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Down Goes Brown's Grab Bag: Hockey Is a Fading Sport in America

Soccer passes hockey as a big four sport in the US; a look back at obscure former player Gordie Roberts; and why the expansion draft shouldn't prevent us from ripping bad deals like Cam Ward's.
June 17, 2016, 6:35pm
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports

(Editor's note: Welcome to Sean McIndoe's grab bag, where he writes on a variety of NHL topics. You can follow him on Twitter.)

Three stars of comedy (Phil Kessel Stanley Cup edition)

Yes, we're going all-Phil this week, as the lovable everyman's Stanley Cup win continues to inspire the hockey world that you can achieve your dreams without doing sit-ups.

The third star: This fan—Somebody showed up at the Penguins' parade with copy of the infamously meme-able Kessel Team USA headshot. And not just a printout—that thing is professionally framed.

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I am crying — maria (@mariamac58)June 15, 2016

The second star: Mike Commodore—The former NHLer has some thoughts on how Kessel should celebrate his day with the Cup, which were definitely NSFW and later deleted. So we'll have to make do with this:

Congrats to Phil Kessel. The media just gives it to him for no other reason than he looks like a fat math teacher. Dude can play though.

— Mike Commodore (@commie22)June 15, 2016

The first star: Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin—This is pretty much the perfect Phil Kessel ideal moment, since it involves an adoring crowd, the Stanley Cup, and him standing in front of a microphone without having to say anything.

Greatest video ever. — Evgeni Malkin's Ego (@EvgeniMaIkinEgo)June 15, 2016

Outrage of the week

The issue: On his Fox Sports 1 radio show, Colin Cowherd suggested that hockey should no longer be considered a "big four" sport in the United States, having been replaced by soccer.

The outrage: That sounds like he's criticizing hockey. Get him!

Is it justified: No. Cowherd is right. In fact, nothing he said was even all that controversial. Greg Wyshynski has a detailed breakdown of the host's argument and laid out some possible hockey world responses here, but the short summary is that (for once) Cowherd is bang on. Of course soccer is a bigger sport in the U.S. If anything, we're probably years late in recognizing that. I'm not sure you could really argue against it at this point.

READ MORE: Why Sidney Crosby Is This Generation's Wayne Gretzky

And here's where you're probably expecting a repeat of last week's rant, in which I dumped all over the Gary Bettman and the NHL for the consistently meager TV ratings that fans have just come to accept with a shrug. But the reality is that this one can't be pinned on Bettman and friends. Soccer has long been the world's most popular sport, and as that world became more connected it was natural that the game's presence would expand in North America. The increased success of America's men's and women's national teams plays a role. So do demographics. So do increased media options.

Even NHL players are turning to soccer. Photo by Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

And, yes, so does the decline in the quality of the NHL product. That trend, while obviously a subjective one, has been called out by fans and media for years. It's been a big part of the reason that the sport has been fading into the background of the American sports landscape, a fact borne out by this year's lackluster ratings.

The NHL and its leaders have a long list of things to be embarrassed about. The low ratings are one. Becoming synonymous with season-shortening work stoppages is another. So is the utter failure to properly market stars. So are two decades of laughable inaction around plunging scoring rates. So is the tendency to take the rare wins the league can earn and then beat them into the ground. So is signing a US TV deal right before a broadcast rights bubble sent rights fees through the roof, and making it long enough that it won't expire until after that bubble has likely burst.

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But being passed in popularity by soccer? There's no shame in that. There's just too much working in soccer's favor to make this shift anything other than inevitable, no matter what the league had done.

There's so much to be frustrated about in today's NHL that hockey fans need to pick their battles. Being less popular than the world's most popular sport isn't one we should worry about.

Obscure former player of the week

Wednesday was a weird day in the NHL. In Pittsburgh, you had a Stanley Cup parade, with thousands of fans lining up to cheer on the game's greatest achievement. And at the same time in Detroit, there was Gordie Howe's funeral, with the hockey world saying its final goodbye to the game's greatest player. It was a hard-to-miss contrast between joy and sadness, and between the celebration of a single moment and the long history that leads us there.

I'm not sure you can reconcile that, or that you should even want to try. But for this week's obscure player, let's look at a player who crossed paths with both sides of Wednesday's coin. He's a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins, and he also played alongside Howe in the legend's final NHL season. He's journeyman defenseman Gordie Roberts.

Roberts was a third-round pick by the Canadiens in 1977 after having already played two years with the Whalers in the WHA. His chances of ever cracking the lineup in that Montreal dynasty were slim, and he never did, eventually ending up back with the Whalers when they joined the NHL in 1979. That allowed him to be part of Howe's 26th and final NHL season, suiting up alongside the legend he had literally been named after.

Roberts was dealt to the North Stars early in the following season, where he'd spend nearly eight years before stopovers in Philadelphia and St. Louis. The Blues dealt him to the Penguins on the eve of the 1990-91 season for an 11th-round pick. He'd go on to provide a physical veteran presence on the Penguins' blueline, helping them win back-to-back Cups in 1991 and 1992.

Roberts would head to free agency after that second Cup, signing with Boston for the final two years of his career. That added Ray Bourque and Cam Neely to the roster of Hall-of-Fame teammates he played with over the years, a list that also includes Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Jaromir Jagr, Brett and Bobby Hull, Dave Keon and Howe, among others. All told, Roberts played 1,097 NHL games, becoming the first American to hit the 1,000-game milestone and earning a spot in the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.

Be it Resolved

The offseason is here, and we've already seen some weird moves. On Wednesday, the Blackhawks gave away Teuvo Teravainen just to get rid of Bryan Bickell's terrible contract. Yesterday, the Hurricanes re-signed pending UFA Cam Ward to a multi-year contract even though he hasn't been good for years. They even gave him a no-trade clause!

