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Ice hockey's great, but the fans are few

Odd thing about hockey. Take the four major sports in the United States - football, baseball, basketball, hockey - and there can be legitimate dispute about the order three of them rank in public affection. However, the one given is that hockey always is fourth.

Critics say that's because it's nothing but soccer on skates, which is about the crummiest thing anybody could say about anything.

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This week's competition between the Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars for the Stanley Cup, hockey's professional championship isn't even on one of the traditional Big Three networks. The biggest audience ever to watch a hockey game on TV - the 1996 All-Star game - attracted about 10 percent as much audience as the Super Bowl. It also was about half of what wrestling draws on routine Monday nights.

But National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman persists and insists: "We have a great game. We just have to get more people to watch it."

Hockey seems more like a cult than sport. Indeed, those who love the game are perfectly fanatical about it. They don't simply enjoy it, they clutch it. They seem to care far more, as a group, than fans of any other sport.

Richard Gruneau, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and an author on hockey, says he thinks the game's "pace, intensity, sheer physicality attracts a more die-hard kind of fan than some other sports." He contends that "serious fans of the game understand it as something important, in some instances, even defining."

In Washington D.C., Howard Fienberg, research analyst for The Statistical Assessment Service and a student of sports sociology and psychology, says, "Ice hockey maintains a balance of strength and physical force against speed and finesse.

"The dichotomy makes the sport fascinating." Gary Erwin, publications director at Kettering University in Flint, Mich., and a veteran hockey player, sees hockey combining "the gracefulness of figure skating with the speed and agility of football."

Indeed, hockey is a wonderful sport demanding extraordinary skills. William F. Gayton, director of the Annual Sports Psychology Institute at the University of Southern Maine, says that while baseball is cerebral, "hockey won't give you time to think. It's too fast a game." Therefore, it's bang-bang action producing instant gratification should be perfect for a populace that prefers Plato's philosophy to be compressed into two paragraphs.

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Gruneau says the game "is slowly becoming transformed from a regional sport in the US to a more mainstream one." This is occurring as Northerners move South and West, bringing with them their hockey devotion.

The problem is that when it comes to athletics, Americans clearly have a predisposition for the home-grown. Football, basketball, and baseball are examples. Many Americans like BMWs, writing by Dostoyevsky, paintings by Rembrandt, music by Brahms, dance by Baryshnikov, but prefer their sports wrapped in red, white, and blue. If this isn't true, then why is the world's most popular sport, soccer, a bust in this country while Gucci does great stateside?

The latest attempt to help popularize Canadian-born hockey is by a Los Angeles-based company, Programming veep Craig Stanford is trying to lure hockey fans to watch free searchable video highlights from this year's Stanley Cup. He thinks the appeal is giving fans the chance to "relive" favorite moments.

NHL hockey fans are insatiable and devoutly loyal. For example, Nashville played poorly this season (28-47-7), finishing last in its division. For this, home fans filled 93.5 percent of the seats.

It's true that hockey is enormously better in person than on TV, while the case can be made that the Big Three are better enjoyed on TV, especially football. Critics also point to hockey's violence, but it is being controlled much better.

Besides, we are a hypocritical nation about violence. Citizens rail against it, then watch it and often even pay to see it. Proof: television, movies, games for children, gun shows, boxing.

Yet, maybe hockey need not aspire to mass appeal. Maybe it's best more closely held among those who care and understand.

Nothing wrong with that. John Philip Sousa produced heart-stirring marches, but if you just don't like marches, you'll never develop an affection for Sousa.

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