Friday, February 10, 2006

NHL Might Need CPR

I have been asked to provide my assessment of the NHL gambling scandal (keep those requests coming, fellas). Okay, let's begin by establishing my credentials in the pertinent areas.

Here is what I know about hockey. I know that when I was growing up, my hometown team, the Washington Capitals, were one of the worst professional sports franchises in history. They were the L.A. Clippers on ice (Yes, I am aware that the Clips are playing .600 ball right now, but they have only two other .500 seasons in the last 25 years, so I think the comparison stands). The only good thing about the Caps was Rod Langway, the imposing defenseman who was one of the last guys to play without a helmet. I know that the NHL tradition that players on the championship team get to take the Stanley Cup wherever they want is one of the coolest sports traditions ever. I know that I watched every home game the Cornell University hockey team played in the 1986-87 season, and I still can't really explain the finer points of icing. I know that hockey players deserve consideration as the best athletes in the world. If, as some people like to say, the hardest thing to do in sports is hit a baseball, try hitting a moving object of similar size into a goal that is defended by a guy who might as well be holding an ironing board and a butterfly net and don't worry about the defensemen trying to take your head off while you shoot. Did I mention you have to do this while skating at top speed? On ice? If you have ever shot pool or played golf with a good hockey player, you would understand the incredible wrist strength and hand-eye coordination needed to excel in this sport. Finally, I know that if your kid wants to play hockey, you had better be prepared to spend a lot of money on equipment and ice time, drive many miles to practice and play at odd hours, and don't get me started on the potential run-ins with figure-skating moms.

Now, what do I know about sports betting? Less than I know about hockey. I might be the only sports fan, and maybe the only person in America, who has not made some sort of wager on the Super Bowl or the NCAA Basketball Tournament in at least five years. No office pools, no dollar-a-square on the score at the quarters, no fantasy football, basketball or baseball (is there a NASCAR fantasy league?). Not only do I not play in a weekly poker game, I have never played Texas Hold 'Em. I have been to Las Vegas once, where I played blackjack, and have made some bets on horse races at the Maryland State Fair the last two years.

Now that I have provided the necessary bona fides, let me say that this is very, very, very bad for the NHL. Of all the things that turn off modern-day sports fans - enormous salaries, skyrocketing ticket prices, the constant roster turnover - gambling is the worst because it threatens the basic principal of sport as competition. The most troubling issue in the NBA right now is the idea that players are not giving maxium effort in order to get themselves traded (see Vince Carter). If fans believe that players have motivations other than winning, they will lose interest very quickly (unless they think they can see a fight or an explosive car crash).

And it's not like the NHL is in a great position to absorb the haymaker coming its way. This is a league that has been trying to get fans to come back after a management-labor dispute destroyed an entire season. Even before last year, hockey had struggled for years to catch the Big Three of American sports only to falter as NASCAR and golf - whenever Tiger Woods plays - passed it by. There is a solid niche audience for hockey, people who are willing to pay the exhorbitant ticket prices to see the games, but the golden ticket of major sports success, national network television coverage, has always proved elusive. The NHL is still solidly ahead of soccer, lacrosse, and sports that only get attention during the Olympics, but the betting scandal will cripple its efforts to broaden its audience and realienate the disgruntled fans who were coming around on a pretty good season.

The news really couldn't be much worse for the NHL. If you ask any sports fan to name the best hockey players of all time, Wayne Gretzky is likely the first name they come up with. Afficionados might argue for Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull or Mario Lemieux, but Gretzky would be part of the conversation. He may not be an actual participant in the betting, but he is the guy who represents the idea that hockey can expand and be successful where it has no traditional foundation, as it did when he joined the Los Angeles Kings. Even if he is not directly involved, he is way too close to avoid substantial damage to his reputation and collateral damage to the league. The comparison to Pete Rose is unfair right now because we don't know if Gretzky made any bets, but he is every bit the icon that Rose was to baseball.

Some might say that I am overreacting, especially if there is no proof that there was any gambling on hockey. In fact, the authorities have said there is no evidence to indicate that there was, but this is an ongoing investigation of a five-year old ring that handled $1.7 million in illegal wagers during the six weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, so I think it's fair to speculate that there might be a great deal more evidence to be found. Now, $1.7 million is actually a miniscule percentage of what is legally wagered on the Super Bowl every year and estimates of illegal sports gambling are multiples of that, so this investigation is not going to put a dent in sports gambling. But it is going to put a major dent in the NHL as it continues to fall lower and lower in the ranks of American sports. In the words of H.I. McDunnough, "I preminisce no return to the salad days."

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