In both cases, the moves were criticized. But it felt… muted. As if something wasn't quite right. Hockey fans love to complain, and complaining about offseason moves is just about the best kind of complaining there is. But this week, everything somehow felt off.

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I was ready to chalk it up to rust—we're all a little bit out of practice after the long postseason. But then I read this tweet, and I felt a chill go down my spine:

Prediction: every bad multi-year contract signed this offseason will be rationalized by that team's fanbase as expansion draft protection

— derek (@itwasthreezero)June 16, 2016

My god, he's right. That's exactly what's happening. Next year's expansion draft will be the first in 17 years, and the first ever in the salary cap era. It's thrown a wrinkle into every team's plans, as they're left with one year to maneuver into position to protect as much value as possible. And there's no blueprint on how to accomplish that—everyone is kind of swimming in the dark here.

And that's been great. NHL GMs are such timid babies these days that anything that introduces a little uncertainty is a good thing. So fans were pumped for the expansion wrangling, and the chaos it could bring. But we missed the one terrible side effect: All of this also gives GMs a get-out-of-jail free card on their questionable offseason moves, since they can just point to the expansion draft and mumble something about long-term strategy. And fans will buy it, because we don't know what's going on, either.

When your favorite team signs Cam Ward to a multi-year contract with a NTC. Photo by Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

This is unacceptable, and it must be stopped. Seriously, here's how I planned to spend my summer: 15 percent BBQing with a beer in my hand, 10 percent playing catch with my kids, 75 percent reacting to every minor NHL transaction by rushing to Twitter to randomly point to one or more teams and type "LOL, so dumb." And, if I'm being honest, those first two numbers may have been high.

An expansion draft exception will ruin everything. We need to stamp this out right now. Let's all agree that we can still make fun of every decision that NHL teams make, and only give them credit for thinking ahead to expansion in future years, when we applaud them for making the same moves that we ripped at the time. It's the hockey fan's way.

Classic YouTube clip breakdown

The NHL's annual awards show will be held next week in Las Vegas. The show is one of the sport's great guilty pleasures, one that's somehow survived over the years even as the fun has drained out of almost everything else the increasingly big-business league does. Awkward speeches, painfully bad banter, musical acts that you're not sure you've ever heard of… I love everything about the show, and I hope we never lose it.

This year's edition will be hosted by Will Arnett, which means it should be good. But I think it's safe to say that it will not be anywhere as good as the 1995 version.

  • This beautiful clip was initially unearthed a year ago, when it briefly made the rounds. But did anyone back then break it down frame-by-frame? No, because they're busy people who don't have the time. Luckily, I do.

  • Yes, the NHL awards used to be broadcast from Toronto, and yes, they used to be shown on ESPN. Yes, that seems weird now. Trust me, it's the least weird thing about the video you're about to watch.

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  • We start off with a guy in a Penguins jersey catching a puck out of the air and then randomly flinging it away. Which is cool, because I didn't even know Marc Bergevin did choreography.

  • So much grunting.

  • Let's just start by pointing out the obvious: This is a highly choreographed number featuring dozens of presumably professional dancers, and the undisputed highlight is going to be the guy in the background in the Leafs jersey who just kind of sways around and claps. I desperately want to know what that guy's deal is. Like, the actual Leafs dancer called in sick and they had to just grab a guy from the production crew, right?

  • The Penguins guy just became the first person wearing a hockey jersey to do a triple horizontal spin while bouncing on one arm and kicking both legs in the air, unless you count Dominik Hasek on every routine save he ever made.

  • I think it's kind of annoying how the people in American team jerseys are in the spotlight while all the Canadian teams just kind of stand in the background and watch. Oh wait, I'm sorry, that line was meant for next week's column, "A look back at the 2016 playoffs."

  • A Buffalo Sabres dancer and a Dallas Star dancer execute a combo slide move. Do you think the Sabres guy was always arguing over exactly where their feet should be while the Stars guy told him not to worry because nobody would care?

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  • As per worldwide UN bylaws in 1995, the song will now be interrupted by everyone yelling "Go! Go! Go!" for a while.

  • The dancer in the Sharks jersey is in the middle of every number but never gets a solo in the spotlight, which in hindsight turns out to be the best metaphor for San Jose Sharks history I've ever seen.

  • Now the dancer in the Pittsburgh jersey is trying to do his job even though somebody else has jumped onto his back and is hanging there with all four limbs wrapped around his torso. Or, as Mario Lemieux called it, "every shift of my career."

  • Let's just address the elephant in the room: I'm honestly not sure where this ranks compared to the 1988 intro featuring Alan Thicke. I feel like Second Row Guy and the ghost Zamboni still puts Thicke over the top, but I could be swayed.

  • Oh, by the way, the lyrics are describing the various NHL awards. "A gentleman just doing his thing / Takes home the Lady Byng." "Best goals against takes the Jennings home / The Selke, best forward in a defensive role." "Get a lot of playoff points, the Conn Smythe we'll be feedin' ya / Unless you have a history of being awkward with the media." OK, I may have made one of those up.

  • Honestly, I think Awkward Blues Guy might be giving Awkward Leafs Guy a run for his money here.

  • The big finale comes when all the dancers tear off their jerseys to reveal a Devils sweater underneath, and break out a replica Stanley Cup. Our clip then cuts out, presumably because we don't want to watch the dancers have to awkwardly explain what the big silver trophy is to confused Toronto fans.

  • Epilogue: The Devils dancers then proceeded to teach everyone the neutral zone trap, and dancing hasn't been entertaining again for two decades.

Have a question, suggestion, old YouTube clip, or anything else you'd like to see included in this column? Email Sean at nhlgrabbag@gmail.com.