Tuesday, January 1, 2008

NHL Winter Classic game - Saving the sport?

I watched the NHL's first US outdoor game between the Penguins and Sabres on New Years Day. Pretty cool. With 70,000 fans and the snow falling, the game was fun and totally lived up to the hype.

The experience reminded me of skating on cranberry bogs when I was a kid in New England and showed the rest of the country how historical and cool hockey can be. Gary Bettman said it cost the league $1 million to put the game on, so I don't see it becoming a regular event but I wouldn't be opposed to watching two 'Original 6' teams like the Bruins, Canadiens, or Rangers playing at Gillette Stadium sometime soon.

Anyway, with the NHL struggling to carve out an identity in the shadow of the NFL, NBA, and MLB in the lower 48, I thought I would look at some recent complaints and theories as to why the league is not as popular...

13.) NHL tickets are too expensive:
But so are NFL tickets, so it really shouldn't matter if the product is good.

12.) The Goalies' pads are too big:
The shooters are bigger, faster, and more skilled so it really shouldn't matter. Scoring is not down because the goalies have extra padding.

11.) The players are too big:
People have talked about things like removing the red line, making the trap illegal, or widening the ice surface all to open up the game. Just like in basketball, players evolve and get bigger and better but you don't see the NBA widening the court or raising the rim.

10.) The game is too fast and hard to follow:
I am confused. Is the game hard to follow or does it need to be opened-up more? Although I do feel a long camera angle of the rink will show new viewers more of the excitement, movement and strategy of the game, we don't need anymore gimmicks like glowing pucks.

9.) There is no top American superstar in the league:
Contrary to what American marketers may think, the presence of great US players like Roenik, Modano, and La Fontaine does not directly affect the success of the league.

8.) Players all wearing helmets takes away the personality of the game:
Initially this was a concern when the mandatory helmet rule was passed in the NHL several years ago, but there has been no evidence of this affecting the very successful NFL. Besides NHL players are notoriously more accessible.

7.) Except Detroit, the 'Original 6' franchises have not done well recently:
Since history and tradition are so important in the NHL, I think this is a legitimate issue.

6.) There isn't any fighting anymore:
A few years ago the NHL nearly eliminated pugilism from the game but as young stars in the league emerge, so has a new of group of bodyguards.

5.) No National TV contract in United States:
Chicken -or- the egg. Improve the game and exposure will follow.

4.) All the team uniforms look the same:
This is more a pet-peeve of mine. In the years after the LA Kings got Gretsky and changed their uniforms to black and white, it seemed most teams incorporated black into their color scheme. To me it takes away from the uniqueness of the teams and pageantry and history of the game. Hockey sweaters were once colorful works of art. The Rangers and B's have gone back to some original designs, but how cool would it be if teams like the Penguins (light blue) and Kings (purple & gold) adopted their retro sweaters again full time.

3.) There are just too many teams:
If the product is not good, then expansion will hurt any league.

2.) Franchises in top media cities have not been successful:
Since team success in a top media market (especially an 'Original 6' city like NY, Bos, or Chi) would naturally create more interest, this does have some validity.

1.) The dreaded 'Quick whistle' is ruining play:
The more I watch this game the more I notice how a simple thing like a quick whistle can affect a game. It was instituted to protect goalies and clamp down on fisticuffs. Instead of players crashing the net after a loose puck , the referee now blows the whistle and stops play once the goalie has control of the puck or worse, whenever the puck is out of sight. I understand the intention, but the goalies are already well protected as mentioned earlier. Besides, if you are already cracking down on fighting and activity within the crease, why mess with the flow of the game? Now the excitment of loose pucks and all the intensity around the net is missing. Also, goalie stickhandling was always high drama. Now once a goalie corrals the puck he can get a whistle simply by skating in the direction of an opposing player and face-offs routinely break the momentum and flow of an intense, action-oriented game. If you remove the 'quick whistle', the action again will be more continuous, the game will be more exciting, and thus the product more appealing to new viewers and traditionalists.

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