature event” may be the unkindest cut of all.
How do you think Major League Baseball would react if an artfully staged July Fourth game between randomly selected teams played every year in an Iowa corn field before patrons decked in straw hats and banked in wooden grandstands and singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame became recognized as baseball’s “signature event” and far more important than the World Series? Not even Bud Selig would stand for that.
But the NHL, hopelessly at the mercy of network television, which is chief among the forces controlling contemporary culture, is hardly in a position to protest. Currently, NBC gives the NHL a handful of dates plus a little Stanley Cup coverage entirely at the bigfoot network’s highly arbitrary discretion. If the Cup Finals unluckily coincide with a ratings period, the NHL gets zapped. Sorry, guys. Take a hike. Hockey has about as much clout as soccer and bronco-busting, more than lacrosse, hurling, curling, and rugby, but not as much as NASCAR, women’s basketball, tennis, golf, X-Games, roller boarding, or high stakes poker live from Las Vegas.
Currently, the NHL has a deal with a network no one has ever heard of let alone find. It’s called Versus and they do a decent job in their blissful anonymity. The league has also lately floated its own network, which shows promise although the ratings are infinitesimal. Thus the key question becomes: How much money is Bettman willing to lose on this turkey?
In fairness, it should be noted that the NHL did have what seemed a potentially promising deal with ESPN, which in theory is where it ought to be. But Bettman, a hard-headed character, botched it; a major mistake. A sporting enterprise in our culture in our times cannot claim to have significance let alone status as a major without a viable national television arrangement with a network of recognized importance of which there are only about a half dozen and Versus is not one of them.
It’s the willful indifference of major American television networks that has mainly accounted for hockey’s indisputable decline in stature even as the quality of the product has improved. One admits this with a heavy heart. Hockey is a great game and its people are the best! But it’s also true that the caprices of the networks are hardly the NHL’s only problem.
Typically, hockey people, ever appreciative of whatever slim recognition comes their way, devour the attentions they receive at their “classic.” Such surely was the case at the Fenway Fling. The next question becomes, how much of the good will translates to the ponderous schedule stretching from Fenway Park in January to the Stanley Cup finals in May, which this Bruins team, however willing and earnest it may be, has only a remote chance of reaching?
This much is certain. If these Bruins do manage to press deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs, the folks will come back big time and the din will soar and the sentiment swell and the media heavyweights who fawned over the precious “classic’ will be amazed at how great this game can really be when the stakes reach the zenith and no artificial trappings like outdoor gigs in ill-fitting baseball parks are deemed necessary.
Anything short of that, however, will result in the familiar tepid reaction accompanied by polite indifference that the Bruins and all their NHL brethren have been obliged to accept. In other words, you can expect the long-term effects to be, as usual, relative. So, what else is new?
But if you think the New Years’ Day scene at Fenway was rich, charming sweet, and uplifting, you should have been at the old Garden when Orr soared through the air after poking Derek Sanderson’s pass past “the goolie,” Glenn Hall, or on that flight back from New York after the Rangers were dispatched and the huge crowd massing at Logan Airport was determined to carry every last Bruin off into the night.
Ah, but then all of that was so long ago and far away, like all those distant winter days on the reservoir in South Weymouth that lingered into the twilight. One remembers it well.

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