“Bettman has only a marginal interest in the weaker teams. He only wants the NHL to make a bigger profit as a whole.” -- Dominik Hasek

March 27, 2007

The NHL: A New Direction

There has been a great amount of talk this season among fans, columnists and players about the current state of the National Hockey League and which direction it should be going in future years. Should it keep trying to expand? Should it shrink? Should fighting be banned, or encouraged? Should there be significant rule changes? Should the goals be enlarged? You name it, someone has proposed it.

The NHL has two choices. It can try to grow and legitimately challenge the commercial dominance of the NBA and the NFL through expansion and fundamental rule changes (Choice 1), or it can shrink, fall back on its dedicated fan base and embrace the history of the game (Choice 2).

Let's look at how these two choices would impact certain aspects of the league and the game itself:

Choice 1: In order for the NHL to honestly compete with the big American professional sports leagues, it must ban fighting immediately. Fighting's continued existence relegates hockey to sideshow status, and strips the perception of legitimacy from it in the casual fan's mind. That casual fan, the knuckle-dragging, celebrity-obsessed Johnny-come-lately, is the sole target of this new NHL. The NFL currently dominates professional sports because it dominates the casual fan base. Literally millions of people can tell you who Peyton Manning is and what team he plays for, but couldn't explain an onside kick or a flea flicker to save their lives. As the NFL does, the NHL would have to saturate national television with player-focused advertising. Sidney Crosby, Dion Phaneuf and other young, attractive star players would have to be enlisted to sell just about anything. Insurance, soft drinks, shoes, cars, mortgages, you name it. They would have a constant presence on the TV, and none of it has to be solely hockey-related.

Also, the NHL would need to revisit its rules and standard practices. As said before, fighting would be banned immediately, and illegal use of the stick to injure or harass opposing players would be punished as a double major penalty. Also, the size of the goal would be increased by several inches both horizontally and vertically, and goalie pads would be more severely limited in size. Also, the size of the rink would need to expand to international/Olympic standards.

Finally, the NHL would continue to seek expansion markets, including cities like Seattle, Hartford (again), Kansas City and Las Vegas. Also, the farm system would need to grow as well, and the NHL would need to seriously promote youth and recreational hockey programs across the United States. That means a major expenditure of cash and a major risk that many arenas will suffer from low attendance for many years.

Choice 2: The NHL could take the opposite route and admit that its efforts to greatly expand during the early 1990s didn't go as well as it planned. It would have to admit that 30 teams is too many, and the diluted talent pool hurts the attractiveness of hockey in non-traditional markets---even if most teams are still pretty good. Teams like Phoenix, Nashville, Florida, Washington, Carolina and maybe Atlanta would have to either be eliminated or moved to more traditional hockey markets, and their players redrafted or signed as free agents by the remaining teams. At least two teams would have to go, and two others relocated to Hartford, CT and a Canadian city (Winnipeg, Quebec or Hamilton). Also, the salary cap would have to be raised in an effort to allow at least the possibility of old-time dynasties like Montreal, Edmonton and the Islanders used to be. Discourage the frequent trading of star players and restrict free agency. Parity is great when you're trying entice casual fans in far-off places, but give the poor fans of Toronto and Montreal something to cheer about again.

Fighting would continue in pro hockey, and the instigator rule would be eliminated immediately. The role of "goons" and enforcers would be acknowledged and embraced, and additional safety measures (fighting gloves for goons?) would be considered. Again, stick work would be heavily penalized in order to encourage more traditional methods of conflict resolution.

Finally, the NHL would focus its advertising on a regional or local basis, saturating specific markets with specific players. For example, young players like Crosby would appear in every commercial in the Pittsburgh market and other cities in the East Coast region. Jason Spezza would be Canada's new favorite son. Phaneuf would be a constant fixture in the west. Markets in the South and Southwest would see far less advertising dollars since the sport has never adequately caught on in those regions anyway, and it is doubtful it ever will, as those regions have no free ice (as in, frozen ponds in the winter) and therefore few if any casual skaters or hockey players. In other words, the NHL would return to its Northern roots (with a few exceptions) and embrace the audience it has always relied on for the majority of its revenue.

Simply put, the NHL has two choices. Put its money where its mouth is and make a real effort to compete with the big boys like basketball and football, or return to its roots and embrace the traditions and physicality (and the die-hard fans) that have always made hockey such a unique "alternative" sport. Obviously, the league can't have it both ways.

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