Television and hockey mix about as well as pizza and sour cream. The sport, with its tiny puck, does not come across properly on the TV screen. And network affiliates in the South and Southwest are so much enamored of old movies that hockey cannot break the lineup, which means the NHL can't corral the big bucks of a TV contract.
That's bad, it is not the worst of the divorce proceedings. In catering to the television moguls, the NHL has badly diluted its product. Although players are better than ever and more genuine brains are guiding the teams than ever before, hockey is nowhere near as exciting as it was 20 years ago.
In catering to TV interests -- network, local, cable or whatever -- the hockey people have removed their sport's chief attribute -- continuous action. Where once hockey games lasted 2 hours 10 minutes, they now average about 2:40. The added time is strictly dead time, standing around waiting for the commercial to end.
Fans who watched last spring's Stanley Cup playoffs on the NHL"network" doubtless have one memory they cannot remove from their minds. It is not Bob Nystrom's winning overtime goal, but the dandruff affecting "Coach Johnson from the college" in that awful shampoo ad.
With the marvelous TV advances that have produced the four-way split screen, it seems outrageous that TV cannot tape the action, insert the commercials along the way and finish a few minutes after the live action is over. This would even create shorter intermissions, eliminating one of TV's big complaints, the filing of those two 15-minute breaks.
It is not impossible. Producer Jim Rosenberg of ESPN remembers his days at NBC, before the NHL caved in and stopped the action, when commercials were taped in by hand. Rosenberg's outfit now handles plenty of hockey, including Capital Centre games, and injects only three 30-second commercials a period. That is easy to handle, but the excessive one-minute breaks of regular TV destroy the game.
The NHL has made moves to curtail the wrestling matches that have impeded play before, directing non-participants in a fight to go their separate ways or face automatic misconduct penalties. It should go a step farther and deal game misconducts to the goons who are out on the ice merely to chop, hack and punch players with talent.
The routine high sticking, holding, hooking and boarding ought to be curtailed, too. NHL President John Ziegler claims that if all the hooking and holding were called, the game would come to a standstill. It would, but only until the players realized it would be called. Then they would stop and permit the real artists to perform.
Since the players short-circuited the proposed five-minute overtime, the biggest influence on the game this year is the appearance in large numbers of college coaches with innovative thoughts. No longer is hockey tied to old hockey hands who want to do things the way the Wanderers did in 1920.
Bill Mahoney of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, has moved in with Gary Green to lift the Capitals' brain level right up there with those genii in Buffalo, who added another recognized clinician, Ron Smith.
Others bringing their fresh ideas to NHL organizations are Billy Harris, Edmonton; Paul Page, Calgary; Bob Boucher, Philadelphia; Tom Watt, Vancouver, and ex-NHLer Ralph Backstrom, moving from the University of Denver to Los Angeles. A TEAM ON THE MOVE
The Washington Capitals are a team on the way up, as Green and Mahoney both motivate and teach. The club's attention to details is remarkable, and best illustrated by the experiences of rookies Darren Veitch and Torrie Robertson.
Mahoney has been working on Veitch's skating, changing a heel kick to a toe kick to get the youngster striding faster. It's a small thing, but it requires constant effort to change the habit of a lifetime. It will pay off.
Mahoney and Robertson worked on power skating from midnight to 2 a.m. in Victoria last summer, reducing the skating stride to basics.
Washington has four balanced lines, with four aggressive left wings, four smooth-skating centers and four right wings who can hit the net. At least, they have four of the last variety if Dennis Ververgaert can regain his 37-goal touch of four years ago.
Green's teams have a history of wearing down the opposition, and four lines against three is the tactic he has used in the past. Few teams have a fourth line that is not vulnerable to an opposition blitz; Green thinks his forwards can do the job.
Mike Palmateer lifts the goaltending into the top level of the NHL, but the Capitals may be susceptible to defensive disintegration. Should injury strike Rick Green or Paul MacKinnon, Washington could be in trouble. Of course, General Manager Max McNab is aware of the situation and may hit the trade marts if he cannot grab a backliner in Wednesday's waiver draft. THE TOP TEAMS
The New York Islanders have the talent to go all the way again. Whether they have the motivation is something else. There was much talk last year of the Islanders' inability to get up for teams like Washington, which flattened the champs twice. Buffalo's young players will benefit from experience and should make a good run for the top. The big question is whether Roger Neilson can match boss Scotty Bowman's brilliant coaching job of a year ago. n
Montreal is counting on young players like No. 1 draftee Doug Wickenheiser to regain the top. The New York Rangers seem to be reborn, now that Coach Fred Shero has disclosed his drinking problem of last year. Philadelphia's defense is unlikely to match last year's effort and if the NHL is serious about ending violence, the Flyers' gang of intimidators is in trouble. THE REST
Boston, under Gerry Cheevers; Minnesota, starting the season with a rash of defensive problems; Chicago, with Keith Magnuson becoming the league's second-youngest coach, and Los Angeles, with Jerry Buss paying Marcel Dionne $600,000 a year, figure to beat out Washington, but they will not challenge for the Stanley Cup.
That leaves 11 teams to finish behind the Capitals. Green regards the 11th spot as the maximum of Capital gains and cautions against too much optimism. But those 95.1 percent who renewed their season tickets are optimistic. The guess here is the top 10.
Five teams will miss the playoffs and the nominees are Vancouver, Colorado, Detroit, Winnipeg and Quebec.