— Bobby Taylor has been the color analyst for the Tampa Bay Lightning for 15 seasons. Recently, the former backup goaltender called a game for SunSports that his favored team lost, but a game that he still considered a win for the NHL.
"It was end-to-end action," Taylor said of the Lightning's 3-2 shootout loss to the New York Rangers on Nov. 26. "There were a couple of fights, lots of bodychecks, great goaltending. And the fans gave us a standing ovation."
So here's the question:
If fans cheer wildly in an NHL arena in the 21st century, does it still make a sound in the greater North American sports world?
"I think the league is pretty darn healthy," said former high-scoring forward Bernie Federko, a television analyst on FSN Midwest for the St. Louis Blues. "The game has recovered quite well."
"There's a lot of good things happening, and if we can survive the economic situation, we're in for good times," said Steve Coates, a television analyst on Comcast Sportsnet for the Philadelphia Flyers.
That is sure to be the league's message on New Year's Day at chilly Wrigley Field in Chicago. There, the NHL will hold one of the showcase events of its season, the second annual outdoor Winter Classic broadcast on NBC, this time featuring the resurgent Blackhawks and the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. Last season's inaugural Classic at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium between the Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins, also telecast on NBC, attracted 71,000 fans and drew the highest rating (2.6) and share (5) of any regular-season game since 1996.
(NBC Sports is a partner in the joint venture that runs NBCSports.com.)
The NHL will spin another strong showing as another sign of its recovery from the lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season, and as proof that it can compete nationally for attention as well as regionally. There certainly are indications that the league is making progress, validating Commissioner Gary Bettman's recent assertion that it is still in "growth mode." Attendance is up slightly overall, even in a tough economy. Further, NHL teams are drawing much closer to capacity than the NBA in several cities, including Philadelphia, New York, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Washington and Chicago.
Many of those not attending are watching. Nielsen ratings from early in this season have shown major upticks for a dozen U.S.-based teams, including Washington, Chicago, San Jose, Colorado, Phoenix, Los Angeles, New York (Rangers), Columbus, Pittsburgh and Boston.
Yet the NHL still pales in comparison to the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball in terms of media attention, which has led many observers to classify it as a niche sport. Now that the league no longer has a television contract with ESPN, hockey gets buried deeper on that network's signature highlights show, SportsCenter. Many major newspapers, facing their own financial problems, have trimmed their NHL coverage, some pulling writers off the road. Electrifying young superstars such as Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin still don't get the same sort of prominent national endorsements as Peyton Manning or LeBron James or Derek Jeter. And you don't see many of the other quality players, such as Zach Parise or Ryan Getzlaf, becoming household names, even as they flourish following rule changes that have created a more free-flowing style of play.
Denis Potvin, a Hall of Fame defenseman, frequently speaks to businessmen, like those who sell cold medicine.
"All they want to do is get their product on the top shelf at Publix (supermarket)," he said. "What do you think we want to do?"
They want more people in America talking about all their superstars, who are so skilled at going top shelf.
"My feeling is that right now, it's the best it's ever been, and certainly since the '90s," said Potvin, a color analyst on FSN Florida for the Florida Panthers. "I think the Lockout Effect, although still a bad memory for us, the players have adjusted now to the different kind of hockey that is required. The balance is better as well. We went through a period in the '90s with a lot of quick expansion, which hurt, but the teams have caught up. When you have more than 16, 17 teams that are highly competitive, that's a hell of a league."
That's partly due to the salary cap, which was instituted after the lockout. And Potvin is encouraged by the partnership established between the teams and the players, as a result of that work stoppage.
Coates said "the game is really good. It has great entertainment value to it right now. For fans, it's got something for everybody. People who love shooting, passing, people who love the hitting. It's got the speed, it's got the fisticuffs."
So what's preventing the NHL from stealing more of the spotlight? Why is the NHL like the teen girl or boy who has lost the braces and the weight and the acne, but still can't get the right classmates to notice?
Two factors stand out, in the eyes of many. Rapid expansion into the United States, and specifically the South, diluted the rosters and made it difficult for fans to follow and relate to players. Making it even more difficult? Many of those players are European. Although they have added flair on the ice, something has been lost in translation off of it, because many aren't comfortable enough with English to reveal their personalities.
Coates argues that expansion's success is proven by the fact that Carolina, Tampa Bay and Anaheim have all won Stanley Cups, and Florida played in the finals. But Florida, Carolina, Phoenix, Atlanta, Nashville and Columbus all rank in the bottom-eight in average league attendance. And even with the influx of Europeans, Taylor thinks teams are thinner than they were a decade or two ago.
"The really good teams now have two good lines, where they once had three or four," Taylor said.
Taylor also thinks that the league has gone somewhat soft, which is why he found the aforementioned contest between the Lightning and Rangers so refreshing. He sees less threat of retribution and, thus, less edge, and often less urgency and intensity.
"We had the ballet and grace, but we also used to have the fierceness of football," Taylor said. "And that has kind of drifted away a bit."
Federko doesn't agree. He thinks the game is fine. The influx of Europeans is a positive to him because to him, the league now includes the greatest players around the world. Still, he acknowledges that the move from ESPN has cost the league visibility, since "a lot of households in the United States still don't have Versus." Although he believes the league must market those players better nationally, he added that "those players have to be willing to market themselves." He recognizes that it would be difficult for any person to work in a foreign country, and feel comfortable.
"It's something the league has to spend time on, developing these kids, to make sure they are visible and well-spoken," Federko said.
Taylor suggests that the league work with players before they enter, and start marketing them immediately, the way the NBA markets its young stars.
"We have some guys who have the personality of Peyton Manning, but they are only on regionally," Taylor said.
Both cited Ovechkin, who doesn't speak English that well.
"But at least he is a personality," Federko said. "At least he tries. He's got the smile. He plays every shift like it is the last of his life. A lot of these kids are very sellable."
Nor must broken English be a detriment.
"When female fans hear an athlete speak in an accent," Taylor said, "it's like he's the sexiest man alive."