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John Gonzalez of the Inquirer doesn't like hockey, therefore nobody else does either

It's safe to say that John Gonzalez, writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is not a hockey fan. And because he is not a lover of all things puck, he apparently believes that nobody else is, either.

In a column in Tuesday's paper, Mr. Gonzalez takes a few cheap shots at the NHL by saying that, among other things, the league should stop national broadcasts because nobody in America cares, and that if every team in America besides the Flyers moved to Canada, Philadelphians wouldn't notice.

[Hockey has] become a niche sport, a regionalized pastime with devoted fans who love the home team but not necessarily the international product. It's partly why hockey's American television ratings consistently rank last among the four major pro sports.

I wonder how long they'll even bother to keep those figures. I read a story in the Toronto Sun recently that said talks about renewing a deal between the NHL and NBC have yet to "heat up." NBC is in the final year of its two-year deal with the NHL. The piece made it sound like the two parties might reach a new agreement - or they might not.

When I contacted the NHL to ask if it was possible that national hockey broadcasts might vanish from our televisions, deputy commissioner Bill Daly told me that the league's relationship with NBC "has never been stronger."

"We continue to share the common goal of growing the NHL's exposure and importance as a national television property in the United States, and our current relationship with NBC has been instrumental in demonstrating our ability jointly to achieve that objective," Daly said.

Well, hey, good luck with that, Bill. Because my first reaction to the news that NBC might bail on the NHL was "hooray." It made me dream of a world where no one suffers through national hockey games because they will have disappeared from our television.

In the Sun article that Mr. Gonzalez cites, the writer paraphrases NHL Senior VP for Broadcasting John Shannon, saying "talks won't heat up on renewing the deal until after the Super Bowl hangover subsides. That also will give both NHL and NBC executives a chance to see how the next few weeks draw, beginning with Saturday's Stanley Cup final rematch between Pittsburgh and Detroit." Somehow, Gonzalez draws from that statement that "NBC might bail on the NHL," an assumption that is misguided and flat out incorrect.

NBC's ratings have been on par with last season, but the Winter Classic on New Years' Day was the largest TV crowd in NHL history. In December, both NBC and the NHL were happy with the agreement, and The Globe and Mail in Toronto reported that they were expected to renew their agreement for 2010.

But the current deal with NBC is not a money-maker for the NHL. Coming out of the lockout, they didn't have much of a bargaining position. But now, mainly due to the success of the Winter Classic, the league feels it does have leverage, and as The Hockey News points out, there is word Fox is interested in the contract, giving the league a potential bidding war which would allow them to garner bigger profits off of their television contract -- a vital key in continued growth of the game (much to the chagrin of Mr. Gonzalez, I'm sure).

To be clear, I have no beef with the Flyers. Catching the local guys on Comcast SportsNet is fine by me. But I'd rather watch an Arena League Football game - if the AFL were still operating, that is - than settle down for three periods of out-of-town hockey. And I don't think I'm alone.

Would you be that broken up about not getting the next Calgary-Columbus clash? Would you head out to the bar or buy the NHL package to catch Colorado vs. Washington?

Last year's Arenabowl XXII, won by the Philadelphia Soul, garnered a 5.3 rating in the Philly market. Comparably, the final game of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, which featured Pittsburgh and Detroit, picked up a 5.5 rating in the Philadelphia market. Out-of-town hockey beats in-town arena football in Philly -- what a shocker!

Also, keep in mind that the Flyers were knocked out of the playoffs by Pittsburgh just two weeks prior to that game. I don't know about anybody else, but I don't want to watch my teams' biggest rival, who just beat my team to a bloody pulp, play in the Finals.

I think it's safe to say that Mr. Gonzalez actually is alone.

Not long ago, there was a rumor about the NHL putting another team in Toronto. While the hard-core puck heads up in Ottawa no doubt debated the plan, it seemed like hardly anyone south of the border noticed. The NHL could move every team in the league (save the Flyers) to Toronto and it's doubtful anyone around here would blink. I'm betting the same goes for other American cities, too.

