National Hockey League commissioner and Forest Hills native Gary Bettman has his work cut out for him. The NHL is still the fourth team sport in the United States trailing way behind Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association in terms of attendance and television revenue. If you throw in non-team sports, then the NHL is lagging behind NASCAR and may be neck-and-neck with the PGA Tour and the Ultimate Fighting Championship in terms of fan interest. The NHL player lockout that shut down the 2005-06 season has obviously not helped matters nor does a cable contract with the little-watched Versus Network.
There was some good news though for Commissioner Bettman as the 2007-08 season got underway last October. One of the major complaints about hockey over the years was that it was hard to follow the fast-moving small puck on television. Thanks to the advent of high definition television it is now quite easy to see where the black sphere is going and that can only help viewership. In addition the New Jersey Devils’ new home, the Prudential Center, the first new sports arena or stadium in the New York area since the Meadowlands Arena opened thirty years earlier opened this fall. While many have scoffed at the notion of the NHL in Newark, the Pru Center is located a mere three blocks from Newark’s Penn Station and that makes getting to the arena via mass transit (NJ Transit, Amtrak or PATH trains) a no-brainer.
After early game sellouts, the Devils have been playing to nearly 5,000 empty seats in a 17,500-seat venue in recent games. The fault may lie with the team’s management, namely its president and general manager, Lou Lamoriello. Lamoriello is an old school hockey guy who knows the sport inside and out. He is the architect behind three Stanley Cup-winning Devils team in the last dozen years and that is a sizable accomplishment. Lamoriello has a reputation for being a control freak (think of him as the Bill Belichick of the NHL) and his thinking obviously permeates the organization. For example the Devils have never been known for their friendly relations with the media.
When current Devils owner Jeffrey Vanderbeek bought the team a couple of years ago he purchased Lou Lamoriello’s minority equity stake in it and agreed to a long-term contract that basically allows him run the team for as long as he likes. It is rumored that Lamoriello netted at least $20 million on the deal so he doesn’t need the money and therefore team revenue at the gate is not as important as wins and losses are to his legacy.
Mets fans had to be glad that normally reserved centerfielder Carlos Beltran has echoed what prophetic Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins did last spring, and said that his team is the one to beat in the National League East. That kind of confident swagger was missing last year at Shea. Then again the Mets did not have Johan Santana providing that necessary boost. Billy Wagner, the always candid-to-a-fault closer, admitted that before the Mets acquired Santana, he would have picked his own team to come in third behind both the Phillies and the Pirates.
Spring training is always a time when a number of veterans try to eke out one more year in their careers. Jose Valentin, who missed a good chunk of the 2007 season with leg injuries is trying to earn a spot on the Mets bench as is one-time Met, outfielder Brady Clark.