Puck Daddy - NHL

With apologies to John Buccigross, Jack Edwards of NESN's Boston Bruins coverage and Versus is becoming the preeminent cult puckhead icon in U.S. hockey broadcasting.

Sure, he's polarizing; lord knows a guy who can't call a fight without making it seem like the Thrilla in Manila and who cackles like a mad man at the agitation of Philadelphia Flyers fans. But the dude's doing something right if he's inspired his own play-at-home bingo game, right?

What's endearing about Edwards is that he's an ESPN survivor: a former on-air personality for the World Wide Leader that can speak candidly about what ESPN didn't do for the NHL when it had the rights and whether he believes the League is better off rejoining the WWL when it's contractually able to.

In Part One of what should be a wide-ranging interview with Edwards, Steve Lepore of Puck The Media asks about Edwards's time on ESPN and follows up with two questions about its coverage of the game:

PTM: Following up, because of that, are you kind of glad that ESPN doesn't cover hockey anymore?

JE: Well, I think that all you need to know is - for those who wish that hockey was back on ESPN - last Saturday, which was probably the single most amazing night of the NHL season.  Just in terms of teams switching places, dramatic things happening, crazy games, that kind of thing. 

We went from Toronto to Philadelphia, we were in (Bruins radio play-by-play man) Dave Goucher's room, having a couple cold ones.  Now, the Sweet 16 is going on in college basketball at the same time, the only hockey we saw in the entire sportscast of "SportsCenter" was about 45 seconds of the UNH-North Dakota game, which was the one UNH tied with one-tenth of a second to go, that went into Overtime.  That was 56 minutes into the telecast.  There was nothing on the NHL in the entire show. 

So, for those of you that hope that hockey gets back on ESPN, that's what you're gonna' get. 

That's where it belongs in ESPN's hierarchy, because there are some bozos sitting in the accounting department in a bunker in Burbank, California running Disney, who look at the numbers and completely ignore the passion of hockey fans.  They say "Poker gets better ratings because we can attract more compulsive gamblers to the screen than we can passionate hockey fans, so just for the sake of that number, we're gonna' run poker instead of hockey.  We're gonna run women's basketball instead of hockey." 

We saw highlights of the Division II NCAA basketball championship, we didn't see a single NHL highlight in that entire "SportsCenter".  Case closed.

PTM: Well Jack, you're gonna' be a big hero to a lot of hockey fans when this goes up...

JE: I'm not a hero, I'm just telling you the facts.  I mean, that's what it is and you know, this whole idea that hockey will do better if you put it back on ESPN is a delusion.  It is completely delusionary.  It's more convenient, certainly. But it's not going to be better for the sport, because it's going to be behind golf, it's going to be behind women's basketball and, you know, I'm not dissing those sports. 

Regarding ESPN's coverage of hockey, it's not too hard to figure out that the network is a self-referential whore, willing to put over any sport with which it has a monetary relationship and burying the competition. And if you think that isn't the case, then you must have forgotten the treatment the XFL received (before a single game was played) for daring to cast its lot with NBC.

Would that change if the NHL went back to ESPN? Potentially. The League is a much more marketable commodity than it was before the lockout, with breakout young stars like Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, and with a television-friendly (though competitively corrupt) skills competition in overtime. The trap years are a dreary memory; ESPN could actually deliver on a promise of offense to the basketball fans in its audience.

That said, ESPN's current decision to ignore the NHL at nearly every turn is to its determent. The hockey coverage on ESPN has gotten so sparse, it's like a revelation when something is given prominent promotion; like waking up and finding the Blue Jackets on the cover of Time Magazine.

When's the last time Barry Melrose or Matthew Barnaby made waves in the puckhead community? When's the last time the world stopped because Scott Burnside wrote something mind-blowing? Pierre Lebrun does outstanding work for ESPN.com; but how often is he referenced in relation to, say, the TSN news breakers?

The point isn't that these people don't do quality work; it's that their network is training hockey fans to look elsewhere. It's a vicious circle: Hockey fans don't watch ESPN or visit ESPN.com for news because ESPN doesn't give them what they want; ESPN sees those numbers, and decides no one is intersted in hockey; they cut back coverage, leading to more fans becoming disenfranchised.

We're not blind to the huge readership we're blessed with here and on the NHL front page at Yahoo! Sports. That comes despite the intrinsic bias against hockey in general sports coverage but mainly because Yahoo! has made an effort to respect the NHL and its fans.

How other mainstream media can remain blind to the viewership, the attendance, the casual fan converts and all the other positive signs of hockey's growth is baffling. But, in the end, it's their loss. The newspapers are discovering what neglecting their audiences means in the long run. So will other media.

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