Inhistoric, the excellent sports history blog, reminds us that yesterday was the 14th anniversary of Fox Network’s unveiling of the glow puck. That lovely little piece of technology was (quite correctly) derided by hockey purists, who figured that if the viewer couldn’t follow the play unaided they didn’t need to bother watching the games.

Still, I wondered how the league had fared TV-wise since the decision to accept a generous package from Disney to move the games from Fox to ABC (the package was so generous that Gary Bettman quipped, “”I didn’t attend the negotiations wearing a mask and a gun.”)

Not well, as it turns out. This chart illustrates the ugly trend:

It’s been interesting to go back and listen to Bettman at various points during that ratings fall from poor to miserable.

June 1994: “Nobody should read too much into the ratings. We were off TV so many years, we’re in the rebuilding process. If we were still getting those numbers in five years, I’d be disappointed.”

June 1996: “The league is at its most stable, from a team standpoint and ownership standpoint, as least in my tenure. The issue is not whether or not we’re in a horse race and whether our ratings are better than the other three major professional sports on TV. The issue is, are we growing? In five years, we can look at it again and if we continue to grow the way we are, I’ll be happy.

June 1998: “I reject the notion this is a game in trouble. ‘On the contrary, I think the vital signs are good. We have strong ownership and the franchises have never been more stable.”

June 1998:: “TV ratings are down, but not as terrible as some think. We’re working on finding our niche. The final score isn’t ready to be tallied. I think we will continue to make more money on network TV.”

January 2003: [Bettman] said revenues and TV ratings are up, but “teams are going to struggle to make it to 2004.”

February 2007: “Young people, particularly in their teens and 20s, are not consuming sports the way my generation did. They are doing lots of things; they are multitasking. They are getting downloads, they are getting alerts on their computers or on their cellphones, and they are consuming sports in a more real-time but less full-time basis.”

May 2007: “Nielsen TV ratings is but one measure; it doesn’t define us. Research also says we probably have somewhere around 50 million fans. What it tells you is people who follow this game (and) are passionate about the game don’t watch it on TV in the United States as much as we’d all like. There are probably two or three other sports that do better than we do and there are a bunch of niche sports that don’t even come close. We don’t have to apologize to anybody for what we are.

January 2009:”All of our metrics on our vital signs are strong,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a telephone interview, citing attendance up more than 2 percent, higher television ratings and rising traffic on the website.

If that sounds like the bar progressively getting lower, that’s what it is. Initially Bettman said it wasn’t about what the ratings were, it was about how they increased. Then TV ratings weren’t that bad, and the NHL would continue to make money. Now it’s about how the NHL is reaching out into new media and TV ratings really aren’t that important (except when they’re up). Still, confronted with a 15 year slide from barely relevant to total irrelevance, it’s no wonder that Bettman keeps shifting his position.