This is my take on the current state of the National Hockey League, and its a poor one at that.
Hockey is a great game. It’s a sport rich with tradition, and has played a large role in Detroit, having our very own Detroit Red Wings win four Stanley Cups since 1997. Hockey was all over the place in the mid to late 90s and even into the early 2000s. Sadly, this is no longer the case.
The NHL is now a disaster. The ratings, with the exception of the Winter Classic and last year’s Stanley Cup Finals (which both featured the Red Wings), were strong in the 90s and have faded as Gary Bettman has changed the game time after time. It was on ESPN all the time and it was so popular at that network that they even had an NHL Tonight show, just like baseball has now. Now, it’s on Versus. This used to be the outdoor network before hockey came along. Hockey didn’t even seem to BE on TV for a few years while this station was coming up. Occasionally, there will be a game on NBC, but out of the dozens of hockey games there are weekly, we are lucky to see 2 or 3 of them.
Hockey is obviously a global sport, but the NHL has teams placed in the wrong places. Many of the cities currently hosting NHL teams have no fan base, thus, ratings for those areas and for those teams are dreadful. Look at the Carolina Hurricanes when they made their Stanley Cup run a few seasons ago. I watched a news report from Carolina where the reporter asked the "fans" felt about their team’s success. Many of the people didn't even know they had an NHL team in their city, let alone one that was making a championship run. Hockey doesn’t belong in the south or in a desert; it belongs in the northern parts of the country, where hockey still has fans that embrace them.
You could eliminate at least 5 team’s right off the top: Carolina, Tampa Bay (even though they did win Stanley Cups), Atlanta, Phoenix, and Florida. You have to find the right markets that will be successful and bring in revenue. If you were to eliminate even a few teams you would take some of those stars and join then with teams that have a better overall market. Could you imagine Vinny Lecavalier on a team like Pittsburgh? Martin St. Louis on the Devils or Rangers? Ilya Kovalchuk on Chicago? It could take some of the superstars of the league and give them more exposure and make some of the hockey markets bigger than they have ever been.
One of the biggest mistakes Gary Bettman made with teams was moving Winnipeg to Phoenix and Hartford to Carolina. Taking 2 teams from rich hockey followings that were filled with history and moving them to places where every other sport is put ahead of hockey is terrible. Maybe you take a few teams away and add an expansion team in a northern US state or somewhere in Canada. This is a move that would help hockey grow. Even though there are a lot of teams it doesn’t mean hockey is successful just because there are a few extra teams. If these teams are in the wrong places does it mean anything to the growth of hockey?
The game has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Players are faster, stronger, and more skilled and goalies are also better than in years past. That being said, the root of hockey has always been the same. It’s a tough, physical game. Players are punished for making the wrong move, its part of the game and always have been and always should be. The penalties called today are very weak, at best. You can’t do anything while defending someone without getting penalties called and it’s ruining the game. When the "obstruction" penalties were put into the game about 5-6 years ago that signified a changing of the guard between old, physical hockey and new, weak style hockey. It also seems as if there is a movement to take fighting completely out of the game as well. Fighting is, and always has been, a huge part of the game. Fighting can change the momentum for a team and get their guys pumped up and ready to make a run try and win the game. Hockey is a very momentum based game and if we take that away then many of the games could be missing exciting finishes and comebacks if there is no possible way to get their players motivated.
Now to the real issue, the marketing, or lack thereof, of the NHL. Bettman and the other people in the NHL have to realize that it is a global game. There are not many quality American players, at least one to market your sport around. Canada has always had a huge pool of talent and continues to produce many great players. You now look at the NHL and many of the top players are Russian, Swedish, Czechs and so on. I mean, the Swedish Gold Medal Olympic team was about a third of the Detroit Red Wings. The players from across the pond are very talented and we need to celebrate that.
Take a look at how the NHL markets themselves. Sidney Crosby is a great player no doubt, but he isn’t even the best player on his own team let alone the player that should be the face of the NHL. Alex Ovechkin is the best player in the league and has been for the last few seasons and will go down as one of the best players ever. He scores highlight reel goals, he makes amazing passes, and he throws some of the best hits an offensive player of his caliber has thrown since the mid 90s when you had players like Jeremy Roenick, Brenden Shanahan, and Eric Lindros. The reason Ovechkin isn’t the face of the NHL? He isn’t from Canada. The NHL doesn’t want to face the fact that the many of the best players in the game are from outside the US and Canada. I think they feel that it shows that we cannot produce our own talent and must rely on other countries to provide it for us. Great players, no matter where they are from, should be recognized and celebrated.
Look at what the NBA does with international superstars like Yao Ming and Pau Gasol. Especially in the case of Yao, the NBA tells its fans look, we have stars from other places in the world, and we welcome them all. We want them to represent our sport. The NBA is making itself bigger and bigger every year by embracing stars from other countries and turning them into stars. Same with the MLB: Ichiro, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Dice-K. The list of international stars goes on and on and this is what the MLB has done to grow their game more and more; embrace its international players and turn them into the face of the league. The NHL has to look at these instances and realize that they have a great opportunity to embrace the fact that it is now a global sport and market themselves to everyone.
Also, the best team in the league, the Detroit Red Wings, isn’t recognized by the league at all. You have to market your best teams and let the fans know that this is the team to watch, this is what hockey is all about, this team is one that can make history. The other sports do this, they show off their best teams and the fans gravitate towards them. The MLB has the Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Mets. The NFL has the Dallas Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Philadelphia Eagles, the New York Giants, the Colts, and the Patriots. The NBA has the Celtics, the Cavs, and the Lakers. Every other sport has their larger market teams and their most popular teams in the center of the sport. The best players are there, the best games happen when they are involved, and more often than not, they are the teams everyone tries to emulate. Why do you think the same few teams from these sports are in their weekly featured games every week? Why do you think every Sunday Night Football game consists of teams like the ones I listed and not teams like the Cincinnati Bengals or the Detroit Lions? They show the most appealing teams to the fans and let these teams be the face of the league.
Watch a Red Wings road game and listen to the crowd when they score. Sounds like about 50% of the building doesn’t it? That’s because it is. Every place the Red Wings play sells out. Why? Because the fans want to see the best team play and show them how much better than the rest of the league they really are. The NHL should’ve figured this out about 10 years and, about the same time Bettman should’ve been fired. Look at what happened when the Red Wings were featured in the Winter Classic: highest regular season ratings in years. Look at when they were in the Stanley Cup Finals last season: highest NHL Finals ratings in 5 years. My point? Show the best teams out there and market them as being the face of your sport. The NHL needs to learn from other sports and look at what they are doing wrong in order to find a way to get hockey back to where it once was, among the most popular sports.
Gary Bettman should be ashamed of himself for how poorly the NHL is seen in the public eye now. Thats just my take. Whats Yours?