Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It's time once again for the NHL season to get underway and, as always, there are plenty of questions heading into the year.
Professional hockey had a fairly quiet offseason in relation to the rest of the major sport leagues in North America. Of course, the free-agency signing period was busy as usual, but the NHL was able to avoid a scandal, unlike the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball.
Still, the NHL has the biggest problems of the four major sports because its issues are more central to the state of hockey in general. Baseball can survive steroids, David Stern and the NBA will take care of its gambling scandal, and the dog-fighting embarrassment will haunt Michael Vick on a personal level more so than it will affect the unassailable popularity of the NFL.
But can the same be said for hockey and its inability to maintain a fan base in the United States? The NHL is not in danger of folding, but inroads need to be made in American markets or the face of professional hockey in the U.S. will certainly change for the worse.
That may be a bit on the doom-and gloom side, as the NHL does have the ability to turn things around in its favor. After all, hockey has gone through ups and downs in popularity in the U.S. before, and was able to weather those storms.
It's also important to note that by saying interest in hockey is down in America does not mean that the game itself is the problem. As one of the few people in the U.S. who watched the majority of NHL postseason games last year, I can honestly say that the level of play was certainly not wanting.
The problem that has plagued the NHL in recent years is simple. The league, especially commissioner Gary Bettman, has failed to market the sport properly in America and then stood by helplessly as the NHL was forced to enter a laughable national television deal with Versus. The fledgling channel, formerly known as the Outdoor Life Network, is trying hard to make the transformation into a destination for mainstream sports fans, but most Americans would have a hard time telling you whether or not they even get Versus on their cable package.
Gary Bettman has failed to market the sport properly in America.
While the TV deal with Versus is a necessary evil at this stage, the NHL needs to repair its reputation as a league without a plan for the U.S. Here are some ideas to help Bettman and his cronies get back in the good graces of the American television-viewing public.
1. Sell, sell, sell. - I watch a great deal of television and rarely see the NHL advertised in the right places. The league needs to find a matchup that has some sex appeal and market the heck out of it. Last year, Versus whipped up a few solid commercials, especially during the playoffs, but the only places I saw them aired was on the channel itself or on another basic cable network at around 1:00 a.m., when even the butcher shop around the corner can afford advertising time. It would cost the league a pretty penny to bid for airtime with the big corporations, but in America you have to pay to play.
2. Bring back the old scheduling system - This is actually something that the NHL and the team owners are reportedly close to achieving. The point of the unbalanced schedule was to have old division rivals play each other more and also to create even more competitive battles between some of the newer teams. What happened instead was the oversaturation of matchups between the same group of teams. What's the point of having a league with such a wide-ranging geography if some teams rarely get to play each other? The details of the new scheduling system are not yet known, but hopefully every team will get to play each other at least once. Talent is spread out all over the league, and it behooves the NHL to give people in every town a chance to see all that the league offers.
3. Crosby vs. Ovechkin - To their credit, the NHL and Versus have tried to sell this matchup but could actually use a little bit of help from Alexander Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals. While, Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins are among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this year, the Caps are a longshot to even make the playoffs. Hopefully, Ovechkin can help Washington take a huge jump forward this year just like Crosby did for the Pens a year ago. An improved Capitals club would make Crosby vs. Ovechkin games a much easier sell for the league. The Pens and Caps will meet four times during the 2007-08 regular season and the NHL should do its best to promote those contests.
4. Don't apologize for fighting. - Let's be honest, everybody loves a good hockey fight, whether or not they are willing to admit it. Fighting is a part of the game, and the NHL would be better off it simply embraced the pugilistic side of hockey. Often sports fans in America use fighting in hockey as a way to dismiss the game as outdated or barbaric, but those same people can't turn their heads away from the television when a big-time hockey fight is on screen. I'll say it again, fighting is a part of the game. The rough side of hockey acts as a fine contrast to the graceful athleticism of the game, and is something that makes the NHL unique when compared with the other major sports. My suggestion is to stop running away from fighting and embrace it once again.
5. The dreaded c-word...contraction - This is something that needs to happen for hockey to regain its momentum. With 30 teams, the NHL trying to gain more viewers would be something like a 300-pound man trying to set the world record in the 100-meter dash, it's just not going to happen. The geography of NHL franchises is mind-boggling to the American public, who rightfully scratch their heads when they realize that cities like Nashville, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Miami have NHL franchises. These are not good pro sports towns in general, and putting hockey clubs in those spots is just asking for failure. Now, I'm not going to debate about which teams should be contracted, but the league seriously needs to consider this as an option. The NHL needs to get back down to a leaner, meaner fighting weight in order to compete with the rest of the major sports.
It's sad that Americans' interest in hockey has dropped off so much in recent years, especially since players from the United States are getting increasingly better at the sport. The hope is that this decline is simply part of a cycle and the sport will once again experience a resurgence in the U.S. It must also be frustrating to Canadian fans that the business side of the game relies so heavily on a country that doesn't fully appreciate hockey.
The NHL has staked so much in the belief that hockey can be successful in the U.S., and it now owes the true fans a focused plan to make those dreams a reality.