Nothing for Something

“Monday wasn’t a blockbuster day for NHL trades,” the TSN website admits, HOWEVER, the site does go on to say that, “it certainly was a blockbuster day for TSN, as hockey fans once again turned to Canada’s Sports Leader in record numbers to experience the country’s most comprehensive coverage of NHL Trade Deadline Day with the multiplatform event, TRADECENTRE ’12.”

Well, it’s official then.

TSN Trade Breakers

TSN's Bob McKenzie, Gord Miller & Darren Dreger contribute to the Silk Purse Production known as NHL Trade Deadline Day.

Nearly 3 million people tuned in to watch TSN at some point on Monday, February 27, or roughly 21% more than would normally tune in. And for their trouble, 16 NHL player transactions took place, many of which were announced after the deadline passed and none of which rise to the level of … oh what’s the word I’m looking for… ah… Oh yes! mattering.

The TSN “Aren’t We Great” piece doesn’t indicate if that extra 21% was comprised of people who do not normally watch TSN, or if they are the same people that already watch TSN but just happened to tune in on a Monday afternoon at 3:50pm ET when otherwise, that wouldn’t.

But they aren’t alone on this bandwagon. Papers in NHL cities, Sportsnet, CBC, countless blogs and Twitter feeds all have a spot on the hayride.  So after seeing record attendance to their utterances, the ink-stained wretches, the hockey pucks, the talking heads, the “sports journalists” (a term to use delicately as this subset imparts a wealth hockey knowledge and inside information, whilst hardly ever citing a credible source) can all rest soundly knowing that their invented television event, the National Hockey League‘s Trade Deadline, is a ratings winner.

In the olden days, what I lovingly refer to as the pre-2000’s, the NHL’s trade deadline was no more than a bit of league housekeeping and official logistics. All it meant was that as of 3pm ET on the last Monday in February, teams can no longer trade players for the balance of the NHL season and playoffs.  In the 1980’s, the deadline might see 5-8 deals being made.

However today, in the hands of the sports pages and channels, the fate of teams now rest in making the right trade on this one day.  The other 364 days of the year are just foot-notes to these fan-altering, earth-shaking trades of a middling NHL player you probably haven’t heard of for another middling NHL player who you probably haven’t heard of either.

During the aughts, the number of deals rose to anywhere from 25-30 deals per year and in the minds of many of the man-children that occupy jobs as sports reporters, this is brilliant. From the days when hockey cards were swapped with friends, to trade actual hockey players is the stuff of fantasy. So to cover the Trade Deadline is almost as good as trading the players yourself. To report – sorry I mean – To spread rumour and conjectiure on the possible trade of a player and then have that player actually traded? Well, it’s almost like you had some influence in the process.

This year, there was one small problem. The league didn’t go along with the trade hype fuelled by the media. It seems when you actually run a professional hockey club, wish lists and opinions don’t much enter into it. Who knew?

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that sports channels shouldn’t do this stuff, and I’m not coming at this from the point of view of a stuffy non-sports fan.  I watch hockey, I understand it’s basic rules and I like to watch a good match or see an interesting storyline unfold.  I don’t really have a favourite team anymore, as the players who suited up for the Montreal Canadiens between 1976 and 1979 have all retired. They were the players I rooted for and dreamed of being.  However as they don’t play the game professionally anymore, and I, being in my 40’s have watched a dream of being an NHL star float of reach for some three decades, I am a free agent fan. And I refuse to root for laundry, as Jerry Seinfeld might approve.

The various broadcasts associated with the NHL Trade Deadline follow two assumptions.  One) Hockey viewership is typically in decline during February. And Two) Hockey fans are passionately inflamed to know who will get traded on this day.

Hockey Day Flyer

Hockey Day Poster gets Habs-Leafs team colours "just right."

In dealing with One, yes, in these dark days of winter, getting interested in a game between Pittsburgh and New Jersey or Ottawa and Calgary can be a tough pitch.  The CBC invented a solution for it’s declining February ratings by inventing Hockey Day in Canada. The broadcast wraps itself in flags of national  and nostalgic pride and we’re all supposed to remember playing hockey on ponds and get geared up to see rivals perform and play in definitive games.

