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December 8, 2003

Story by: Michael Hobson

The biggest problem the NHL has continually faced is the slow growth of interest in the game in the U.S. The game is only popular in small pockets of the country. The league cannot find a way to attract large U.S. television audiences to its games, and therefore cannot attract large U.S. television dollars to the league-one of many reasons why next season a labour dispute will likely see a long stoppage of play. The league has tried everything to attract American interest, from major expansion to a glowing puck on television but the game has yet to make a dent in many major markets. Television ratings show that interest in hockey in the U.S. ranks somewhere between amateur swimming and professional bowling. So why is it that when Canada decides to hold a classic event meant to honour the history and commitment by the country to the game that the U.S. cries foul for not being involved? The question remains--when has the U.S. ever been involved?

On a frightfully cold winter day in November the NHL held what it called its Heritage Classic. The game, between the Montreal Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers was played at Commonwealth Stadium, an outdoor football facility, in front of more than 60,000 eager, enthusiastic, frigid fans, with the results counting in the standings. The game was preceded by a Legends contest between the two teams (the dynasties from the seventies--Montreal, and the eighties--Edmonton) and was highlighted by the reappearance of the greatest of them all, Wayne Gretzky, donning an Oiler jersey one last time. The day was highly anticipated by all Canadian hockey fans and millions watched both games. It was a day and event that was special to all Canadians.

In the aftermath many U.S. media outlets complained that the game was largely ignored in their country, and that the NHL erred by not arranging a U.S. feed. The problem was that the U.S. networks didn't want to commit the time and money needed to air the contest. The game was being played on November 22, a date that was unacceptable to many television networks due to college football priorities and the upcoming Thanksgiving Day celebrations. They tried to have the date changed, but the weather in Edmonton was the driving force behind the date choice. It had to be held on a day that was cold enough so the ice could stay frozen, but not too cold so that the there wouldn't be a major outbreak of frostbite among players, coaches, officials, and fans.

The outdoor game was not an original idea. Indoor sports have been played in larger arena before-basketball games are often played in domes and a couple of years back Michigan and Michigan State played an outdoor hockey game in front of more than 70,000 fans. So why are many U.S. media types complaining that they weren't involved in this one? Why are they questioning the choice of teams, as in shouldn't the visiting team have been American based? "This is a celebration, but the casual American fan is not invited," wrote Kara Yorio of The Sporting News. Do Americans feel the need to be involved in everything, and if they are not do they feel slighted? I somehow doubt whether that "casual American fan" even knew the game took place-let alone cared.

"Next time around, could a U.S team come out and play?" whined Ms. Yorio. The thing is that nobody is stopping an American based NHL team from staging a similar event. If the Red Wings and the Rangers want to play at Ford Field in January I doubt whether any Canadian will gripe about not being involved.

Reprinted courtesy of www.thefanview.com



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