I know what you are thinking, the NHL isn’t going anywhere. I agree with you, I know it is here to stay as well, despite all of our WHA scares during the lock-out. What I am talking about is trying to save the NHL from becoming a marginal sport. We hockey fans have to realize that we are on the fringe of truly being a major North America sport. The negative part of that statement is that we are rolling off the green instead of running onto it, meaning that hockey needs to reclaim it's place as being a part of the 4 major sports that it was believed to be in the 1990's. Instead of doing this, post-lockout hockey has decided to sign cable contracts with companies that do not promote our game enough while the league itself isn’t reaching out for new fans. Here are a few ways I think the game can be saved without having to change the core of what hockey is.
1. Reclaim broadcast television on at least one night a week and on weekends. Forget the glowing puck on Fox. Ignore the new rail cam. Do not invent any new gimmicks. The NHL needs to concentrate on a simple contract that will bring the worlds elite hockey league to the most US homes as often as possible. The Vs. network (formerly OLN) has done a fantastic job of taking hockey and running with it. I love the different support programs they ran last year up to and through the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I wouldn’t know if they have continued that this year because I moved and my provider wants me to go Platinum in order for me to get the channel. There is your first major problem. It wasn't reflective of the hockey fan base when the All-Star game had lower ratings that Friends spin-off Joey, it was the simple fact that it was completely inaccessible to most of the cable watching population (not to mention the mid-week scheduling choice). Hockey needs a contract with ESPN. It can either compliment the deal with NBC extended for two more years or it can replace it altogether. The bottom line is that ESPN allows you the accessibility of a national hockey night on a channel that does not have primetime viewing to worry about. If ESPN follows up with a deal with the bigger affiliate of ABC, that's great. If not, ESPN and NBC can share the wealth and put Hockey back in an easily accessible national outlet.
2. Marketing, Marketing, Marketing. Not only does the NHL need the national presence on US TV, but it needs to promote itself there as well. Advertising for the game is doing well if you already watch it. I have seen the great ads being run on NBC during the current Sunday games and I have downloaded them off of the NHL website. Here's the problem, what about the people we need to convert to watching our game? How are they going to see these commercials? Answer: they are not going to. "Thank You Fans" is still the mindset coming out of the NHL. We said "You're welcome" with our record setting ticket sales. Now move on to those people who need to learn about our game in order to make it a larger part of the sports entertainment world. The new TV contracts that should be hashed out with better leverage for the NHL should include advertising during times when games are not on. For instance, ads should be run during the NBC Thursday "Comedy Night Done Right" time. This is a great demographic of males in the target range who would love hockey. A perfect fast-paced, high-energy commercial would do the trick here. Add in a few more commercials on a family style night with mascots in the crowds with kids and you may get a family to at least turn on the Sunday matinee game. Last but not least, find the few pretty faces we have left in hockey, you know, the ones with all their teeth. Flash them on screen for a little sex appeal while they are only in there pads.
3. Scheduling. I live in New York. Besides your big names on top of the scoring lists, I have no idea who plays for the Flames, Canucks, Kings, Ducks, Oilers or any other Western Conference team because I never see them. I couldn;t tell you what Roberto Luongo's style looks like because he is being held hostage in our state to the North. In fact, legend has it in these parts that the NHL had a civil war and the West seceded from the organization. 8 games against a division rival sounded great, but it has in fact become overkill. 6 games was plenty to get a good taste of a rivalry without feeling like we were only playing our division. It will also make it worth fighting that much more to beat your rivals when you have a fewer games to beat them with. The fans want to see every player in the league in every city, and will pay to see someone they don't get to see that often. Scheduling less division games will also get better attendance at rivalry games because there will be fewer in the season.
4. Don't Change Our Game. Please leave it as it is. I think it is as close to perfect as we can make it right now. No more rule changes. The obstruction is way down compared to before the lockout, and the truth is that it will never be fully gone. Do not remove fighting either. The game needs grit and enforcers. Trust that no player will ever want to see another player die from his own hands and understand that Fedoruk-Orr was a wake up call that let everyone know they need to be responsible for their choices and fists. The shootout has been a great additions that showcases the players skills when the teams appear to be even. It also highlights the GM's skills at building a team for every situation. The only slack the fans will give at this point are the final adjustments to be made to the uniforms next year, and making sure that you regulate the proper size for goalie equipment. The fans are begging here, we cannot deal with curved nets. Let the game go as it is from this point forward because it is fast-paced, yet brutal when it has to be. Goal scoring is up and the fans are happy. Let us enjoy the product while you market it to the rest of the world.