In the case of a game, say, between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, these two teams have faced each 780 times since Boxing Day 1917, so you can’t help but get the feeling they’ve done this before. How definitive this latest match was depends on how distinct you feel your latest glass of beer was.

So, as much as “Hockey Day” tries to pass itself off as a pseudo-holiday (on a Saturday! no less) it is just an attempt to boost ratings at a time when the audience is lacking the appropriate enthusiasm for the 780th meeting between the Leafs and Habs.

As for Two, the trades, well there are water-shed moments, and then there are water-shed moments.  When Action Comics #1 revealed Superman to the world, popular culture was never the same. No super-hero matches Superman in appeal and importance. Many imitate, none duplicate.  And so it is with NHL Trades. When the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 (in August, nowhere near the February deadline) that was the League’s Action Comics moment. No player trade before or since was as big or as impactful.

CBJ Fans

Columbus Blue Jackets fans pronounce their love for paying their share of $7.5 Million.

In this latest Trade Deadline, the player who was meant to have a Gretzky-like impact was Rick Nash.  To the great number of you right now going “Oh yes, of course… WHO?”, Rick Nash is the 27-year old Captain of the storied Columbus Blue Jackets, who during their years of NHL existence have barely been able to organize a one-car parade, let alone win anything. Currently, Mr. Nash collects a salary of $7.5 million to score roughly 80 points a season and ensure a decent attendance. He’s expected to collect $8.2 million by 2018.

So, good for him.

But in the lead-up to this trade deadline, the amount of ink, bandwidth and broadcast time set aside to debate, discuss and daydream over which NHL team might acquire his services would make a charity appeal for mosquito nets weep. From Talk Radio to Sports Pull-outs, we were all assured that Rick Nash was the ONE, the player that would solidify a Stanley Cup ring for the Vancouver Canucks, or finally give the Toronto Maple Leafs the star power they needed to fill those empty seats at their rink.

As you might know, the Trade Deadline came and went, and Mr. Nash is still a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

So, where does that leave us? What reason do I have to be a hockey fan now?

Black Hawks Ice Girl

No, that's not a reason to watch. Not really.

Well, despite all the hype over this event, despite all the different ways on TV, on radio and on mobile devices that we could find out what was happening – despite all these “platforms” – all anyone would have found out is that not much happened. Today, a handful of professional hockey players are wearing jerseys that are different from the ones they wore on Sunday. Some will have had to say goodbye to friends. Some will have families to abdicate for a short while. Their pay is the same. They will have new friends and team-mates to get to know. This is sometimes part of their occupation. Some of it rises to personal hardship, but just barely.

A professional sports league like the NHL is largely comprised of 29 teams that each year, starting in October don’t know they haven’t failed at winning a championship yet.  A few find out mid-season, some find out in April, and then for 15 teams, they find out in 2 week increments until at last in June, one team is left to discover the brutal truth.

I said earlier that I don’t root for any specific team any more and that’s mostly true. If Calgary is doing well, I’m happy as I live in this city and feel a pride in my place that’s natural. If Edmonton does well, I’m happy about that because they are in my province. And up the line to root for a team in my country.

But I’m tired of being hyped. That if I “BELIEVE” then my country will win Gold, and that the win wasn’t the result of a fluke play. No, it was because I believed. I’m tired of being told that re-building will lead to a championship. Or told that a defensive and boring style of play will result in victories. At $230 a seat, why should I pay to be bored?

It’s a fatigue of being told that this game or that game matters more than other games that has lead me to drift to being a casual fan. I don’t fear the outcome of any one game, however I do fear that as viewership declines, and the hype rises, more invented drama like Hockey Day and Trade Deadline will be more commonplace. They now have a Winter Classic with six weeks of hype leading up to that. The media has been pleading for a meaningful All-Star Game and they will most likely get it, at some point.

And as the capper, to anyone who feels resentful over how much attention the Toronto Maple Leafs get in the national media, just wait until Bell & Rogers take over as owners of the team. What you’ll see on TSN and Sportsnet will make the word over-saturation inadequate for description.