The pursuit of fans: How far is far enough for the NHL?

When NBC broadcasts the NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day from Ralph Wilson Stadium, the network and the league will be hoping to draw in both the sport's fans and others intrigued by the outdoor setting -- those who, a day earlier, would have had a 50-50 shot of identifying whether Sidney Crosby plays for Buffalo or Pittsburgh.

Whether they have tired of college football and decided to turn their backs on Michigan-Florida in the Capital One Bowl, or have any other reason, perhaps they'll be fascinated and willing to give the game (and the sport) a shot.

This is an exceptional situation, but the revenue-sharing rights deal between the league and the network, rather than a traditional rights package, also highlights one of the major issues the NHL has had to tackle since, well, it expanded beyond the Original Six and NBC and CBC made Peter Puck a star as a precursor to Fox's blue-streak puck.

Should the league make the attempt to convert the uninitiated a top priority, especially in territories with neither hockey tradition nor public rinks? Or should it abandon that as a counterproductive quest for the Impossible Dream?

We've all seen the phenomenon at work.

We've all been there, regardless of where "there" is. "There" could be a geographic location in the United States or merely a personal situation -- or both.

You find yourself among rabid sports fans, the sort who track their fantasy league teams by the minute, have sports-talk radio on four of the five preset buttons on the car radio, consider the implementation of a college football playoff system more important than the eradication of world hunger and can rattle off Kevin Costner's and James Earl Jones' movie speeches about baseball without getting a word wrong.

And, challenged, they can't name a single NHL player.

("Uh … Wayne Gretzky?")

Often, indeed, is has to do with location, location, location. In book-promotion travels especially, I've found myself in settings where if I ask the bartenders to switch at least one of the televisions from an obscure college basketball game to a specific hockey game (if they can find a specific hockey game or any hockey games), the looks I get are approximately the same as if I asked if they can find the Hallmark Channel. Or, when I begin to talk about an upcoming hockey-related trip with new friends on the book circuit, I'm asked if I think the Patriots can go undefeated or if so-and-so has a shot at the Heisman Trophy.

(I now pause while the Canadians among us gloat.)

That's reality. Some hockey fans, in fact, luxuriate in that status and consider it more of an honorable cult than a fringe group. In the 30 years since I began covering the NHL, it has been reinforced to me that the sport's hard core either matches or surpasses all other groups of fans who identify themselves as followers of one sport above all. I say that not to pander, but because it's true.

But should the NHL accept that the league never will be a hot commodity beyond … ?

Heck, even what should follow "beyond" is open to debate.

Beyond that hard core?

Beyond the NHL's traditional markets?

Beyond markets, no matter how large or small, with USA Hockey-sanctioned leagues?

Beyond the north side of the Mason-Dixon Line? (For the record, Mason was the center, Dixon was the left wing and they had a rotating cast of right wings.)

About a third into the 2007-08 season, Atlanta, Nashville, Florida and Phoenix are among the bottom 10 in NHL attendance. Don't tell anyone (because this fouls up the hockey-doesn't-belong-in-those-places argument), but so are New Jersey, Boston, Chicago and the New York Islanders. Especially with the 16-16-2 Panthers continuing to struggle at the gate, causing many to write off the South Florida experiment (as opposed to the Southwest Florida experiment, where the Lightning are playing to 94.3 percent of capacity), the issue is heating up.

Attendance figures

Want to know the attendance figures for every team so far this season? Sort through every arena's numbers for 2007-08.

  • NHL attendance

    I know the journalistic fashion has become to consider everything in life an "either/or" proposition without gray areas, ambivalence or ambiguities; pick out one extreme position or the other, and pound the table or the laptop in arguing its merits. But the truth is, I vacillate on this one. Always have, still do, perhaps always will. It even depends on whether I'm trying to consider it from a realistic business perspective, or while being idealistic in believing the NHL can hook a more widespread fan base in every small town and big city if viewers and ticket-buyers will just give it a chance.

    I usually settle on a happy medium, which seems to be the league's unofficial position. Especially while dealing with in-arena and local broadcasting issues, the trick is to avoid turning off the hard core with pursuit of the "new" fans. I'm passionately against some of the bush-league stunts that plague us -- screaming hucksters on microphones in the stands during stoppages, childish implorations on scoreboard screens and generic U.S. game-night experiences that seem to have been dreamed up by geeks with sports marketing degrees who rose to the top of dual basketball-hockey ownership organizations.

    You don't sell hockey by giving fans an NBA arena experience. Placing pressure on home-team broadcasters to never utter discouraging words insults fans, and most hockey fans are far better than most fans at seeing through that propagandizing.

    In the bigger picture?

    Keep pursuing those Nielsen families. Across all the demographics, in markets large and small. Minor league hockey is surprisingly pervasive in the U.S., reaching markets such as Laredo, Texas; Biloxi, Miss.; and North Charleston, S.C. Major junior's umbrella organization, the Canadian Hockey League, has franchises in Portland, Ore.; Spokane, Wash.; and Seattle. The USHL, the major feeder to U.S. college hockey, is all over the place. USA Hockey-sanctioned youth leagues are from coast to coast, in many "unlikely" locales, with participation rising rapidly in metro areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver. Hockey isn't soccer, either, where participation doesn't go hand in hand with a lifelong passion for following the sport. And don't give up on drawing in the viewer (or reader) in the town without a rink within 400 miles.

    At the same time, I would like to see the NHL accept its honorable niche, while trying to expand the niche as much as possible. That is not an acceptance of second-class status, because with the proliferation of cable channels and so many sports and entertainment options, isn't virtually everything a niche? I mean, I see folks I've never heard of on the cover of People magazine, and they obviously must be famous to a significant portion of the population. Even the wildly popular is, in a way, a niche. (Case in point: We don't have young daughters, so when the concert-tour ticket fiasco hit the headlines, friends had to explain to us who Hannah Montana is.) NBA television ratings on TNT are cult-like. So the next time somebody writes or talks about the NHL's low TV ratings, the response should be: So?

    Keep going after all of America. (And around the globe.)

    I'll stick to this, too: Hockey fans themselves would help the cause if they discouraged their brethren from belittling "new" fans who have just been converted and believe the French Connection was only a movie, rather than welcoming them.

    Arguing over whether the NHL's Sun Belt expansion, which was in motion before Gary Bettman took over but still is considered part of the commissioner's manifesto, is fair as long as it's accompanied with the admission that mediocre hockey at high ticket prices scares away fans in Original Six cities and other "traditional" markets, as well.

    Settle for making conversions, one at a time.

    Keep trying to spread the message.

    Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."