Slowly but surely, people are coming back to the National Hockey League. The ratings might not be Super Bowl caliber, but all indications are that the league, led by young guns like Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, and featuring a Stanley Cup match-up of two storied franchises, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings, is in the best shape we’ve seen in some time.
But let’s not kid ourselves, things have been so bleak the last few years that a semi-steady pulse is considered a vast improvement. Just because the NHL has reminded the average sports fan that it’s still alive doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement. Here are some suggestions if the league wants to capitalize on these positive trends and officially regain its position in the “Big Four,” along with football, baseball and basketball.
Say goodbye to commissioner Gary Bettman. I don’t dislike him as much as some, but much like NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, Bettman has become the focal point for many disgruntled fans who still haven’t forgiven him for two labor stoppages, including the 2004-05 NHL lockout that saw the entire season canceled. Other complaints against Bettman include “Americanizing” hockey (which essentially means putting teams in places with no ice to make an extra buck), essentially outlawing fighting and putting the league on a television channel most people either don’t have or can’t find. But other than that, no one really has anything bad to say about the guy.
Hire Mark Messier as the new commish. Or Wayne Gretzky. Or Mario Lemieux. Or even Jeremy Roenick. It doesn’t really matter who, just get a player who is interested in putting forth the effort to help get hockey back on the sports landscape.
Having guys like Brett Hull running teams, who is a co-general manager in Dallas, is a good thing. Hull is bright, knows hockey and is funny as hell. He’s also not afraid to say what’s on his mind. If you’ve got a guy like Hull in town, you can bet he’ll make headlines. Hockey needs headlines.
Along the same lines:
Get Mark Cuban involved with the NHL. If he can’t acquire the Dallas Stars, find another team for him. Seriously. Owners like Mark Cuban and Ted Leonsis of the Washington Capitals are smart businessmen who understand marketing their product in the 21st century. Plus, Cuban is competitive as hell, so whichever team he ends up with can rest assured he’ll do everything in his power to make them a league powerhouse.
Eliminate the following teams: Florida Panthers, Atlanta Thrashers, Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Honestly, would anyone truly lose any sleep over these five teams vanishing tomorrow?
Award franchises to the following cities: Quebec, Winnipeg, Hartford, Las Vegas. Canada knows hockey. Canada loves hockey. The NHL cannot go wrong going retro with the return of the Jets and Nordiques. Add in the loveable Whalers and a team in the forbidden city and you’re guaranteed to have people talking. In fact, let’s just give Mark Cuban the Las Vegas franchise. Nothing else needs to be said.
You’ll notice I eliminated five franchises and only added four. Here’s why:
Make every game matter. Taking a page out of Italian soccer, hockey should institute a promotion/relegation system, where the top American minor league team and the top Canadian minor league team play a best of seven championship series, with the winner becoming the NHL’s final franchise.
After year one, the top American and Canadian minor league teams would play each other with the winner advancing to play the worst NHL team in a best of seven series. Imagine if the Boston Bruins lost to the Hersey Bears, and were therefore relegated to the minors for at least one season. If nothing else, it would ensure owners would do everything within their power to remain competitive, which is always a good thing for the fans.
Fix the schedule and remember that people like rivalries. The fact that the Red Wings and Penguins didn’t get to play each other this season is embarrassing. If you have a superstar like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, why wouldn’t you want to showcase him across the league? Chalk this up as another blunder for the commissioner, and make sure that every team plays at least one home and one away game against everyone else in the league.
Reach out to the casual fan. Sports have reached a point where it costs too much for an average family of four to go to a ballgame anymore. So do anything and everything you can to make a good chunk of your seats affordable to the blue-collar family. Offer student discounts. Offer military discounts. Come up with creative family promotions to make it fun and affordable for families to enjoy hockey together, so you’re getting more folks in the stadium and you’re growing future fans in the process. We’re not trying to just fix hockey today, we’re trying to make this work for the long haul.
[Editor’s note: After much internal discussion, the plan changes slightly. We’re going to leave the Blue Jackets in Columbus and give the shaft to Hartford. Everything else remains the same. Thanks.]