The NHL's next step: a personality infusion
After Year One of its R 'n' R (reclamation and restoration) Project, the NHL's once-dilapidated house has been rescued from the wrecker's ball. The league reawakened a sense of competitive parity long absent among much of a frustrated fan base, and alterations to the on-ice product delivered its star players from the evils of coaches who focused on repressing, rather than rewarding, the game's true talents.
That's the good news. Now, the cruddy news: In a pro sports marketplace increasingly driven by athletes' ability to self-promote, the NHL strolls the sidelines like a wallflower, still too modest and stubborn to amplify its aura. And it continues to pay the price for a long-held reticence toward marketing its individual players.
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For evidence, see the Los Angeles Times' recent decision to drop both its road coverage of the Kings and Ducks, as well as Hall of Fame writer Helene Elliott's weekly hockey column. And think, those teams are going to be good; can you imagine what kind of coverage the St. Louis Blues will receive?
Simply put, this league still needs a personality enema in the worst way. Too many players and managers remain unconvinced of the desperate need for them to open up and sell the merits, inherent and recently added, of a sport that still pays some considerable bills. For the majority, talking in truisms still somehow represents a lifeboat in a swirling sea of reporter sharks.
True, the new collective bargaining agreement is in its infancy, and NHLers can be forgiven for taking this long to recover from realizing they consciously agreed to enter into a business partnership with Charles Wang and Bill Wirtz. But if players and management don't soon adapt to the realities of modern marketing, they're certain to be virtually abandoned by a mass media more concerned with shrinking editorial space and eroding attention spans than hockey's subtleties and nuances.
They can start by outlawing the cliché. Treat it like diving and obstruction -- because, as we've noted in previous columns, there is nothing that deadens a sports fan's soul quite like an overused, underconsidered demonstration of lip service.
Here's a more recent example. On the night he was named the league's 2005-06 MVP, Sharks superstar Joe Thornton unloaded this contender for MVC (Most Vacuous Cliché):
"I think every time you get 100 points, it's a special season," Thornton said at the NHL awards in Vancouver, "and when you get your team in the playoffs, it's a special season. So when those two things happen, you say, 'Hey, you're having a special season.' "
In an ideal world, the sports media would be working with the industry to illuminate the icons and plumb the depths of a game that's had the greatest of good guys and dirtiest, most rotten scoundrels. Part of our business should be dreaming up fun, new nicknames for players -- and in case you were wondering, the early frontrunner for Best New Nickname of 2006-07 (We Thought Of It Category) is Florida Panthers center Stephen "Miami" Weiss.
Instead, reporters are sent off with nothing but buckets of gray paint, and expected to return with Rembrandts. That's what you call a tall order.
But here's an idea that could help: a Cliché Cap player ratings system. Said system -- where points are assigned to certain personality traits, and structure emphasizes a balance between extroverts and those who live for the team dynamic -- would apply to all 30 teams, in the name of redistributing talking talents throughout the league.
Categories, characteristics and point values are as follows:
1. The Sphinx You might wanna be knowin', but he ain't gonna be tellin'. State secrets are safe with this guy. You often get the urge to surreptitiously hold an open flame under his feet, just to see whether he's a robot sent out to reporters as a decoy. The Sphinx could be kidnapped and imprisoned for days in a room with only a CD player, a best-of Barry Manilow collection inside it, and no knob to turn down the deafening volume -- and he'd still leave the room all dead-eyed and monotoney, saying things like, "It was a very interesting experience. I took a lot away from it." Mission Freakin' Impossible. Examples: Joe Sakic, Ed Belfour Cap Value: 8 points per player
2. The Guy Who Can Exhibit Sphinx-like Tendencies, Yet Definitely Has It In Him To Go Off Under The Right Circumstances Nine times out of 10, this player is content to lull your inquisitorial nature into mush, but given the proper provocation -- a spear to the nards, a teammate or opposition member questioning his guts, a tough night at the casino -- he's stored away enough vitriol to blow a reporter's hair back like the guy in that famous Maxell ad. Examples: Daniel Alfredsson, Darcy Tucker, Robert Esche Cap Value: 5 points
3. The Reporter's Best Friend Forever This fine, upstanding gentleman clearly understands how self-promotion helps sell tickets. No matter how inane your expertly crafted question might be, dude can figure out a way to save your journalistic bacon. And when there's something on his mind he really wants to get off his chest, you'd be an ass not to have a microphone, camera or notepad in his face. Examples: Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, Sean Avery. Cap Value: 2 points
At the end of the season, each team's Cliché Cap total would be limited to a maximum of 100 points, meaning GMs couldn't have more than half their roster filled with crabby, shut-in types. And every point a team is over the cap would cost $1 million, to be paid into a trust fund that would buy teams away from any and all owners who refuse to air their home games on TV.
Not that we're targeting anyone in particular.
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