Oddly enough, Ed Moran of the Philadelphia Daily News (one of Mr. Gonzalez's colleagues, given that they work in the same building) felt it was necessary to mention how the Phoenix Coyotes are in trouble and might have to move in an article last month. And back in 1997, when the Hartford Whalers moved to Carolina, the Daily News and Inquirer both printed headlined articles on the subject. But of course, it's safe to say Philadelphians don't care about the movement of other teams. We wouldn't blink if the Rangers, Devils, or Islanders moved to Canada, either. No way. 

Part of that is because hockey has never been the country's favorite sport, and part of that is because the NHL lacks the oversize personalities that dominate other leagues. Almost everyone knows about LeBron or Kobe, but how many fans can opine about Alex Ovechkin or Marc Savard?

First off, since when is Marc Savard a superstar (he's having a great season, but come on)? Anybody with any ounce of credibility would've said "Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby" in that sentence, and that's coming from someone who can't stand Crosby. And I guarantee you that a ton of people know who Crosby is. But, I digress.

When one thinks of "NBA" they think Kobe versus Lebron, like in this ESPN article where it takes an entire paragraph before "Cavaliers" or "Lakers" is even mentioned. You don't think of the teams they play for right off of the bat. Hockey is a different sport, more of a team focused sport. You think of "Rangers versus Flyers"  or "Avalanche versus Red Wings" when you think of the NHL. In hockey, it's difficult for one personality to dominate a game, while in basketball it is commonplace. That's just a simple effect of the game.

Here in Philly, the Sixers cannot sell out a game for their lives. They have the 25th best attendance in the NBA, averaging 14,747 fans per game. The Flyers are operating at 99.8 percent capacity in the exact same building and have the fourth best attendance in the NHL. They are the only non-Original Six franchise in the top five.

The leader in NBA attendance is the Detroit Pistons. In May of 2008, the Pistons and their NHL counterpart, the Red Wings, had playoff games on the same night. The Wings game had an 18.2 rating in the Detroit market, while the Pistons had a 15.9 rating. This season, NHL attendance and television ratings have increased across the board while NBA attendance this season has remained flat.

The biggest, longest-lasting national news to come out of the NHL this season happened when former Dallas Stars winger Sean Avery said something not-so-nice about ex-girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert. In any other sport, Avery's comments would have barely registered. He's an extremely poor man's T.O., a watered down version of Stephon Marbury, a not-nearly-as-interesting facsimile of Manny Ramirez. It takes a lot more than trash talking a former flame to keep pace with that crew.

In the NFL, where shooting yourself in the leg is a mere hazing ritual, Avery would go almost totally unnoticed. But in the NHL, a league full of players as stiff as the ice itself, Avery was painted as a bad boy who had to be punished.

I cannot believe he tried to use that as justification. I'm sure hockey fans would love it if NHL stars led dogfighting rings, or if they carried illegal weapons into New York City nightclubs, or if they committed a laundry list of other criminal acts, but we're just not privy to that luxury. Instead we'll have to deal with "our stiff as ice" players, like this guy, these guys, and these guys. That's too bad.

Hockey is in fact the number four sport in America, and that's something that will perhaps never change due to a million different factors -- it's a complicated game, half of the country doesn't get snow, it's the most expensive of the major sports to play, etc. But it is not nearly as far off the pace and off the radar of the American sports fan as ESPN and this column would lead you to believe.

Mr. Gonzalez, I doubt you will read this because it appears you don't do much research before you pen an article. But if you do, I ask you to remember where you work. This is Philadelphia, one of America's greatest hockey cities. You are entitled to your opinion, but you are also entitled to back up your opinion with true factual data. Your column on Tuesday was both misleading and disrespectful to millions of hockey fans in the Delaware Valley and beyond.