On the Brink of Irrelevance: Hockey Through American Eyes

Congratulations are surely in order. It took nearly a decade, but the NHL has finally been run into the ground. While it would certainly be convenient to place all of the blame on the shoulders of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players’ Association President Bob Goodenow, the decay of the National Hockey League in the United States has, in actuality, been the result of negative associations (everything from annoying glowing pucks, crazed hockey dads, low ratings, and even un-Americanness) that have crept into the subconscious of the average American. With the 2004-05 season officially over, and the chances of a season next year becoming doubtful, the lone silver lining of the league’s uncertain future is the opportunity to re-introduce the game of hockey to Americans, free of all these damaging stereotypes.

Earlier this year, when Bettman infamously made his professional league the first ever to cancel an entire season, the American media leapt forth from its Bill Belichik-praising to wag a disapproving finger. Yes, hockey was finally getting attention, but for all the wrong reasons. Monday morning quarterbacks are a dime a dozen, and while most of them ignored hockey when it was around, they were now cracking jokes at its expense. Worse, the NHL didn’t even get any favors from its former partners-in-arms. On the league’s darkest day, who did NHL broadcaster ESPN enlist to provide commentary? None other than Skip Bayless, a man who once derided the sport on Jim Rome’s nationally syndicated talk radio show as nothing more than “soccer on ice.” You can imagine how supportive his ESPN Page 2 article was. Although its purpose was to be humorous, his writing illustrates a startling trend that has become ingrained in American culture — dissing hockey.

You know that when the ladies from The View are expressing their outrage over Todd Bertuzzi’s blindside hit on Steve Moore, the NHL has a problem with its image — not that the league has done anything to address it. Its advertising campaigns have done a horrendous job at presenting the league, whether it’s their inability to promote (largely un-American) stars, caustic spokesman Denis Leary ad nauseum, or an uninspired Shania Twain asking us if we “get it?” Actually, most Americans don’t get it, and that’s the problem.

The battered reputation of the NHL was bound to suffer in this new age of American nationalism, but it didn’t have to be to this extent. Basketball and baseball are becoming more international every year and no one seems to care, but hockey is at a disadvantage because its core stars are not American. This becomes apparent now more then ever, when, even as the NHL licks its wounds in the corner, the unlikely heroes of the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team celebrate their 25th anniversary in Lake Placid. The team inspired a nation during the Cold War and, for at least a fleeting moment, hockey was at the epicenter of the American sporting world. For the NHL to not be playing the year team U.S.A. celebrates its quarter-century anniversary is not only an example of poor timing, it represents a golden marketing opportunity lost.

Take last season as a counterexample. The Edmonton Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens played the Heritage Classic outdoors in front of over 50,000 fans, an event that was by all accounts a huge success. Imagine if the NHL organized a whole weekend to celebrate the Miracle on Ice? They could have transplanted the outdoor game idea from Edmonton to Lake Placid. They could have had U.S.A. captain Mike Eruzione suit up alongside the next wave of American hockey stars in a charity game. They could have finally inducted beloved American coach Herb Brooks into the hockey hall of fame. They could have done a lot, but instead the NHL remains hopelessly mired in its own irrelevance.

What is truly vexing about the tarred and feathered reputation of the league is that, despite microscopic television ratings and flagging finances, the league is still big business. Just recently, two Boston companies — Bain Capital Partners and Game Plan International — made an initial offer of $3.5 billion (US) to buy the league’s 30 franchises. To the fan that sees the league in disarray, without a collective bargaining agreement, and with owners crying debt, the NHL’s complete indifference in the face of this lucrative offer probably came as a shock. If you add up the values of all the teams based on Forbes’ yearly calculations, the teams have a combined worth of over $4.5 billion. Now you see where comparisons to professional bowling and spelling bees sound ludicrous.

Consider that, during these trying times, businessmen are still interested in buying NHL franchises. In the past few weeks, two teams have found new owners. It could be speculated that this is merely the ole’ buying low routine, but Francesco Aquilini in Vancouver and billionaire Henry Samueli in Anaheim both found the NHL to be a worthy investment. What they may be planning could be far more than just hockey; owners have become filthy rich over the years using the NHL as a Trojan horse. For example, Los Angeles Kings owner Philip Anschutz bought the team for $113 million in 1995. The Kings lost money in that first season, but Anschutz used the team to get permission to build the Staples Centre for another $400 million. His arena now generates $50 million a year from various events (it’s the most profitable building in the country), and he is currently planning a $1 billion development around the Staples Center, including hotels, condos, a theatre, and offices. Not a bad investment at all. The same can be said in Phoenix, Chicago, and any other place where the team owns the arena as well. What’s more, the Flyers, Rangers and Leafs have all used their franchises to build profitable cable networks. And don’t forget that, last season, 22 of the 30 teams averaged over 15,000 fans in attendance per game, and most of those tickets were not giveaways.

The caveat is that, while owners can use NHL franchises to catapult themselves from millionaire to billionaire status, and players will continue to do well (cap or no cap), there is still the problem of improving hockey’s image in the eyes of American sports fans, and putting the Skip Baylesses of the world on ice. The NHL is deserving of a better television deal, and packed arenas in every city. What always baffles Canadian hockey fans is the claim from American fans that watching hockey on television is trying because the puck is too difficult to follow on the ice. It was this complaint that spawned Fox’s Tronification of the puck, turning it into a glowing orb that was meant to be easier to see. Thankfully, the HDTV revolution will put an end to that. The NHL should be embracing technology, not gimmicks. Whether it be high-definition television deals for all 30 franchises or the recent satellite radio deal with Sirius, the future is where the NHL should be looking, since the present is quite unattractive. The league’s recent television contract with NBC was a good start. In addition to showing broadcasts in HDTV, the agreement provides for no guaranteed money up front, forcing both the NHL and NBC to aggressively market in order to see any substantial return.

What both parties will need to avoid doing in the process, however, is trying to cater to fickle fans. Laughable ideas such as the glowing puck were born out of fans’ complaints, and all of the pointless rule changes during Bettman’s watch have been to satisfy the fans’ desire for more scoring. Altering the crease size and putting more space behind the net were to the mid-’90s what the no red line theory is today — changes for the sake of change. Perhaps American hockey fans could better follow the sport if the rules didn’t change every year? Such rampant revisions also give non-hockey fans an excuse to say that the game is imperfect and still fixing its flaws, even though hockey has seen less change since the nineteenth century than either basketball or football.

When the NHL does return, though, some changes are already under discussion. Teams may be sporting new form-fitting uniforms from Reebok and possibly playing on a blue ice surface, but, most hopefully, the league will project a new attitude. The NHL must learn that it does not have to compete with other sports leagues, since they themselves are a multi-billion dollar industry with millions of fans and a great product. Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow have completely destroyed the league’s reputation in a decade, and even if they both get a deal that appeases both players and owners, neither man is capable of leading the NHL into its golden age. The league needs to re-introduce itself: no cheap gimmickry, no lackluster marketing, and no more wholesale rule changes — just the game of hockey will suffice.