Hockey Day in America

Hey kids! Can’t stand all that trash talk about how the NHL is the sixth most popular sport in the United States?

Are you tired of trying to find hockey games on your cable provider because your eyes become like pinholes after buzzing through the first 90 stations?

Feel like strangling the next person who asks why teams wear dark jerseys when they play at home?

Then I’ve got something for YOU! The very first Hockey Day in America, coming Sunday to an actual national network famed for international sports and a basic cable channel best known for outdoorsy-type endeavors.

The marquee matchup of the early regional action will find old rivals the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers duking it out at Madison Square Garden in the fourth of six meetings this season.

Face-off between these perennial division rivals is slated for 12:40 p.m. (et) on NBC. Though Comcast SportsNet stalwart Jim Jackson has been tapped to provide play-by-play for the noble Peacock, he won’t be six floors above Penn Station to call the action for his hometown team.

JJ will be on hand and behind the microphone for play-by-play duties at HSBC Arena, as the Washington Capitals arrive to battle the Buffalo Sabres in a clash of struggling clubs that are due for an explosion of offense. This will technically be the first game to start the day, at 12:35 p.m. (et).

Third on the early docket, the appropriately-named “State of Hockey” takes the stage at 12:45 (et) as Xcel Energy Center plays host to the Detroit Red Wings and Minnesota Wild. Detroit and Minnesota once engendered mutual hatred in the 1980s and early 1990s when the Wings and North Stars met eight times annually in the old Norris Division.

In the second installment, the last two Stanley Cup champions — the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks — square off at United Center in Chicago at 3:30 p.m. (et). It will be the lone national broadcast in that time slot, once again on NBC.

These two teams met in the 1992 Cup Finals, with the Penguins winning in four straight. Although Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will not grace the icy stage on Madison Street, the Blackhawks still radiate star power with reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Toews and Buffalo native Patrick Kane.

Evening brings a special treat over on Versus, as the 2011 Heritage Classic kicks off at McMahon Stadium between the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames at 6:30 p.m. (et).

It will be the second outdoor NHL game played in Canada, and first since Commonwealth Stadium hosted the Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers in November, 2003. That game was taken by the Habs, 4-3, in temperatures hovering near zero Fahrenheit.

While the games are the main attraction, NBC has made sure that the sport which probably gets the worst rap in this country, is spotlighted away from the pro ranks.

The broadcast will begin with a live segment in Chicago’s Millennium Park, during which NBC analyst and native Ed Olczyk will skate with the Stanley Cup.

In between periods and the games themselves, focus will shift towards the path of the game in the USA: pieces on the Fort Dupont hockey program in Washington, DC (the oldest minority youth program in the country), the Boston Blades (a new team in the Canadian professional women’s league), the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, as well as celebrity hockey in Los Angeles will be featured.

To most of you reading this, it sure sounds so new and exciting. For once, pro hockey supporters of any stripe across America get a chance to do what every football fan looks forward to every Saturday and Sunday from Labor Day through Christmas –  a chance for our posteriors to spread in a thousand recliners, salty snacks and beer within arm’s length and a sunlight-to-starlight smorgasbord of organized violence.

Nonetheless, dedicated hockey fans — the ones who are lucky enough to have games at their disposal at work, or who have the satellite dish pointed in the proper direction, or who have purchased the Center Ice package — it will all sound very familar.

That’s because the inaugural Hockey Day in America will borrow liberally from Canada’s established burgeoning tradition of its own Hockey Day in Canada.

Originated in 2000 in the wake of the economic climate that led to the Nordiques leaving Quebec City and the Jets departing Winnipeg, its purpose was to celebrate the Millennium and hockey’s place in the culture of our neighbors to the North. It is now an annual occurrence on the third Saturday in February.

Kraft Foods holds a competition every year to find its “Hockeyville,” the city or town throughout the former Dominion which will receive the honor of anchoring the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s day-long event.

While the first such day was celebrated from the country’s English-speaking media hub of Toronto, subsequent broadcasts have originated from small towns in as far-flung locales as Stephenville, Newfoundland and Labrador, the capital city of Iqaluit, Nunavut and in the case of two Saturdays ago, Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory.

It is essentially an extension of the CBC’s usual Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts. All six Canadian teams play each other, in games progressing throughout the day from East to West. There are tons of human interest stories ranging from life and hockey’s role within the host location, each broadcaster’s personal reminiscences, and the great players who might come from the town or province in question.

Defender of all things Canadian, Don Cherry, and his straight-laced foil Ron MacLean are the main talent for each edition, as they are every Saturday night during normal Hockey Nights.

There are copious cameos and interviews with former NHL greats and members of the business community and government whose lives have been influenced by the game. Special consideration is given to different populations, as in the case of the Inuit for the 2003 Nunavut broadcast or the French-Canadian minorities in the 2009 New Brunswick transmission.

Can NBC, or any network in America for that matter, realistically measure up to the groundwork already laid by the CBC?

The short answer is no. Hockey is simply not as woven into the fabric of America as it is in Canada, and there are just too few resources dedicated to promoting the sport on US networks.

Even in ESPN’s hockey heyday, the corporate behemoth actually beamed the declining state of the game three nights per week in the early part of the last decade.

NBC-Comcast is lucky in that this special event is timed for maximum exposure: the NBA is having its All-Star weekend, the NFL season is over and baseball’s spring training doesn’t begin for another week. It needs to make the best of what it has at its disposal.

What also characterizes the CBC broadcast is that it is a no-frills operation, in a uniquely milquetoast Canadian way.

Having the broadcast on the national network also pretty much quells any concessions or pandering to values placed purely on ratings or entertainment value; you almost have to wonder when, not if, NBC decides to trot out something maudlin or cutting edge to enhance or entice the viewing experience. It may just happen in the opening minutes of the broadcast on Sunday, as the city which currently claims the Stanley Cup will have the stage from the get-go.

Such is the nature of trying to steal audience away from cars making endless left turns in a sunny Southern state just a few clicks down the channel guide.

Whatever the underlying causes for hockey’s disappearance on the network slate, this is yet another chance the NHL can ill afford to blow with a new TV contract looming. It’s a lead-pipe cinch that the games themselves are the best selling point.

Let’s hope everything couched around it does the sport itself some justice.