- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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In April, while on a book-promotion trip made possible because Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow had twiddled their thumbs and thumbed their noses at NHL fans, I detoured from media and bookstore appearances to speak to a fifth- and sixth-grade class at Blessed Sacrament School in Madison, Wis.
When Father Pat Norris opened the floor to questions, they came in quick succession. And were they about books or writing? Nope.
First question: "When's the NHL coming back?"
And then, all from different kids: "Do you know Joe Sakic?" "Peter Forsberg?" "Steve Yzerman?"
Yes, the Wisconsin Badgers' home arena was within walking distance, and the sport always has been almost as big a deal in Madison as Plaza Burgers and State Street Brats, but I still was surprised. It turned out that more than one of the students was a rink rat, and the hockey interest in the class largely crossed all the aisles.
Interestingly, though, these kids were within driving distance of Chicago, but because they had limited opportunities to see the Blackhawks on television, they weren't asking about Jocelyn Thibault.
In contrast, while appearing at the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock a year earlier, I finished my session, then camped out at the bar of a sports restaurant with a couple of other writers, ordered a beer and a sandwich, and asked the bartender to tune in the Colorado Avalanche-San Jose Sharks playoff game.
I might as well have asked him to look for that British cricket match on the satellite dish, and I got the impression in my various visits to the Arkansas capital that there's a reason minor-league hockey didn't make a go of it in Little Rock. The sport apparently never has caught on there, either on TV or in the rink.
I'm stubborn. The New NHL, as codified in the collective bargaining agreement, needs to work to make Little Rock and Boise, and even Butte, more like Madison. And I say that, knowing that there's no skating around this, regardless of whether the darned zebra enforces the obstruction standards or not: The NHL's hard-line position in the past year was in part a sign of surrender in its battle to become a pervasively popular sport, especially on television, from border to border in the United States.
The new television deals -- the limited-exposure agreement with NBC as well as the cable contracts that shake out in the near future -- will be far less lucrative than in the past. It's arguable that the NHL's implicit and overt trashing of its own product contributed to the broadcast revenue drain because it's tough to negotiate credibly when a lockout is on the horizon or in full swing.
Plus, Bettman's Folly was overexpansion because the temporary revenue boon of adding new teams was more than offset by the failure of the penetration of new markets to add to the NHL's television ratings and allure in the U.S.
One theoretical option, of course, would be for the NHL to encourage or allow the folding of several franchises in nontraditional markets and in other ways make that U.S. surrender an official policy.
But we know that isn't happening, right?
So although it might make some sense for the NHL to circle the wagons in the U.S., so to speak, focusing entirely on retaining and nurturing new fans in its own markets and not worrying about the hockey hinterlands, I still hope that doesn't become the strategy.
Darn it, I'm still idealistic about this sport.
I've been through NBC's Peter Puck after the original expansion wave and Fox's Blue Streak in recent years. I've seen and even written "Hockey 101" primers after the arrival of NHL franchises in "new" markets.
But I've also experienced the enjoyment of witnessing transformations in both individual fans and entire markets, when grandmothers who didn't know the color of the blue line a few years ago now are asking why the hell that clown is on the point, when mothers are driving vanloads of kids to the rink for USA Hockey-affiliated leagues and programs, and when -- just to cite one example -- a national championship collegiate hockey program in Denver increasingly is drawing from an in-state talent pool.
Don't give up, and not only because the new partnership between owners and players is tied to percentage of revenues and dollars can come because of interest in the non-NHL markets, as well. Don't give up, and not only because minor-league pro hockey has spread to unlikely outposts in the U.S. (how about those Laredo Bucks?), and even there it can become more than a cheap-ticket, beer-and-fights phenomenon.
The sport still can be too good not to be a national force in the U.S., even if it's a difficult sell to the uninitiated on television.
It would help if two things happen:
• One, the sport's most fervent proponents, whether in the seats or the front offices, in Canada, Sweden or the U.S., ditch this proprietary, "our sport" mind-set. Potential new fans -- yes, especially in the U.S. -- have been turned off when they encounter the attitude that they should have to pass a rules and a history test to be allowed to buy a ticket for an NHL game, or that they must swear allegiance to hockey above all other sports to be considered a true fan.
The NHL has remained a niche and cult sport in the U.S. in part because some fans don't want to go through what sometimes can seem to be like a fraternity initiation to be accepted. And, yes, the fans in the nontraditional markets tire of being belittled in the double-standard judgments: Empty seats in Boston are because the history-drenched Bruins stink and consumers are smart; but empty seats in Florida for a rotten Panthers team are because the fans are "bad" and it's an unworthy market.
• And two, many high- and low-profile members of the U.S. media, even in large markets where the NHL is a major attraction, cease serving up their rationalizations for continuing ignorance about, and inattention to, hockey.
This is where I'm a hockey "houseman," and I am neither apologetic nor pandering to the specialized audience in this forum. Whether columnists or commentators, members of the media should live up to their responsibility to be in touch with the hockey audience, which at least in those major markets is far more numerous than is acknowledged in many wings of the mainstream media.
In line with that, I'm sick of the "Chicago" rationalization, the one that went (at least in the old days): "There are only 18,000 people in Chicago who care about hockey, and they're all at the Chicago Stadium." Hockey interest is more widespread than that, and it gets ridiculous when columnists in major markets are writing more about bad NBA teams drawing, oh, 6,000 a game than NHL powerhouses selling out. Why? Because there's "more interest" in the NBA.
Maybe there is.
And despite some of the implicit acknowledgments of late, the NHL shouldn't give up on making the sport popular from sea to shining sea.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
14dScott Burnside and Craig Custance