The month that matters most

Originally Published: March 8, 2005
By John Buccigross | Special to ESPN.com

In an ideal world, the Stanley Cup would be awarded in late April when most people are not yet tan. Hockey and natural tans mix like Jeremy Roenick, Brian Burke, Glen Healy and Bob Goodenow at an Ed Mio St. Patrick's Day Party.

April would also be an opportune month because of the sumptuous springboard March would give an NHL postseason. March is, flat-out, the best month of the year for hockey. The NHL is usually in the stretch drive for the playoffs. Play is amped up, Brett Hull is only 15 pounds overweight, and the two ingredients that make for the best hockey are in the forefront: desperation and survival. Those are also the two key components when being attacked by rabid raccoons.

The owners should leave their boardrooms and yachts and head to a rink this month. The players should get in their Mercedes, leave their country clubs for a Saturday and drive to a local rink, too. It is there they will find the answer to the question of how to rebuild and grow a fan base.
March is also the best month of the hockey season because it is most agreeable with hockey's soul. From Mites to Mikko Makela, this is the month in which the senses bubble to the top of hockey's Crock-Pot. Where champions are decided and memories of a lifetime are forged. There are 7-year-olds who will wake up tomorrow morning and eat their Apple Jacks with a queasy stomach as they anticipate this weekend's state tournament games. Mites, Squirts, Pee Wees, Bantams, Midgets, High School, Prep School, Junior A, Junior B, Adult Beer Leagues and NCAA skaters will skate faster, shoot harder and hit unsparingly as they never have before. The level of hockey played this month is the highest of the year, no matter what the age.

Adrenaline and excitement are flowing through the veins of players, coaches, referees and parents for the rest of this month, this march to lifetime memories. This is the month that matters most. Ice time is earned. All the practices, push-ups and early morning Pop-Tarts are all about this month. March. Where champions are conceived and born. Meanwhile, Hull orders another round of potato skins and another Pabst Blue Ribbon.

I have often written here that if you stacked up all the youth sports side by side, no youth sport stacks up better for excitement and watchability than youth hockey. This time of the year, the passion play is off the charts. Youth hockey is such a beautiful thing to watch, primarily because of the improvement from October to March. The steps to getting better are slow, but clear and in some cases drastic.

Well-coached teams, where much is expected, are coming together this time of year and playing their best hockey. Teams that had one scoring line now have three. The good goaltenders are focusing and playing their best in the big games. Yes, there are 10-year-olds who are big-game goalies, rising to the occasion and playing their best when it matters most. I always love going to the rink like I like the drive to the golf course on a perfect, sunny May day, but this time of year, the rink takes on a spiritual aura.

Break out some game video of your little Sally or Sparky from October and see how much she or he has improved now that it is March. The game is on. All this month, champions will be crowned. Provincial and junior titles in Canada and state championships in Connecticut, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Illinois, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maine and states you would never guess will be determined. NCAA conference champions will be crowned as games lead up to the Frozen Four in Columbus, Ohio, in early April.

This is the time of the year when moms wear their favorite player's buttons on their sweatshirts. When signs are made, fresh film is loaded up, new batteries are installed in the digital camera and a fresh tape is put in the camcorder. When caravans of minivans roll down North America's highways anticipating the big game with nervousness and excitement. This is the time of year when hockey's heart beats quickest and strongest. The heart of the game and the soul of the game are at your local rink this month. There will be players playing this month who will go on to win Stanley Cups. Who go on to score 500 goals. And who go on to earn induction into hockey's Hall of Fame.

For those immersed in the culture of hockey, hockey is never locked out because the game is owned by the players, coaches, parents and officials. The game can never be taken away. It's always there, like the seasons. Dependable, loyal and passionate. This is youth and minor hockey.

As the NHL looks to reinvent and reconstruct its industry and relationship with its customers, the owners should leave their boardrooms and yachts and head to a rink this month. The players should get in their Mercedes, leave their country clubs for a Saturday and drive to a local rink, too. It is there they will find the answer to the question of how to rebuild and grow a fan base.

You watch an 11-year-old from Barnstable, Mass. You watch his cheering Mom with her button and her yells of encouragement. You watch and you suck in all the great values of the game and you vow to your customer base that, in the future, you and your partners vow to forever be: Dependable. Loyal. And Passionate. Let the games begin.

John,
If you are ever in the southern part of Maine and you see a pewter Chevy Silverado with the license plate NHL-SUX, stop me and I will buy you a beer.

David H. Selby
Portsmouth, N.H.

The last time I was in Maine, I was tied to a tree and seduced by a moose. It will take a case of beer, a vat of mozzarella sticks and a game-worn Paul Kariya Maine sweater to get me back to southern Maine, David.


Hey John,
Now that the NHL is finally dead, after a sudden and falsely reported pulse, it's time to place the blame firmly on the players. What part of an Arena Football League network TV deal (no upfront monies) and a watered-down ESPN deal (essentially half of the previous contract) don't the players understand? Here's what the fans understand: $80 seats, $15 parking, and $10 beers -- all for the joy of watching Trent Klatt clutch and grab his way to a million-dollar salary. The players wanted no part of a salary cap because they say "why can't the owners police themselves?" That's pretty simple; it's called collusion. The very second that the players' salaries suddenly stalled, the NHLPA lawyers would be screaming about collusion. Ask MLB baseball owners who were sued and had to pay for "policing themselves" how that worked out. The players have officially killed the golden (or at least the silver) goose. When the NHL opens its doors again, the players will only dream about a payroll anywhere near $42.5 million. I hope they enjoy Russia, Germany or the beer league of their choice. This will go down as the biggest blunder in the history of sports union negotiations.

