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Poof! Look fast to witness many newspapers' disappearing hockey coverage

Marian Gaborik offered a magical performance for the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night, scoring five goals and assisting on a sixth in an electrifying 6-3 victory over the Rangers at the Xcel Energy Center. But a smaller story, one that should be disturbing to the NHL, played out upstairs in the press box.

Of the seven major newspapers in the New York metropolitan area, only two — the Daily News and Long Island's Newsday — bothered to send staff writers to the game, the first of a two-day Rangers trip that concludes Friday night in Colorado. (Full disclosure: Yours truly freelanced the game for The New York Times.)

NHL losing ground in key markets
Why should hockey fans care? Because it's another subtle sign that the NHL is losing ground in key U.S. markets, which should be worrisome to commissioner Gary Bettman and the boys in New York and Toronto.

Minnesota is the least of the NHL's worries. The Wild continue to sell out the X, at least on paper. Hockey remains huge throughout the state; this month I've seen more kids and adults playing on outdoor park rinks in my neighborhood than I remember the last few years. Sports Illustrated's designation of St. Paul as the new Hockeytown U.S.A. may be overblown — folks in Warroad and Eveleth can claim St. Paul isn't even Hockeytown, Minnesota — but at least you can read about the Wild in the Strib and the Pioneer Press without fumbling for a magnifying glass.

But in New York, though the Rangers continue to fill the 18,200-seat Madison Square Garden, newspaper coverage keeps diminishing. The Newark Star-Ledger and the Record of Bergen County, N.J., dropped their Ranger beats, and every paper except Newsday ignores the Islanders. Kyle Okposo leaving the University of Minnesota for the Islanders rated three paragraphs in The Times, at the bottom of a hockey roundup.

That isn't the only area where newspaper cutbacks are affecting hockey. Last year, the Los Angeles Times stopped covering the Anaheim Ducks on the road, an awful bit of timing since the Ducks went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Hockey relegated to a niche sport in many places
More and more, sports editors are lumping hockey into the niche sport category, like tennis or golf or ultimate fighting, or even arena football or soccer. They figure the only people who care are the ones who go to the games, and in a lot of cities, the TV ratings bear this out. Best example: The New Jersey Devils, who could fit their entire TV audience into your living room, except when they play the Rangers.

This is what the NHL gets for locking out its players for a year, moving its games off ESPN and onto Versus (which, in prime time tonight, is showing three guys beating each other with socks), and muddling up the rules without successfully addressing the lack of scoring. There can't be 25 great goalies in the NHL, but you'd never know it by watching the league now.

Hockey used to be a fast, fluid game, and now it's dull, except on those rare nights when a Gaborik works his magic.

The Rangers used to own New York, even more than the Knicks. Now they're just a bunch of guys in blue sweaters hardly anybody outside the Garden gives a hoot about, especially the folks in the newspaper business. That's not only wrong, it's sad. Be glad you live in a place where hockey still matters.

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