|NHL Back With a Bang, But Will it Survive?
By Mike Chen
Sports Central Columnist
1. Rink Dimensions
It was the stuff straight out of Gary Bettman's most wonderful dream. A salary-capped league with big-name stars spread throughout the league, new rules calling obstruction, a rich cable TV deal, and fans, lots of fans.
So many fans welcomed the NHL back with open arms that the league had 98% attendance on opening night with all 30 teams on the ice. Goals were up, chances were up, TV ratings were up, and — most importantly — fans were happy with the product afteryears of griping about the NHL's slow, painful death.
This was all part of Gary Bettman's master plan, right? Put a cap on the league, call the rules, and people will come. No glowing pucks, no dancing hockey robots, just parity throughout the league and fast action on the ice.
Of course, if this were part of Gary's master plan, then the countless obstruction crackdowns prior to 2005-2006 would have stuck. Regardless of the past, the "new" NHL faces a much brighter future than the one that shut its doors in September of 2004 in the middle of a bitter labor dispute. The question remains, though: will it last?
While everything was roses and rainbows on opening night, reality began to sink in over the next few days. Some markets have returned stronger than ever (Nashville, Tampa Bay), some were always guaranteed to be good (Toronto, Detroit), but some markets took a nosedive in attendance immediately after opening night. In almost every market, the core hockey fan was back. The casual fan, however, has yet to be convinced.
The long-term success of the National Hockey League depends solely on two things — continued calling of obstruction this week in an effort to speed up the product and a stronger marketing push in a united front by both the players and the league. For the latter, the two groups are bonded by a CBA linking player salary to revenue. As Tampa GM Jay Feaster explained to his team, if they want the cap to grow (and thus allow the Lightning to keep Brad Richards and Pavel Kubina), every single player — from Vincent Lecavalier to John Grahame — better be available for promotions and media when they come calling.
The NHL did a smart thing by creating a seemingly stupid ad featuring a random scantily-clad woman dressing an anonymous hockey player. Yes, the ad was flashy, but it had little to do with hockey. No matter — just the hint of sexuality was enough to stir up controversy from a generally conservative league. People who didn't care about hockey knew the NHL was returning with an ad that was upsetting to Martha Burk. The most important part about that fact wasn't that Martha Burk was upset, but that people who didn't care about hockey knew that the NHL was back.
General awareness of a product is one thing. The league must market its best-looking, most-skilled players outside of its hockey safe zone. Teenage girls know who Tom Brady is — why shouldn't they know about Jarome Iginla or Rick Nash or (obviously) Sidney Crosby? The league has started out on the right foot, commissioning more mainstream appearances and promotion in one month than the league probably did for Bettman's entire tenure. Even casual sports fans know who Sidney Crosby now — and it sure is helping that Mr. Crosby is living up to the hype.
On the ice, the gameplay has been terrific. Chances, flow, long passes, odd-man rushes — it's exciting and intense and it begins with the rule changes and it ends with the rules actually being called. The rule changes are there for the remainder of this season, but what about the officiating? In week two, there have already been some minor gripes about inconsistent officiating. However, this is probably more due to different officiating teams assigned to games rather than a relaxation of the rule standard immediately. The only way to judge this to take the season at 20-game intervals (at roughly 1/4 chunks of the season). If game one is the same as game 20 is the same as game 40 is the same as game 80, then the league has succeeded.
For now, the NHL is back in a big way with enough momentum to make every league consider self-destruction for a year. In the same way that any team can have a hot start, the NHL can fall back to earth quickly if it becomes complacent — or worse, lazy.
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