Selling Pucks

Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images. Yes, I believe that is a built-in beer holder on that Hulk hand.

Slate recently ran an article on the difficulty of selling hockey through star power. It’s a good read, touching on a few common hurdles to watching hockey: stars only playing part of the game (what are these shifts you speak of?), the difficulty identifying players on the ice (helmets + visors = robocop), and the difficulty of following the play.

I agree with the article that HD is probably the single biggest gain the sport has received in recent years. When Time Warner Cable activated Versus HD in time for the start of the playoffs, it was like Christmas in April. The wider aspect ratio means that you can see an entire offensive zone without the camera panning, a boon on power plays as well as for following the developing rush through the neutral zone. You can also pick out the players more easily. I think if the NHL and Versus are serious about selling the sport, they should be fighting to get Versus HD into as many homes as possible. While they’re at it, maybe they can get Time Warner to start carrying the HD feeds of my Center Ice games. Have you ever seen the sub-SD feed from Calgary home games? You basically identify players by their skating style. It falls somewhere in between radio and television.

I agree that hyping up a star like Crosby in the hopes of selling a sport is a largely futile exercise, but that’s not the same thing as saying that star power doesn’t exist in hockey. My own love of the sport came from a chance encounter with a KTLA broadcast of a Kings game, back in 1992. I caught on pretty quickly that this Wayne Gretzky guy was pretty special, even if he only popped up on screen every three minutes or so. But had someone sold me on watching a game simply on the promise of magical feats from Gretzky, I’m sure I would’ve been a little bit disappointed. It’s not the same thing as basketball, where you can watch a player pile up the points every trip down the paint. Hockey is a game of sustained tension that occasionally harmonizes into a beautiful scoring play, but mostly it’s a story of plays that almost happen.

It’s tough for the uninitiated to follow the play, mainly because there’s often the naive assumption that you have to follow the puck exclusively. I hear that Versus is toying with the idea of puck tracking, seemingly unaware that this has been tried before, to enduring ridicule. I think the best piece of I ever received when I was first getting into the sport was to stop focusing exclusively on the puck, and instead watch the players and their body position, since they know where the puck is.