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Monday, Nov. 24, 11:36 a.m.
Sports

ESPN too good for NHL coverage

ESPN’s lack of hockey coverage is no secret. “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” would rather follow baseball’s impending spring training — still weeks away — than talk about Viktor Fasth’s unexpected start in net for the Anaheim Ducks or the Los Angeles Kings’ apparent Stanley Cup hangover.

SportsCenter will spend hours following Tim Tebow — who is surely the most overrated backup in the history of sports — and dissecting every last syllable Dwight Howard utters after each Lakers practice. Yet they have no time to talk about the New Jersey Devils’ surprising start, in the absence of former franchise cornerstone Zach Parise, or the early struggles of preseason playoff hopefuls, including the Buffalo Sabres or Washington Capitals.

The reality is that hockey’s popularity is growing; ESPN and those who don’t rely on it for their sports’ coverage are missing out. Last year was the highest revenue and grossing season in the sport’s history because many people are beginning to recognize and appreciate the skill, athleticism and courage it takes to play this game. Hockey is as entertaining to watch as spring training baseball is slow and dull to sit through.

No other sport combines the speed, grace, physicality and variability like a hockey game. The sport is flat out fun to watch: Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek are putting up points on a nightly basis; upstarts Fasth and Ottawa’s Craig Anderson are gaining national attention for their play in net; and old veterans, including Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis and New Jersey’s Patrik Elias, are showing they can still play with the best of the best.

If the NHL ceiling is only getting higher, then why does the biggest sports network in the world refuse to televise games for which the national relevance, popularity and audience seem to rise every year? There is no clear-cut answer.

Yahoo.com’s Greg Wyshynski wrote in 2010 that “it could be that we’ve been conditioned to separate ESPN from hockey coverage.”

Puck fans know to go to NHL Network or NBC Sports for their hockey fix, because that is how it’s been since the NHL lockout of 2004-05 — the last time ESPN covered hockey with any regularity. Simply put, we’re used to it.

It could also be the result of a cultural issue. We live in a part of the world where individualism is valued over unity and competition is privileged to collectivist ideals. In basketball, the value of winning as a team, through high school basketball programs, has been replaced by individual showcases through the implementation of the AAU system, as Jason Whitlock discusses in an article for Fox Sports. Instead of vying for tournament championships in the summer, young NBA prospects play to show off their individual skills — what Whitlock refers to as the “NCAA/NBA Combine” for talent scouts.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge basketball fan as well, but the AAU-NCAA-NBA system provides a perfect example of an individualistic culture having an influence in the realm of sports and shows exactly what is wrong with amateur and professional athletics today. However, that still won’t stop the extensive coverage of the NBA while the NHL receives comparatively little press.

Hockey is different. Winning for your team, town or name on the front of the sweater is instilled in hockey players from the start and is maintained as players progress from juniors and college hockey to the NHL. A hockey game cannot be won by a single skater, which makes it the ultimate team sport. Hockey players play for each other, not just for themselves.

Perhaps that aspect of the game doesn’t quite fit with individualistic ideals, but it’s catching on in the U.S., and that’s probably a good thing. Puck fans will survive, regardless of whether ESPN decides to hop on the hockey bandwagon or not, and the NHL will continue to expand its brand. The league and its followers will be just fine.

To be fair, ESPN’s online dedication to reporting hockey has always been above reproach. Even SportsCenter has taken more notice of the NHL lately — mostly because of the Chicago Blackhawks’ stellar play to start the season, highlighted by their 4-3 shootout victory over the Vancouver Canucks Tuesday, which tied them with the 2006-07 Ducks for the longest point streak to begin a season.

The attention is well deserved. But make no mistake about it, the second the Hawks lose — and that day will come — ESPN’s hockey coverage will slip back into the shadow of their baseball and basketball obsession, leaving puck fans to cope with what The World Wide Leader believes is appropriate hockey analysis: quick recap here, a Barry Melrose sighting there, all interspersed with hours of Spring Training highlights and NFL and NBA draft prognostications.

Just as the NHL no longer needs ESPN to survive, ESPN will continue to enjoy success, whether it amps up the air time it dedicates to hockey or not. That’s too bad, because “Hockey Night on ESPN” sure has a nice ring to it.