One of the main reasons that I suspect that the players and owners were able to work out a deal to save this NHL season was the knowledge that if they didn’t, there might never be another season. Even a truncated season that allows for a Stanley Cup Champion to be crowned is better than having no season, while hoping against hope that fans might come back after a second season in less than 10 years was completely wiped off the books. No, there had to be NHL hockey this year, or there might not ever be NHL hockey again.
Now that the games have begun anew, the question remains how does the NHL regain its fan base, in particular the more ‘casual’ fan that is necessary for the league to be profitable. Last week, Chris Barron wrote a great piece that laid out five storylines that could help the NHL regain its fans. I think that for for most fans, any of his suggested storylines would renew interest in a hurry. For those of us that are much more casual about our ‘fandom’ than the intended audience of Chris’ article, I have only three words of wisdom as the NHL tries to woo us back:
DROP THE GLOVES
Drop them early, drop them often, but for the love, drop them. I understand in our modern world of sport, everyone involved is trying to make competition as safe as it can be. That is to be commended, and I am certainly not advocating dirty play in any way, shape, or form. No one is looking for another Marty McSorley-type incident. What I am looking for on the ice is some fisticuffs. Mix it up. For casual fans such as myself, it’s not necessarily the tremendous skill that is exhibited by hockey players that will get us to tune in or head out to a game. It’s the hope that at some point in time during the game, the gloves will come off and someone will have their sweater pulled over their head.
To be honest, I don’t think it would matter if the fights were even ‘real’. If Gary Bettman and the NHLPA were smart, they’d get on the phone to Vince McMahon and his gang over at the WWE and ask for training on how to sell a punch or a sneak attack. The players could choreograph the ‘fights’ in advance to ensure that there would not be any injuries, and the refs could learn to swallow the whistle for a few moments while the escapades ensued. If they wanted to go whole hog, and introduce blood to the ‘fights’, they could consult with Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Terry Funk or any of the former stars who were known for their ‘blading’ (cutting themselves) ability.
Sure, it might be a little over the top, but the NHL has placed itself in a precarious position. Even in the best of times, the NHL is little more than an afterthought for most American sports’ fans. Sure, there’s die-hard hockey fans who will stick with the sport through thick and thin, but for most fans, the only time they truly pay attention to the NHL with any consistency is during the window that opens after the Super Bowl has been played, and closes just before MLB’s opening day. Those same fans make their way back in time for the playoffs, and then don’t give a second thought to what happens in the NHL for the rest of the year.
The increase in ‘fighting’ wouldn’t have to be a permanent part of the NHL game (although it would make it more enjoyable to watch), but could run a course much like MLB’s steroid battle did. Following their seaon-destroying strike in 1994, MLB players began ‘juicing’ as part of their ‘training’ regimen. Player size exploded, and moon shot home runs became the norm. Eventually, as MLB regained its popularity, a move was made to ‘clean up the game’ by introducing testing for PEDs. When the moment was right (perhaps after a staged injury during a ‘fight’), Commissioner Bettman (or whomever is in charge at that moment) could issue an edict that would state that there would be a zero-tolerance policy for on-ice fighting. With a snappy PR campaign, NHL fans would support a ‘safer’ style of play, much like the fans of the NFL have got behind making their game ‘safer’ for those out on the field.
The alternative is to struggle over the next several years to rebuild their fan base from scratch, counting simply on the sheer athleticism and beauty of the sport. In a perfect world, that’s all that would be needed. In today’s world? I don’t think it’s enough.
Are you excited about the return of the NHL? What can the NHL do to entice fans back to the stands?
Let me know what you think: