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The Globe and Mail

Winter Classic delivers everything but goals

The NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day is fast becoming a benchmark for televised sports. The contest at Fenway Park had it all for NBC and CBC cameras: the legendary ball yard immortalized by John Updike, James Taylor singing the national anthem, aerial shots of the play, a perfect winter's day in the Hub, Dennis Leary singing Sweet Caroline in the (sort of) seventh-inning stretch, Elliotte Friedman inside the Green Monster, Bobby Orr/Bobby Clarke leading the teams onto the ice, the return of the coaching fedora ...

In short, a director's dream. Clearly, it has become hockey eye candy, the one NHL game to watch if you're watching one all year. NBC produced it as such, turning it into While You Were Sleeping, a primer on the NHL for people waiting for the Rose Bowl. So, lots of baseball lore about Fenway, lots of Hockey 101, lots of Bob (A Little Grey On the Sides) Costas peering up, way up into Mike Milbury's mad eyes. CBC merely had to tell Don Cherry he had extended intermissions in which to pontificate.

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The Winter Classic also featured the best a regular-season NHL game has to offer these days. And that's becoming a problem. Somehow, the NHL has lost its scoring again. Across the league, it has become soccer on ice as coaches do their job and eliminate the lifeblood of the game - scoring chances. Which is better than rugby on ice - the previous blight. But there was little in the first two hours of the game to make grown men weep with excitement. It was a lot of light, but not much heat.

The contest Friday perfectly summed up the dilemma: fast, well-coached, loaded with body contact and blocked shots for much of the 59 minutes before the Bruins tied the game at 1-1. Thanks to penalty calls, the clubs staged a fine finish with Boston getting the OT winner from Marco Sturm. Blame coaching acumen and blame players not regularly trooping to the penalty box any longer to provide bona fide scoring opportunities. It left a lot of time for Mike Emrick/Eddie Olczyk (NBC) and Jim Hughson/Craig Simpson (CBC) to pad with ice conditions, players' hometowns and golly-gee-whiz.

No wonder analysts Milbury (NBC) and Glenn Healy (CBC) darkly promised violence and mayhem before the game. They knew that, with scoring down (the Calgary Flames have played either 2-1 or 3-1 in 10 of their past 14 games), they had to do something to hold the casual TV crowd. The knuckle boys were obliged by Boston's Shawn Thornton and Philadelphia's imbecilic Daniel Carcillo, who staged the first Winter Classic scrap. In such a perfect setting, the flaws were acceptable. But how is the scoring drought supposed to play in the bushels of other games that clog the regular season? What happens when Drop Kick Murphys pack their guitars and drums?

Packing Heat

The NBA wishes it had such problems to discuss for its ABC broadcasts. Instead, it is besieged by Tim Donaghy's gambling allegations, players tattooed like so many jailhouse perps and floundering franchises. How to spin that for middle America? And now two Washington Wizards players allegedly pulling guns on each other over gambling debts. This after NBA commissioner David Stern announced that the Donaghy gambling scandal was an isolated incident. Gambling, guns, girls. Prompting a new TV campaign: The NBA - Where Concealed Weapons Happen.

Dry Spell

If you were watching the New York Jets/Cincinnati Bengals tilt at Giants Stadium last night, you may have noticed a - how should we say? - subdued atmosphere for the final football game at the Meadowlands. Ordinarily, J-E-T-S fans are among the most overly refreshed partisans in the NFL. Too refreshed for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. So it announced a total ban on booze at the historic game. Despite - or because of - the playoff implications of the game, the Jersey suits wanted fans to let the demolition of the stadium be done by experts. The demolition of the Jets would be done by themselves.

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