New blue streak aside, true colors sell hockey Visual aid designed to help the uninitiated

January 27, 1996|By Les Bowen | Les Bowen,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

PHILADELPHIA -- I've found the reaction to Fox's computerized puck a lot more interesting than the puck itself.

In the press box last Saturday at the FleetCenter in Boston, we could watch the All-Star Game live, in front of us, or on the monitors, where the puck floated in a bluish haze that became a red lightning bolt whenever somebody took a hard shot.

Most of us clustered around the monitors.

The interesting thing was, nobody would admit to liking what they saw, or even to finding the experiment interesting. Reaction was led by Canadian journalists, who milled about rending their garments and calling down the wrath of Don Cherry on these brazen American infidels. To listen to them, you would have thought Fox had made Katerina Witt Ray Bourque's defense partner, and required them to skate in sequence, to disco tunes.

Since then, I've had a chance to hear lots of public opinion. The one I hear the most is: "I've been a hockey fan for umpety-zillion years [oh, so you're the one!] and I don't need any such gizmo as that to tell me where the puck is."

Well, no, YOU don't. The experiment was aimed at people in Baton Rouge or Boca Raton, who haven't seen the game enough comprehend it. Most NHL people know that for the league to grow and prosper, they somehow must reach such audiences.

"Right now, each NHL team's share of the national TV money wouldn't even pay one player at the average salary [of about $800,000]," a team executive told me last weekend. "To ever get a real TV deal, we have to interest more people."

I'm all for that, and if it takes a puck that glows like Tinkerbell, I guess the game can survive it. I even think the streak gimmick might be useful on replays, to highlight the trajectory of the shot.

I do have a niggling concern, though. I think you can get too worried about people who don't know what's going on, to the point where you mess things up for people who do.

The NFL, for example, is trying to sell football on other continents where a lot of people grow up playing a sport with the same name that isn't really very similar.

To my knowledge, nobody has proposed that the football glow on European or South American telecasts, so fans will know that the quarterback still has it on a bootleg. I don't think there are any electronic slashes through the jersey numbers of offensive linemen, to identify them as ineligible receivers.

Most sports rely on the fan wanting to be among the initiated. And in hockey, as with most sports, it really isn't all that tough. You watch maybe 20 or 30 games, you know where the puck is. Even if you don't consciously see it, you know, by the movements of the players.

I think hockey needs to court non-traditional audiences, no question. But I also think that the game does a pretty good job of selling itself, if presented well. I think if people watch it, they'll like it -- with or without Tinkerbell.

Aw, rats!

Scotty Mellanby was prepared to be awed by all the grandeur in his first All-Star appearance. Everything didn't quite go as Mellanby had pictured it.

"I was looking in the paper at all the pictures of the great players, with their amazing stats and all their accomplishments," said Mellanby, the former Flyers winger who now plays for the Florida Panthers. "Then I saw my picture. Underneath, it said: 'Once killed a rat in the dressing room.' "

Mellanby started a tradition when he slew the scampering rodent during the season opener. Panthers fans now throw plastic rats on the ice when their team scores.

"What are you going to do? You've got to be famous for something," Mellanby said with a shrug.

Rule on rules

The NHL has been adamant that there has been no change in the way the new obstruction rules are being called, even though many observers feel the whistles are way down from the first few months of the season. The official explanation is that players have gotten used to the rules and are transgressing less.

Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, who leads the league in scoring, disagrees.

Asked if he could make one change in the game, Lemieux, a long-standing critic of NHL officiating, said he would like to see "enforcing the rules that they had early in the season."

Lemieux added that the early emphasis is "out the window."

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