This is a tale about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Definitely the wrong time.
The NHL insists Blackhawks fans are victims of their geography. That’s why we Midwesterners — or Children of the Corn, as commissioner Gary Bettman thinks of us — are getting stuck with all these 8:30 p.m. starts for Hawks playoff games, according to the league.
I suspect it’s a we-don’t-live-in-New-York-and-thus-don’t-matter problem, but if I say that, I’ll probably have a college professor declare that I have an inferiority complex about being from Chicago.
The first game of the Blackhawks-Wild series started at 8:30 p.m. Friday, as will Thursday’s Game 4 in Minnesota. That will make it five 8:30 starts out of the first 10 playoff games for the Hawks – three of them on school nights.
Oh, and by the way, although the start time says 8:30 p.m., the action actually begins at 8:45 because of all the pregame buildup on TV. Judging by the bags under your eyes, I can tell you know that already. Judging by your kids taking up any other sport than hockey, I can tell you know that already too.
The NHL is not as popular as the other three major professional leagues. It’s also behind college football and auto racing in terms of popularity, according to a 2014 Harris Poll. It is trying to attract more fans, especially young ones, to an extremely exciting sport. And how does it respond to that challenge? It practically begs young Hawks fans to stay away during the most thrilling time of the season. The NHL announces: Kids, bedtime!
Asked during a meeting with the Associated Press Sports Editors last week if he would move up the start of the playoffs games, if for no other reason than those young fans, Bettman was all heart and up-to-date TV technology.
“Tape it,’’ he said.
There, hockey fans, is your Johnny Appleseed, growing the sport bountifully, with no regard for cost or reputation.
NBC, of course, just wants the biggest audience and doesn’t care if that audience is devoid of children in the nation’s third-biggest TV market. The NHL should.
There is nothing wrong with having all the night games start at 7, even if it means hockey fans have to make a choice about which game to watch. If it means more kids have the chance to experience their teams in the playoffs, that’s what matters. The Hawks’ game time shouldn’t revolve around the Tampa Bay-Montreal game, which started at 6 p.m. Chicago time Friday.
“The problem is our geography right now,” Bettman said. “We have mostly teams in the Central and Eastern time zones. In order to maximize the availability of the game to as many people as possible, we’re trying to stagger the times in a way that makes sense.
“We’ve asked each of the Central teams to put at least one game at 8:30, so we can stagger it with an Eastern game. From a local team’s standpoint, we understand, but we’re trying to maximize the availability of games on a national basis to get as many games to as many people as possible.”
Forget about maximizing. Focus on cultivating.
The NHL is blowing it by cutting kids out of the equation — unless you’ve been letting your child stay up way past his bedtime on a school night to watch a hockey game, in which case, what’s wrong with you?
An 8:30 game usually ends about 11:15 p.m. A 7 p.m. start with no overtimes would end at about 9:45 p.m. Doable for everybody, even school kids.
The league needs to worry about building the sport in the markets where the teams play. Markets such as Chicago. One 8:30 p.m. start is one thing. Five in 10 games for one NHL city? What did we do wrong? Blackhawks president John McDonough declined comment through a spokesman Friday, saying the team is deferring to the league on the matter. I’ll bet the Hawks would like to give the league something other than a spirited deferral.
The Rangers played host to the Capitals in New York on Thursday. Game time: 7:40 p.m. Eastern time. It’s good to be the king.
For children in the Chicago area, it stinks to be a Blackhawks fan. And when those poor little rubes have to get up at 4:30 a.m. to feed the cows, as so many of them do, it really stinks.