A winter without any ice

Chris Duprau

A few less trees will be cut down this year. Thousands of skates won’t need to be sharpened, a nation of Canadians will be left with nothing to watch for six months, and numerous Zamboni drivers will be unemployed.

That’s right, it appears that there will be no professional hockey this year.

The NHL is a league that has struck out time after time when it was on the threshold of mass popularity, and the lockout occurring now may very well be the final out for the league.

It was over 12 years ago that a movie called “The Mighty Ducks” came out on the big screen. This story about a rag-tag youth hockey team led by the future Pacey Witter of “Dawson’s Creek,” and coached by a down on his luck lawyer brilliantly played by Emilio Estevez was one of the finest sports movies of my generation. It was also the best youth marketing tool the NHL ever had. After that movie every kid from the ages six-12 was begging their parents for a hockey stick and practicing their triple deak. All of a sudden kids were watching hockey and what the kids watch, the parents watch and NHL ratings began to rise.

Two years later, I remember being a personal witness to the high point in the NHL’s popularity. After 54 years, the New York Rangers made a dramatic run through the playoffs on its way to winning the Stanley Cup. Along the way Ranger Captain Mark Messier guaranteed a game seven in the Eastern Conference Finals after being down three games to two against the Devils and scored a hat trick in game six. Game seven featured a dramatic overtime goal by Stephane Matteau sending the Rangers to the cup, and to top it off the Stanley Cup finals went a dramatic seven games before New York vanquished the Canucks.

I feel strongly about this being a Rangers fan, but the numbers don’t lie it was by far the highest rated playoff season in the NHL’s history. People were going for wild for hockey, heck another “Mighty Duck” movie even came out (arguably better than the first). Everything was falling perfectly in the NHL’s lap.

In June of ’94, “Sports Illustrated” released a issue whose cover story was, “Why the NHL is hot and the NBA is not.” That’s correct the NHL was on the verge of overtaking the NBA, that’s how big it had gotten. Even better for the league, Major League Baseball was going on strike, that meant that aside from football the NHL would have the month of October to itself. Alas, that is where things went astray.

Before the beginning of the regular season, the NHL owners locked out the players trying to come to a agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement. The chance for the league on ice to shine in the sun was over. It has to be right up there with the stupidest moves ever made in sports, or business in general. It would be like if McDonalds went on strike and then Burger King discontinued the Whopper. People would be forced to go to Wendy’s, and in this situation they were forced to go to the NBA. It wasn’t until January that the puck was finally dropped on the season, but by then it was too late, the damage had been done.

In ’99 during the NBA lockout, I thought the NHL may have a chance to make a run at the masses again. Unfortunately, there had been no carryover excitement to bring people in as there was the year before. The baseball playoffs kept people’s attention in October, and college basketball seemed to fill their indoor sporting needs. Ratings began to sharply decline and in a year, the NHL lost their contract with Fox. This was huge, because Fox had broadcasted more games then any of the other major three networks had in years.

Since that time the ratings have continued to slide, with the bottom being this year’s Stanley Cup featuring Tampa and Calgary. The series went seven games, and to be honest I loved it, but it was Tampa and Calgary. Do you think anyone in New York or Los Angeles cares about that? Aside from fans in New York, Detroit and Philadelphia no one else in the states really misses the NHL. I consider myself a pretty dedicated hockey fan and I hardly notice it not being here.

The NHL had things starting to look good for them. Many young stars coming into their own, a new contract with NBC, whom despite having to show only a few games, would have most likely put forth the same fine production they used to do for the NBA. (Does anyone else miss those Sunday Triple Headers and the NBA theme music?) The continued evolution of HDTV would also have helped the NHL, which is better to watch live. Seeing a game on HDTV gives you a far better hockey viewing experience. I just hope that the league starts soon, because if an entire year goes down the drain, we may never see the NHL as a big time sport again.

Okay now lets get to the NFL picks for this week. I’m done with Big Blue, they’ve been killing my record lately so they no longer will be picked.

Seattle was running Shaun Alexander hard until a fourth and one when they put in his backup. This guy is one of the top rushers in the league and you don’t have him in there on fourth and one. Great coaching, Mike Holmgren. The record now stands at 13.5-7.5-1 which is still good, but like the Giants my record should be a lot better.

Indy is giving 7.5 to the resurgent Bears, but Da Bears defense drops down about three notches without Brian Urlacher playing. Peyton Manning is playing like he’s in a Madden game with the difficulty on Pro. There is no way the Chicago offense can keep up with the “Indy 500” passing attack and the Colts should win with ease.

Oh those San Diego Super Chargers, coming off their bye week to play a horrendous Oakland defense. The Chargers have scored over 65 points in their past two games and the Raiders have given up over 30 in four of their past five. What does all this mean? The Chargers will put up 33 and move to 7-3.

Finally my pick of the week goes to the Washington Redskins.

Yeah you read that right the Redskins. They are getting 11 points against the Eagles, and they have the one thing the Birds can’t stop … a good running back. Expect Joe Gibbs to work the clock and Clinton Portis to the bone. Toss in the fact that Patrick Ramsey is finally starting for the Skins and that the defense is ranked second in the league, and I smell a recipe for a cover