Ducks' GM knows league is hurting, but it's not DOA

Updated: June 15, 2007, 11:55 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Just in case you didn't notice -- and not many of you did -- the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup.

Brian Burke
Shelly Castellano/Icon SMIDucks GM Brian Burke: "I don't think we're a boutique sport at all."

The Stanley Cup, by the way, is a big silver trophy given to the NHL champions. Since the Ducks won the championship 10 days ago, the Cup has already been to hospitals, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," a swim meet, the Newport Beach pier and a barbecue. Defenseman Sean O'Donnell told the L.A. Times he's using part of his 24 hours with the Cup to let his 10-year-old black Labrador, Buddy, eat dog food out of it. Buddy is short a front leg because of cancer. And forward Shawn Thornton says he's taking the Cup with him during a round of golf in Ontario. He says he's going to use it as a ball-marker.

See, this is why I like hockey players.

The problem is, almost nobody in this country watches the NHL on television. And just in case you didn't notice -- and not many of you did -- the NHL is a professional organization that stands for National Hockey League. Here in Chicago, where I live, we're hoping to one day get an actual NHL franchise.

The NHL used to be on ESPN, where it didn't exactly get top billing, but at least you knew where to find the league and Barry Melrose's mullet on your remote. Then it went to the Outdoor Life Network, which was later renamed Versus. If you can locate Versus on your cable or satellite system, you get to keep the Cup for a day.

OK, that's a bit harsh. But not long ago even the great Brett Hull popped off about the league's lack of TV exposure, saying, "People don't even know that we're on."

And if they do know, they're not watching. At least, not on this side of the North American border. The TV ratings were so underwater for the recent Stanley Cup finals and, before that, the NHL All-Star Game, that you wonder about the league's relevancy in America. Does it still qualify as a mover and shaker, or is it simply a boutique sport, like pro bowling?

Those screams you just heard came from the league offices in New York, where commissioner Gary Bettman presides. And for Canadians, it must absolutely drive them Labatt-y that hardly anyone in the States watches their beloved hockey on the tube.

But the viewership numbers barely had a pulse for the finals. The Game 3 national ratings were the lowest in the history of prime-time programming. Something on the Sci-Fi Channel, "Meltdown: Days Destruct," did a better number than Game 3 between the Ducks and Ottawa Senators.

Meanwhile, the numbers for the '07 All-Star Game were so roadkill gruesome that parents wouldn't let their children look at the ratings the next day. I mean, why scare the kids, right? The short version: viewership down more than 70 percent from the last All-Star Game in 2004.

So the NHL is dead in this country. Bring Grissom and the CSI team to do the postmortem. Bag and tag it.

Wait a minute, says Ducks general manager Brian Burke. "I don't think we're a boutique sport at all."

Burke is calling from the LAX airport, fresh off a teleconference to announce the signing of Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle to a one-year extension. But before he gets on a plane for Toronto, Burke wants me to know that the NHL still has some muscle tone, still is worth the effort.

"I think it's going to be a slow build," he says. "The hurdles are not insignificant. I think the temptation is to look at the ratings and say, 'My God, what are we going to do?'"

No, the temptation is to look at the ratings and say, "Does the NHL matter anymore?" And right now, you'd have to say, "Maybe." At best.

"Where'd you grow up?" Burke asks.

"Air Force brat," I say. "Lived all over."

"Ever play hockey?"

"No," I say, but I have watched "Slap Shot," "Miracle" and "Mystery, Alaska."

Burke's point is this: Almost every kid in America plays football, baseball or basketball. All you need is a field or cement court. "But you can't just be a hockey player," he says. "It's complicated. It's difficult. It's expensive. So we don't have a ready-made fan base."

No kidding. The '07 All-Star Game was the No. 1-viewed show in hockey strongholds Pittsburgh and Buffalo. But in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Miami and Atlanta, the game wasn't among the top 20 rated shows that day. And all those cities and/or regions have NHL franchises.

"We're not going to fix it in the next 24 months," Burke says. "Our goal is to fix it over the next 10 years."

It would help if you didn't need a GPS to locate a game on the league's signature TV partner. And while Bettman's decision to blow up the 2004-05 season in the name of a new, long-term economic model was fun labor drama, it further distanced the NHL from the viewing public.

"That put our sport on life support," says Burke, who is a huge Bettman fan. "We haven't recovered from that."

The NHL is trying, I'll give it that. The league is tech and Internet savvy, except for the part about putting its games on a network nobody can find ("We'll fix that too," Burke says). It devised an economic model that doesn't necessarily depend on TV for survival (which is good, since its rights fees revenues pale in comparison to those of the NFL, MLB and the NBA). And it's smart enough to curtail the grabbing and clutching, open up the game, and hope viewers can actually see the puck.

"What these guys do is miraculous," Burke says of NHL players. "It's the most difficult sport to play by a mile. The other half of it is these are the best kids on the planet."

The game and the players aren't the issue. You don't have to be Lord Stanley of Preston to recognize the singular talent of, say, San Jose's Joe Thornton, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Washington's Alex Ovechkin, Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf or the New York Rangers' Jaromir Jagr. And yeah, maybe CBC's Don Cherry is right: the game could use more glove dropping. Not goon stuff, but some old-time hockey fist-fests.

By the way, the Ducks led the league in fighting majors during the regular season and postseason. "There's no question in my mind that physical hockey sells," Burke says.

And yet, most of America doesn't seem to know a blue line from a clothesline. And sadly, the speed and beauty of the game simply doesn't translate from the ice to TV. High-def helps, but …

The reality is that hockey isn't part of this country's sports DNA. Canada, yes. The USA, no. We're not in love with it. We're more in like with it.

Burke, as smart a guy as there is in the league, says the NHL's viewership and growth rate issues can be solved within the next 10 years. But that isn't the problem. The problem is, will it be too late?

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

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