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What the Puck

Why is it so hard for the NHL to market a great product?

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What a wonderful world it would be if illegal steroids, point shaving and dog fighting merely made up the landscape of a Sopranos episode or the next season of Laguna Beach. But they are grave matters on the plate for major sports. Well, not all major sports. But even without scandals, make no mistake, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has problems, too.

Penguins wunderkind Jordan Staal was charged with misdemeanors of disorderly conduct and underage drinking while attending a bachelor party for his brother on July 27 in Minnesota. Even though the transgression is almost endearing, it illustrates hockey's visibility problems: Heck, the NHL can't even make the headlines on the blotter pages.

You don't have to convince me to watch hockey, but NHL ratings continue to plummet, with games garnering spotty national coverage. Here are a few simple suggestions on how to put hockey above the fold on sports pages.

The most glaring need for the NHL is a broadcasting partner available to viewers with basic cable versus the Versus Network. If the league can't work a deal for some national weeknight broadcasts on sports behemoth ESPN, it needs to partner up with Fox or even USA Network to buttress the occasional NBC weekend games. USA reaches more homes than Versus and already carries wrestling one night a week. Why not hockey?

Sure there are problems with broadcasting hockey on television. It's hard to watch the action develop because to get a sense of the beauty of the game, you really need to see all of the ice. But the bigger problem is that, more often than not, the game literally isn't on television. If you broadcast, they will watch.

The NHL has a great "gimmick" game in the works for the 2007-2008 season, pitting the Buffalo Sabres against the Penguins in an outdoor tilt. It's a grand idea. It harkens back to simpler times. And the Sabres and Pens are two of the most exciting teams in hockey, with the speed and athleticism to hook casual fans. But the match-up is scheduled for New Year's Day. Does the NHL really want to go up against the Cotton Bowl, the Gator Bowl, the Sugar Bowl and the freaking Rose Bowl? This isn't the Dollar Store/Granny's Babushka Bowl featuring Weber State and Morehead. Moreover, does Gary Bettman really think that he can out-sentimentalize the Rose Bowl?

Why not schedule the game for one week after the Super Bowl? Of course, the NHL might not want to go up against the ratings-juggernaut Pro Bowl.

The NHL needs to exploit its rivalries because rivalries feed ratings. Casual fans outside the northeast corridor tune into baseball's Sawks-Yanks broadcasts precisely because of the bad blood. There are plenty of old-school rivals to feature: the Toronto Maple Leafs versus the Detroit Red Wings; the NY Rangers against the NY Islanders; the Calgary Flames versus the Edmonton Oilers; and the Pens and the Flyers. They need to use those natural regional antipathies to build national buzz.

Take a page from the NBA's book and market individual players. Sid Crosby is as marketable as Lebron James. Make sure that every team plays every other team at least once. Teams with poor attendance can put fannies in seats, because fans will buy tickets to see Vincent Lecavalier, Danny Heatley or Teemu Selanne. As it stands, a quick look at the Penguins schedule indicates that they will not travel to Chicago to play the Blackhawks. For the second year in a row. Are they trying to kill Windy City fans? As a result of their putridity, the moribund Blackhawks are drawing only about 62 percent capacity to their facility, and Chicago fans don't even get to see Sid? Painful. (It's no fluke that the Rangers and the Penguins are one and two in terms of percentage attendance on the road.)

The NHL needs to halt expansion. It doesn't need Lebensraum; it needs viewers. Forget about Vegas, because transient non-fans will choose the tables and Celine Dion over the Las Vegas Point-Spreaders anyways. And get a team back to Quebec City.

If all else fails, the NHL might consider sponsorship with Viagra and Cialis or one of a hundred available erectile-dysfunction pills. Football tough guy Mike Ditka was a spokesman. Why not have Gary Roberts shilling for them? Who could be more studly than Roberts?

Even though I joke about skating swiftly and carrying a big stick, right now the NHL's lack of image problems are as serious as the problems facing NBA commish David Stern.

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