Take care,

Ty Visconti
Fontana, Calif.

To be fair to the players, the owners have yet to put forth a comprehensive offer that deals with all of the economic problems the game has. Granted, the players were way too late in getting off their "NO CAP EVER, NEVER, EVER, EVER" to work on all the issues of a complicated CBA, but the owners need to guard against being arrogant and make a comprehensive offer to the players in the coming weeks and put it on their Web site explaining its reasoning. Their customers may be blaming players now, but in time, the tide will turn and the fans will want reasons their sport continues to be devalued by owners who are greedy.


John,
It's funny that I read the letters that are sent to you in which the people state that they'll never come back to the game. And they won't even follow their favorite teams. I, on the other hand, will come back. No questions. The game is so deep within me nothing could quell the burn for the game I have. My two sports are hockey and golf. I don't choose to love them; I just do.

Sincerely,

Eric Banks
Las Vegas, Nev.

I'm with you, Eric. But I think much of the anger comes from fans who have made large financial investments in the sport with yearly season-ticket purchases that total in the tens of thousands, only to be dismissed. A lot of those fans have not renewed. Some will never buy again. Some will wait a few years. Some will return right away.


John,
I have two questions:

1. When are the players going to realize they're not partners with the owners; they're employees? They don't have any financial liability for the economic performance of the teams on which they play. They get paid no matter if the team makes or loses money.

2. When are the owners going to realize that if they want to treat their teams like businesses they should be catering to their customers, the fans, who buy their product? Customers in our own jobs don't care about internal problems; why should we as customers of the NHL care and suffer for the internal issues of their "business"?

John Rubino
Dallas

1. This is true, John, and well said, but the players are the show, have a unique worldly talent that very few humans have, assume a big health risk every time they lace 'em up, and NHL owners had a long history, perhaps now largely untrue, of blatantly deceiving the players.

2. Well said. It is amazing how self-absorbed both sides have been in this stalemate. More so the owners. When play resumes, negotiate with them over season tickets. Name your price. I will give you this for two season tickets. Take it or leave it. That won't work in Toronto or other rinks with large demand, but for most of the league, this work stoppage is good for the fans in that it should give them leverage to get good ticket deals.


John,
The mighty dollar did more than cancel this season; it has taken away the passion. Due to new arenas and higher salaries, the true hockey fan can no longer afford tickets. So instead of "Mr. Blue Collar True Fan" sitting near the ice getting rowdy and screaming for victory, we watch on TV and see "Mr. My Company Gave Me These For Free" talking on the phone and leaving with 10 minutes left to beat the traffic. Without the electricity that used to come from the fans, the players seem to have the "it is a long season and I am too tired to give it my all tonight."

Do I think that some rule changes would help the game? Absolutely. Do I think that any of these changes will be able to make as big of a difference as "Mr. Blue Collar True Fan?" Not a chance.

Mike Katz
Philadelphia, Pa.

Great e-mail, Mike. I have written over and over again that most NHL arenas are too big and the atmosphere is not conducive to high-octane energy and atmosphere. Couple that with the cell phone-calling boors in the lower bowl and regular-season games often have atmospheres that rival a Josh Groban meet-and-greet.


John,
Instead of trash-talking about hockey pools and checking stats, I am finishing my thesis and have never enjoyed my studies more. The NHL has broadened my horizons and improved my life by disappearing. The irony is: while they think they're arguing over how many millions each side is supposed to make, there won't be any millions if other people react the same way I did. When they come back, they may find they've been arguing over nothing, because their source of income has moved on to bigger and better things.

I'll always love the game, but my money is better spent on my family than those of people who take it for granted.

Alex Dutchak
Edmonton, Alberta

These kinds of e-mails are too passionate and also too well thought out. Former NHL customers -- like Alex, I'm afraid -- are quite serious. The answer for the NHL is to cultivate new fans and teenagers with a more exciting and creative product. The most important word for the future of the NHL is creative. Rules, marketing, fan relations. And we can put logos on helmets. The University of Michigan has the coolest hockey helmets. Ohio State's are awesome now. I want to see a big winged wheel on the Wings' helmets. A big, bold blue note on Barrett Jackman's helmet. The helmet has been vastly underutilized. Football helmets are some of the coolest pieces of memorabilia in sport because of the colors, striping and logos. NHL hockey helmets are white. Or black. Or whatever. The helmet should be bold. Bold stripes, bold logos.


John,
We should all boycott the first NHL game next season. I think 30 empty arenas would send a powerful message to the owners and the players' union. We are the NHL's customers. Our money, our time, and our passions pay their bills and we're really ticked off at the way they are treating us!

Thanks,

Stamin P. Rodfong

A boycott would only hurt the owners. The players will already be getting paid. That being said, since NHL revenues are shifting back to ticket sales almost exclusively, once again you have the leverage. Simply, do not go to a game until you feel the ticket price is sane. This season has proved our heads won't explode without hockey. When this thing is all settled, make your voice heard. Stay home and watch the game on TV. Even if your team is good. Don't support a team with obscene ticket prices, and make that known when they try to call you up to get you to purchase tickets. That's the only way you are relevant in this mad game.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.

John Buccigross | email

SportsCenter anchor
John Buccigross joined ESPN as an anchor in October 1996. He currently can be seen as an anchor on "SportsCenter." Buccigross frequently contributes to ESPN.com during the season.

ALSO SEE