Will Nagano make Jaromir Jagr a household name? The National Hockey League certainly thinks so, and it's shutting down for 16 days to see if it's right.
For the first time, the NHL is suspending its season from Feb. 8 to Feb. 24 so that its players can compete in the Olympics. The NHL, puniest of the four major sports leagues, sees Nagano as a chance for much-needed exposure. "The Olympics give us an unprecedented opportunity to expand our fan base and to further stimulate our existing fans," says Commissioner Gary Bettman. "The hockey will be `the best on best' at the highest competitive level."
Clearly, the appearance of such marquee players as the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jagr and the Philadelphia Flyers' Eric Lindros will elevate the game at Nagano. But don't call the NHL's plan "Dream Team 2"--a repeat of the team of NBA superstars in the Barcelona Games that got the world wild about basketball. Unlike the mostly American players in the National Basketball Assn., hockey's stars will scatter to nine different teams. The countries getting most of the pros are favorite Canada, the U.S., Russia, Finland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. That dispersion of talent should make for better matchups than the total domination of basketball by the U.S.
But the NHL's move is not without risks, the biggest being the human circadian cycle. Most games will not start in the U.S. until after The Late Show with David Letterman, so it's a question of whether viewers who don't know a hat trick from a hatcheck will stay up. But Bettman points out that "no other [Olympic] sport will be shown in its entirety." Moreover, CBS will air 15-minute prime-time clips of the previous night's games. And TNT will replay the games on the following afternoons.
CBS will also profile the NHL players in prime time. That exposure could give a financial lift to rink stars who perennially trail other pro athletes in the endorsement competition. "No one is blind," says player agent Tom Reich. "The opportunities are going to be aggressively explored once the competition is over."
While the NHL is cautious about hockey's ratings potential, even a mild success could give the league more leverage during renegotiation of its two U.S. TV contracts, which are each in the fourth year of a five-year term and are together worth just $235 million. Bettman says the NHL is happy with its relationship with Fox and ESPN, but he wouldn't mind if ABC or CBS "showed interest" at entering the TV talks.
Those talks probably won't start until well after June, when the Stanley Cup has a new team name etched on it. For now, the NHL's main concern is whether enough Americans will find face-offs and penalty shots so compelling that they'll be willing to forgo sleep. If they don't, "dream team" could take on a very different meaning for the NHL.