NHL lockout hasn't stopped stories

With the NHL embroiled in a labor dispute, professional hockey is on hold. But, as David Ward discovers, that doesn't mean that coverage of the sport is on hold as well

With the NHL embroiled in a labor dispute, professional hockey is on hold. But, as David Ward discovers, that doesn't mean that coverage of the sport is on hold as well

It's never good news for a sport when all the media attention is focused on what's going on outside of play rather than on the game itself.

Yet that's the situation professional hockey has been facing since the National Hockey League (NHL) canceled the 2004-2005 season because of an ongoing labor impasse.

The lockout couldn't have come at a worse time for a sport that has been losing ground to baseball, football, and basketball. There is even some talk that the cancellation might jeopardize hockey's status in the media as a major US sport, a notion that gained steam after ESPN reported that the replacement programming it aired this season is getting better ratings than the NHL did last year.

But reports of hockey's demise might be a bit premature. Kevin Greenstein, editor-in-chief of website Inside Hockey and hockey columnist for The New York Sun, notes that despite the definite decrease in hockey coverage this year, he doesn't expect the fans to lose interest.

"Hockey's fans are probably the most rabidly loyal of the four major sports," he says.

Changing focus

The labor dispute has put traditional hockey reporters in the somewhat unusual position of spending far more time writing about economics than ice action, though not all of them have embraced that shift.

"One of the things I did when we saw this was coming was diversify the content at our site to include more minor league, junior, and international hockey," Greenstein says. "But at some point you also have to actually get into the finances of the NHL to be able to speak authoritatively on it, and I think a lot of writers have either chosen not to or have not been asked to by their papers."

Chris Botta, communications VP for NHL team the New York Islanders, says that most of the regular beat writers have done a good job of articulating the positions of both the players and the owners.

"There's no doubt the regular hockey writers maybe didn't get into this business to learn about salary caps and revenue sharing and all the other buzz words that have popped up in the last 10 years," he says. "But they had to take crash courses, and by now they're pretty well-educated."

And while some hockey writers have been shifted over to covering other sports for the time being, many are still working with the communications departments of both the professional league and the individual teams to find stories.

"Our media relations has been somewhat more reactive than proactive, although that can change from day to day," says Frank Brown, VP of media relations for the NHL. "But we're fortunate that we have a loyal fan base, which, in fact, has been extremely supportive of the clubs in this dispute."

Covering the minors

Mike Kalinowski, PR director for the American Hockey League's Manchester, NH, Monarchs, says both media and fan interest have remained strong, even without the NHL driving overall awareness of the game.

But Kalinowski says the NHL lockout hasn't necessarily meant more coverage for the Monarchs.

"We've had a few stories in the Herald and Globe," he notes, "but the Boston press doesn't really cover us."

Kalinowski adds that local coverage remains strong, and most of the players realize the need for good press relations even at the minor-league level.

"I've never had to do much media training," he says. "We've got guys who were stars on their team all the way back to when they were 14 and 15 playing Canadian juniors or they're from high-profile college programs, so by the time they get here they're used to having microphones in their face."

Like many teams, Kalinowski says, the Monarchs have focused PR efforts on creative promotions. "We just had 'Mullet Night,' which was picked up by CNN and ESPN," Kalinowski says.

Botta is confident that the media will return to the sport once the NHL returns to the ice. But he says that the longer the lockout continues, the harder the pitch will be. "Right now the sport is going through a major crisis, and it's not a sexy story," he says. "I don't have any concerns [that] if we can have a regular season in 2005-2006, the media will come back. But if it goes on for a really long time, then, like anybody in the business, I think we'll have grave concerns."

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Pitching... hockey

  • Hockey will never be the TV ratings draw of other sports, but there is a loyal fan base that will demand regular coverage in the sports pages

  • The NHL's main selling point is that it draws the world's best players, but that can be a drawback in that some of the players are more comfortable in their native tongues than in English. So more media training might be needed

  • Hockey players often aren't as outspoken or flamboyant as stars of other sports, but they're still fairly glamorous and can be pitched as the focal point of both local and national lifestyle features

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