Most hockey fans already understand the presence of the mysterious deities known as the Hockey Gods. Each and every October they awaken from their long summer slumber to watch over the new season that will begin and last until April. This year, they have granted us an unbelievable six weeks of playoff hockey; filled with physical play, high-scoring tilts and certainly no lack of superstar players. As a hockey fan, casual or not, you have to have been interested and excited in the thrilling semifinal series that pitted the league’s two biggest superstars, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, against each other for the first time on a grand stage. When the series started, many hockey pundits believed that that series would have the power to propel the NHL back to where it once stood before the crippling lock out of 2005. The series lived up to the hype but has not catapulted the NHL into mainstream prominence.
Since the lockout, there have been a plethora of articles written by national columnists from ESPN, The New York Times and Sports Illustrated demonstrating what it is exactly that is preventing hockey from catching on as more than just a “niche” sport in our country. They talk of a lack of superstars that Americans care about, a low-scoring game without much excitement, and that without the advent of HDTV, the NHL would still be floundering for life and viewers that could find the puck. Instead of addressing the problems with the league (and, yes, there are some!), they just rehash over and over again why the NHL will never be mainstream. So instead of doing just that, I am aiming to show why you SHOULD be watching hockey instead of why you should NOT be.
For the first time in decades, the NHL has an exceptional amount of talent in young players destined to be enshrined in Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame. Players like Crosby and Ovechkin don’t come around very often and in this era the league can stake its claim to at least five players that should be able to command the same kind of star power that a Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant can. Perhaps the most world-famous, Sidney Crosby isn’t even the leading scorer on his team, no less the league. That title is claimed by his teammate Evgeni Malkin, another young superstar just entering his prime after scoring SIX multi-point games in a row in this year’s playoffs. True, we will never be able to describe Patrick Kane’s third goal in his series clinching win over Vancouver like we will LeBron James’ three-pointer to beat the Magic; but, since when are sports all about what’s written the day after? If you were watching that Canucks-Blackhawks game previously referred to, you can still see Kane sliding the puck between the defender’s legs and right through the Canucks All-Star Goaltender Roberto Luongo to effectively seal Chicago’s first trip to the Western Conference Finals in 15 years.
Another thing separating the NHL from the rest of the leagues is its parity. Other leagues claim they are filled with competitive balance and that on “any given day” any team can win. Is that true, why does every NFL Preseason prediction feature the same two teams from each conference as Super Bowl contenders? It seems that the same four or five teams are vying for championships each season. The NBA has had only 7 different teams win a championship since 1980. The NHL has had 14 different champions in the same time and no repeat winner this decade. Detroit seems ready to change that this year, but they must first get through to the Finals and then beat an exceptionally talented Pittsburgh team. Every October you can truly begin the season with unhindered hope that this year could be yours. In the Sports Illustrated 2003 NHL Preview issue it predicted the Tampa Bay Lightning would finish last in their conference. Where did they end up, only as Stanley Cup Champions! In another example of the NHL competitive balance, since 1994 we have seen more than one-third of the series featuring the 1 v. 8 and 2 v. 7 seeds ending with the lower seed advancing.
Let’s look further into the rise of the Chicago Blackhawks as a parallel to the league’s supposed upswing in popularity. When the ‘Hawks started the season this year, they were filled with promise and excitement. A new owner had taken the team in a new direction, opened up communication with fans and got the team back on local TV. They knew what they were working with in their young stars and promising play and pulled out all the stops to make themselves known in a crowded Chicago sports market. Owner Rocky Wirtz even brought the team out on a red carpet to open the season. It has paid enormous dividends, as they've gone from 3,400 season-ticket holders in 2007 to 14,000 currently, a waiting list for 2009-10 and a berth in the Western Conference Finals. Clearly they are a team on the rise. They have not one, but two young superstars that will keep the team relevant for years as they try for their first Cup in over 40 years.
The league needs to capitalize on what makes it so intriguing. Beyond the current stars, there are plenty past greats that are still involved with various franchises as coaches and management. Other Hall of Famers should be brought in to be analyst’s for games or even NBC’s studio show. Who wouldn’t want to watch Mark Messier talking about the game he played so greatly? It needs to loosen up the penalty calls so the elite players can show off what makes them special and it needs to do a better job of promoting itself and its stars. People want to see the fighters fight and the scorers score. But most importantly, it needs to do whatever it can to get itself back on true national TV. Versus just won’t cut it if you want to make it to the big time. Maybe the league could take a few hints from the Blackhawks. On the cusp of extinction, the Hawks "were in a situation where we had to try everything." The NHL shouldn't be afraid of doing the same.
P.S.—This is all coming from a Florida Panthers fan. Talk about desperation, we haven’t made the Playoffs in NINE years yet every season starts fresh with hope that the Year of the Rat might happen once again.
I hope you have enjoyed.