Northern alienation has been a part of the National Hockey League landscape, long before commissioner Gary Bettman ever took office some 14-plus years ago. Bettman replaced the last NHL president, Gil Stein, who in turn had supplanted John Ziegler Jr. as the league's de facto CEO. It isn't as if Ziegler, a Detroit-based lawyer, had the interests of Canadian hockey fans front-and-centre either. The elusive dream of a United States national television contract; of spreading the gospel of hockey to the far corners of the continental U.S. was very much a part of his regime and vision as well.
Accordingly, Bettman didn't invent the cause; he just picked up the torch when Ziegler/Stein left office. Even in the face of the large-scale indifference to professional ice hockey south of the border, Bettman resolutely pursues the Grail - and the hope that one day, the light bulb will go off and millions of novice fans will follow the lead of super-model-turned-hockey-mom Christie Brinkley and become mad about hockey.
In his defence, Bettman hasn't been the enemy of the Canadian game that so many bloggers and web-posters suggested this week. Bettman championed the Canadian assistance program, which subsidized small-market Canadian teams during the 62-cent dollar era. Also, the decision to go to Turin for the 2006 Winter Olympics was largely a concession to the players who wanted to play; and to the fans in Canada, who wanted NHL pros to participate. If he'd been thinking strictly of the impact on U.S. television audiences, he would have stuck to his guns and kept the NHL out of last year's Olympics.
Still, the league stumbled badly this week when it set the television schedule for the first round of the playoffs and gave CBC the chance to televise the second game of that highly anticipated New Jersey Devils-Tampa Bay Lightning playoff series in its primetime Hockey Night In Canada slot. It's not that anyone minds watching Vinnie Lecavalier or Martin Brodeur, two great Canadian talents; it's just that there's little rooting interest for either the Devils or Lightning among the vast majority of Canadian hockey fans. If the Stanley Cup final eventually produces an all-American match-up, so be it; people will still tune in.
But with three Canadian teams alive and Saturday night telecasts on Hockey Night In Canada such a long-standing tradition, what in the name of Ralph Mellanby were they thinking by giving the biggest game of the day - the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Ottawa Senators - to NBC? It can only mean they thought Sidney Crosby's presence, live across the network, on the second Saturday of April, would resonate so greatly with American hockey viewers that there'd be a stampede to the television sets and help to create the sort of genuine excitement about the game that's been lacking oh these many decades. As if. In fact, the best illustration of this ongoing inability to penetrate the market came on opening night when the national cable rights holder, Versus, switched away from the Dallas Stars-Vancouver Canucks' game before it ended in a handful of markets, so that it could broadcast an infomercial. Think about that for a second. Not for a CSI-sort of ratings grabber; or for a 'we-interrupt-our-regularly-scheduled-programming' news bulletin; not even for a replay of last year's bass-fishing showdown. The fact that a rights holder would, under any circumstance, believe that its interests were better served - and revenues enhanced - by flogging Ginzu knives or ab machines or weight-loss programs to an audience of how many people at that time of night is the sort of news that should send shudders through the New York office - and maybe, just maybe, convince them not to take all that Canadian support and love for granted.
The last thing the NHL needs now is to see this growing northern alienation take root. Canadians have threatened to walk away before - usually after lockouts or strikes - but always flocked back when the game returned. There was a massive uproar against the decision to show the Pens-Sens' game in the afternoon, a demonstration of the passion that NHL fans have in Canada for playoff hockey and the institution of Hockey Night In Canada. One of these days, the league is going to make a similar sort of call and find the response far more muted. That'll be the day they have something to worry about.