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Keep hockey provincial

Mayor Nutter declared last week to be "hockey week in the city of Philadelphia." If you missed it, you weren't the only one.

Mayor Nutter declared last week to be "hockey week in the city of Philadelphia." If you missed it, you weren't the only one.

Between A-Rod, Michael Phelps, Bud Selig, the start of spring training, NBA all-star weekend, the economic stimulus package and Valentine's Day, it's no surprise that a portion of the public was too distracted to pay homage to hockey. In the end, the only people who noticed the mayor's declaration were the same fans who already bleed black and orange.

But that's hockey's plight these days. It's become a niche sport, a regionalized pastime with devoted fans who love the home team but not necessarily the international product. It's partly why hockey's American television ratings consistently rank last among the four major pro sports.

I wonder how long they'll even bother to keep those figures. I read a story in the Toronto Sun recently that said talks about renewing a deal between the NHL and NBC have yet to "heat up." NBC is in the final year of its two-year deal with the NHL. The piece made it sound like the two parties might reach a new agreement - or they might not.

When I contacted the NHL to ask if it was possible that national hockey broadcasts might vanish from our televisions, deputy commissioner Bill Daly told me that the league's relationship with NBC "has never been stronger."

"We continue to share the common goal of growing the NHL's exposure and importance as a national television property in the United States, and our current relationship with NBC has been instrumental in demonstrating our ability jointly to achieve that objective," Daly said.

Well, hey, good luck with that, Bill. Because my first reaction to the news that NBC might bail on the NHL was "hooray." It made me dream of a world where no one suffers through national hockey games because they will have disappeared from our televisions.

To be clear, I have no beef with the Flyers. Catching the local guys on Comcast SportsNet is fine by me. But I'd rather watch an Arena League Football game - if the AFL were still operating, that is - than settle down for three periods of out-of-town hockey. And I don't think I'm alone.

Would you be that broken up about not getting the next Calgary-Columbus clash? Would you head out to the bar or buy the NHL package to catch Colorado vs. Washington?

Not long ago, there was a rumor about the NHL putting another team in Toronto. While the hard-core puck heads up in Ottawa no doubt debated the plan, it seemed like hardly anyone south of the border noticed. The NHL could move every team in the league (save the Flyers) to Toronto and it's doubtful anyone around here would blink. I'm betting the same goes for other American cities, too.

Part of that is because hockey has never been the country's favorite sport, and part of that is because the NHL lacks the oversize personalities that dominate other leagues. Almost everyone knows about LeBron or Kobe, but how many fans can opine about Alex Ovechkin or Marc Savard?

The biggest, longest-lasting national news to come out of the NHL this season happened when former Dallas Stars winger Sean Avery said something not-so-nice about ex-girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert. In any other sport, Avery's comments would have barely registered. He's an extremely poor man's T.O., a watered down version of Stephon Marbury, a not-nearly-as-interesting facsimile of Manny Ramirez. It takes a lot more than trash talking a former flame to keep pace with that crew.

In the NFL, where shooting yourself in the leg is a mere hazing ritual, Avery would go almost totally unnoticed. But in the NHL, a league full of players as stiff as the ice itself, Avery was painted as a bad boy who had to be punished.

According to the aforementioned Toronto Sun story, the league makes approximately $10 million per season in its revenue-sharing arrangement with NBC. In sports, $10 mil is nothing. It's the cash Pacman Jones takes to the strip club when he wants to make it rain. Which gives me an idea.

With a little effort, we could raise $10 mil ourselves, then pay the NHL to give up on NBC (and any other network that might consider coming to the rescue), keep the game provincial, and stay away from national television.

Think about it, then send your donations to The Inquirer. We'll handle everything.

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