This just in: Hockey is still dead in the United States. Even though its popularity was arguably waning heading into the massive labor dispute prior to this season, the NHL, according to Nielsen ratings of the April and May playoff games, has yet to show signs of life.
And that's too bad, according to many hockey analysts who say the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs have featured some of the game's best play. "It's very frustrating," ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose said. "The product is so good; we've got so much going for us. There should be such a buzz, with the overtime games we've been having, the great hits, the tremendous goals. That's the depressing part."
The viewers disagree. During the regular season, the NHL managed to draw an average rating of .2 nationally (roughly 164,000 households) on its telecasts on Outdoor Life Network, the hard-to-find cable outlet that agreed to carry NHL games during the 2005-2006 season. To be clear, a .2 rating barely beats out static.
The stagnant ratings can't simply be a function of OLN's poor market reach. Even when some of the Stanley Cup playoff games hit NBC's airwaves, viewers were hard to come by. Game 2 of the Anaheim-Colorado series on May 7 drew a miniscule .3 rating in Los Angeles, the home market of the Mighty Ducks. Nationally, it drew a .9 rating on NBC-identical to the .9 NBC garnered for its Arena League football regular-season finale between the Kansas City Brigade and the Colorado Crush. Could the NHL have dropped that far-from a legitimate top four sport to an also-ran equivalent to gymnastics and Arena League football?
That's how Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser sees it. "Hockey is so dead in America, the players may as well still be locked out," Mr. Kornheiser said. "Hockey didn't just lose last season. It appears to have lost its place."
Oops. Rasheed Wallace was finally wrong. After nailing at least four playoff predictions, the Detroit forward was off target when he guaranteed a Pistons win in Game 4 against Cleveland. Instead, LeBron James and the Cavaliers tied the second-round series at two games apiece. Of course, Mr. Wallace had an alibi: He rolled his ankle in the second quarter and had to watch the crucial loss from the bench.
More than a week after moving within one home run of tying the Sultan of Swat for second place on the all-time home run list, Barry Bonds said he was feeling pressure. "This thing, it's like chasing two ghosts, you know," Mr. Bonds said on May 15, eight days after hitting home run No. 713. "I can imagine what Roger Maris went through. Babe Ruth, I think he just kind of hovers over people a lot." The second ghost? Apparently Hank Aaron, the still-living home run king who might not appreciate being called a specter.
At least one player found the Bambino easy enough to pass. A May 14 double by Luis Gonzalez was the Diamondbacks slugger's 507th double of his career-enough to move him past Babe Ruth on the all-time doubles list. "Home runs, everybody makes a big deal out of it," Mr. Gonzalez said. "I like hitting home runs, don't get me wrong, but I still like the art of the double, too, because it creates a bit of a rally jump-starter."