Image issues easy to fix

What do anthem singers, visors and Don Cherry have in common? More than you'd expect.

Updated: February 16, 2004, 12:21 PM ET
By Adam Proteau | The Hockey News

Although its staying power is questionable when there's an open bar involved, perception almost always is there to help us. When working as nature intended, it prevents us from embarking on acts of folly, such as sinking $10 million into a Broadway musical based on the life of Boy George, or planning a trip to see the Rangers in a postseason game. When it isn't working so well, Jay Leno tells funny jokes, Chris Kattan has a successful post-Saturday Night Live career ahead of him and Zdeno Chara doesn't resemble former NBA star Gheorghe Muresan.

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The NHL has some perception problems of its own ­ and no, we're not talking about the Dallas Stars' alternate jersey. We're talking about self-made, self-correctable problems, problems that contribute to the league's marketplace standing, problems that can end the livelihoods of its employees.

Case in point: the national anthem singer at the 2004 NHL All-Star Game. If you missed who it was, brace not only yourself, but all those whom you hold dear. Ready?

Why, it was none other than Eric McCormack, star of NBC's "Will & Grace!" Actually, upon instant reflection, can we retract that last exclamation mark? We ask because we're pretty sure none of you are loading your illegal file-sharing program to search for the warblings of Debra Messing's straight man.

Instead, when you contrast the NHL's extracurricular activities with the ones put on by the NFL and NBA, you wind up having the following conversation in your head:

Self: Let's see, the NFL had Beyonce singing the anthem (and Janet Jackson's revealing halftime performance) at the Super Bowl; the NBA is scheduled to have OutKast, Nelly Furtado and Christina Aguilera at its upcoming mid-season showcase; and the NHL had a bizarro-world Jack Tripper retread at theirs.

Other Self: So I'm supposed to compare Beyonce and OutKast, two of the hottest acts in music, with somebody whose biggest role outside of his TV gig was in an instantly forgettable Eddie Murphy comedy?

Self: Which instantly forgettable Eddie Murphy comedy?

Other Self: You're right, that was entirely too vague. McCormack was in "Holy Man." But that's not the point. The point is, nobody will associate the NHL with what's in vogue when they can't produce talent that compares to the cutting-edge marquees other leagues can boast of.

Self: Well put. And how do you think advertisers will interpret the differences between the NHL's entertainment package and those of other leagues? Not in the NHL's favor, that's how ­ unless the "closeted gay man cohabiting with painfully thin woman" demographic is driving TV ratings northward these days.

Truth is, McCormack could've exposed both his nipples, revealed the real secret to beating the one-armed bandits in Vegas (sorry, James Coburn) and convinced Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono to suck face while he sang the anthem, and the resulting media coverage wouldn't have been greater than what you'd expect for a "Joanie Loves Chachi" reunion show. It may not be fair, but image matters and you can't build your image using B-grade, second-wave celebrities.

The other perception problem the league must deal with is one we've touched on before ­ the great visor debate. It's been another season filled with eye injuries -- Chad Kilger, Darcy Tucker and Owen Nolan can now compare notes with the dozens of NHLers injured/maimed over the last few decades -- yet the standard libertarian rally cries of some NHLers continue to drown out the rational, reasonable expectations of medical professionals.

"It's our choice," went the players' tired excuse. "We're taking the risk, so we should have the final say on the issue." And that would be swell, except for the fact it isn't just the players who take the risk. It's the owners who employ them and the fans who pay to see them that also share in the risk.

Don Cherry is one of the most famous opponents of visors, but remember, this is a man who was offended to no end by commercials asking parents of young hockey players to keep their emotions -- and aspirations for their child's future -- in check. Using the same logic, commercials urging people to never drink and drive should be removed from the airwaves immediately, lest they slight the law-loving, sober-driving folk amongst us.

Then again, logic and reason aren't part of the argument against visor implementation. After all, every scientific study has shown a dramatic decrease in, if not total elimination of, eye injuries after shields have been made a necessary part of the equipment. You only get the "visors are fine, but only if you're a communist, sissy-fied rube who still thinks O.J. was innocent" argument -- or its "visors are ruining players' respect for one another" variation -- because both statements are all but impossible to debunk.

There's another perception problem to consider: Don Cherry and the CBC. If you missed it, Cherry was reprimanded by the Canadian TV network for another in a vacation-with-the-in-laws-long line of thinly veiled shots at European and French-Canadian players. (This time, Cherry implied that the majority of high-sticking penalties are awarded to players of European and French-Canadian descent.)

Again, the libertarians and champions of free expression went bonkers after the CBC -- a publicly owned broadcaster -- put Cherry on a seven-second delay for all future broadcasts and sternly rebuked the former Bruins coach for his divisive commentary. "If you don't like what he's saying," went their tired argument, "then change the channel on the idiot box."

And that too would be swell, except for the fact that Cherry appears on a channel owned by the public. If you do a little dictionary work on the word, you'll see "public" means "of, belonging to or concerning the people as a whole," not "of, belonging to or concerning the people who lie awake at night scared at the thought there's a European or French-Canadian bogeyman hiding under the bed."

In other words, a public broadcaster is a broadcaster for every member of the public. In other words, the perception that Cherry has become a martyr for free speech is an erroneous perception, because no one is denying him the right to spout off unprovable, broad-brush, quarter-truths. It's the forum by which he does so ­ and the resulting negative perception of the network he works for­ that's the real issue.

E-mail Adam Proteau at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.

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