Why the ’90s were the golden age for American hockey fans
Starting Monday, the NHL will run its last draft combine to feature a pool of prospects primarily born in the 1990s. Every non-expansion pick of the Vegas Golden Knights will have been born in or after the year the Las Vegas Thunder folded.
American hockey fans old enough to remember can fondly educate that draft class on Sin City’s first peak in pro hockey interest. Two years after a one-off scoop of NHL preseason action in 1991, the Thunder came to town as a full-time tenant of the IHL.
Though that franchise was short-lived, and its healthy helpings of fanfare even shorter, it made Las Vegas one of innumerable representations of the Wayne Gretzky effect kicking in and spreading from Hollywood outward. The 1988 offseason trade from Edmonton doubtlessly precipitated a since-unmatched era for pro hockey in the United States.
Some aspects of more recent history are superior in their own right. But the collective supply and demand of live or televised hockey, along with the sport’s presence in pop culture, has yet to reach the level it enjoyed late in the last century. Each of these five elements are either extinct or shells of their ’90s forms.
Shared NHL TV rights
Baseball, basketball and especially football fans take for granted their top league’s partnerships with multiple national TV network families. Various combinations of ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and Turner have split the dissemination duties of those sports.
But for the major sport not native to this country, the same was only true during the latter half of Gretzky’s employment by U.S.-based teams.
Fox ended a dry spell of national non-cable coverage when it secured the rights prior to a lockout-delayed 1994-95 season. For the next five winters and springs, it shared the NHL with a competing cable giant, ESPN.
Consistent coverage of weekend games for the latter half of the regular season and the playoffs has since stuck. However, starting in 2000, the NHL has only seen action on associated American channels. ESPN and its partner, ABC, carried the league until the 2004-05 lockout, after which NBC picked up the loose puck bag and brought all of its contents home to its family.
One can have a titanic debate as to whether the still-running Modern Family and its contemporaries truly trump, say, Seinfeld as top-notch sitcoms. But when it comes to using hockey as a core episode plot device — and with all due respect to Rescue Me — nothing in this young century has left the same impression as a handful of ’90s programs.
The aforementioned Seinfeld epitomized that trend with “The Face Painter” on May 11, 1995. Six months before that, and less than two months after it secured those NHL broadcasting rights, Fox premiered “Lisa on Ice” as part of the sixth season of The Simpsons.
Both episodes superbly satirized uncontrolled fanaticism at the pro and Pee Wee levels, respectively. Prime-time TV has yet to give hockey enthusiasts a comparable opportunity to laugh at themselves.
Mass minor-league telecasts
Granted, the NBC clan has given audiences a generously quantitative fix of the NHL throughout the current calendar decade. The advent of the NHL Network has done the same, and has joined countless webcasting services to transmit action from other levels.
Still, there was something special about when one in virtually any active market could flip on a physical TV, go to the regional sports network and find an AHL or IHL game.
Besides the Buffalo Sabres, fans in Western New York used to watch the Rochester Americans on the Empire Sports Network. Boston fans could catch the occasional Providence Bruins game on NESN, which briefly even did an AHL Game of the Week that could feature any of the league’s New England teams. The Penguins and Flyers had comparable arrangements when their affiliates arrived later in the decade.
The AHL even saw regular-season air time on ESPN2 during the 1994 NHL lockout, which cannot be said about the 2004-05 or 2012 stoppages. And for a time, besides its own laundry list of local options, the IHL had its own Game of the Week syndicated nationwide on Sportschannel. Of course, both of those entities are long deceased, as is Empire Sports.
A major minor spread
Part of the reason the minor leagues reached the living rooms of American hockey fans as much as they did in the ’90s was because they were too rampant to ignore.
Besides the AHL and IHL, there were as many as five lower-level leagues. The Colonial (later renamed United) League took root in 1991, followed by the Central League a year later. The West Coast and Western Professional Leagues came back-to-back in 1995 and 1996, emulating the ECHL to complete the de facto Double-A level’s end-to-end push.
By 1998-99, those seven circuits combined for 112 teams. By the summer of 2001, the remnants of the IHL joined the AHL, as did the WPHL with the Central League. The WCHL and UHL (which spent its final three years as the new IHL) have since dissolved as well.
Rolling and rocking
When it peaked in popularity and accessibility, roller hockey was a cure-all for any form of puck deprivation.
If you were a grassroots player (or would-be grassroots player) with no local rink or no ice-skating ability, inline skates were another option. Ditto if you were taking a needed or involuntary break from the barn, but needed an efficient substitute for the sensations of playing the game in its normal form.
Sheer spectators wanting fresh, live (or close to live) action got the same fixes via Roller Hockey International and Pro Beach Hockey. During at least part of their existence, both leagues attracted the cameras and crews of ESPN, keeping hockey on the air in the thick of summer.
RHI ran from 1992 to 1999, with teams catering to fan bases in various NHL and minor-league arenas. PBH prickled the purists, to say the least, with the outlandish team names and uniforms and the skateboard-like ramps at the each end of its rink next to a Huntington Beach, Calif., seashore.
But, hey, it offered NHL buffs a fun way to slake a hockey hankering while waiting for cooler air to blow the serious stuff back into action.