Glow Pucks, Fox Trax and Robots. The American Hockey Fan's Fascination with NHL on FOX Part 1

The Hockeycaster's picture
It lasted for only 4 years, but the marriage between the NHL and FOX television seemed to have a lasting impact on hockey fans in America, forever changing the perception of the game and how to cover it. There is one main, overlying reason why the NHL on FOX was so popular during its time, and is still to this day cherished by fans: to put it simply, IT WORKED. For years the NHL struggled to find a solid platform to showcase its game, and it did not have a national network home in the states for some 20 years, until 1995, when FOX, the bold and daring network it has built itself up to be, took a chance on the frozen game, and dramatically changed hockey television in the states. With some creativity, and a whole lot of guts, FOX managed to almost put the NHL back into the conscious of die -hard sports fans, everywhere, and even grabbed the curiosity of the dreaded "fair weather fan", giving the NHL a solid leg to stand on in the US that some wondered how the league ever lived without.

It all started before the 1995 season. The NHL had been peddling itself to the national networks for about three years, after experiencing growing success under 2 stints with ESPN and a small love affair with SportsChannel America as national cable partners, the NHL was insistent on riding the wave of progressive American interest, and tried to grow (yes that's right, the whole "growing the game" thing again) by getting credibility with a national network. Initially, there were no takers, but in 1993, they were able to convince ABC, who was affiliated with ESPN, the NHL's cable partner at the time, to televise a few games on Saturdays late in the season. Although the coverage was extremely basic, and there were no initial intentions by ABC to commit to anything long term, but the reaction and the ratings were well received, and ABC decided to pick up all Saturday playoff games as well. The Stanley Cup Playoffs and Finals bought added interest and success to both parties, and ABC and the league decided to repeat the experiment again the following season, and once again the results were promising. But ABC was still hesitant to take on the league on a full scale, and in summer 1994, the league, backed by a convincing 2 year stay on ABC, and a steadily growing fan base, once again searched for proper suitors as a national network partner, and this time they found one, in the unlikely place of the fairly new, but tremendously growing FOX network. FOX at the time was still very new to the sports television scene. They had only been televising games for the NFL for a season, and many considered the network disadvantaged, because of its' lack of experience, and what was then a lack of pro sports to televise. FOX, needing something to go along with their NFL coverage, seemed like the perfect fit for the NHL. Not only was FOX desperate for another sport, they were ready, willing and able to do something no one else would or even daringly could do: market the game not just as a legitimate major league sport, but market it as the original "extreme" sport, and give it a look and feel that would appeal to Generation X. FOX, after all, has made its way in TV by being the network that appeals to the younger demographic, and it has seen tremendous success with males ages 18-25. This could not have been better for the NHL, who began to market the new deal shortly before its' initial broadcast with snazzy, adrenaline pumped ads that featured a glimpse of things to come. Fast edits, with all the bells and whistles to catch fans' attention: players shooting pucks with fire trails, hard hits with players shattering into pieces, close-ups on crazed fans and bright red goal flashing goal sirens, and curious hockey playing, cartoon-like robots. The interest of the American sports fan was peaked, and on April 2, 1995, (in the midst of a strike shortened season), the NHL on FOX was born.

(video from YouTube user DudeGuyWho2, who has a ton of great hockey vids...)

The launch saw immediate success, as the original broadcast featured 4 primary matchups at 3PM, and a second game between San Jose and Anaheim at 6. The launch also saw many sponsors involved, including big deals with The New Dodge and Pizza Hut. By scheduling sometimes up to 6 games, and showing most games at the same time, localizing matchups to different regions, the NHL on FOX was able to attract viewers from almost every region, as they were able to offer many different teams on a weekly basis at the same time. The ratings were for the debut were deemed a success, as put by an archive article in SportsBusiness Daily," ... premiere of the NHL on Fox received a 2.5 rating and a 6 share in Nielsen overnights, according to Fox Sportsspokesperson Vince Wladika". For the first time in decades, the NHL had established a solid presence on American network television, accomplishing the league's initial mission, and acting as a launch pad for the games popularity in the states......

Part 2 coming soon...