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NHL Must Cultivate Truly Constructive Criticism

By George James Malik

Last weekend, Brett Hull reignited the cry for bigger nets. On Tuesday, Mark Cuban discussed combining U.S. and Canadian TV ratings to promote the league. Wednesday and Thursday, the hype about the NHL’s “Uniform System” gave way to a “first look. At the All-Star game, the GM’s and Board of Governors will probably agree to disagree on scheduling adjustments—and they’ll talk about a few topics that will undoubtedly be “leaked” to the press to gauge public opinion.

Wednesday, Bettman will deliver his once-traditional All-Star break “State of the Game” speech, and all, undoubtedly, will be well in the commissioner’s opinion. The league will be declared healthy, though Bettman will grouse about so many teams pushing the upper limit of the salary cap.  He’ll claim that the dismal TV ratings both north and south of the 49th parallel aren’t worrisome, and we’ll hear a classic case of denial; Bettman will claim that he never told fans that ticket prices and salaries were irrevocably intertwined before the lockout. Bettman’s a believer in pushing the game forward; empty seats, horrible TV ratings, and a league-wide malaise are just “details.”

With all due respect to the NHL’s more fan-friendly policies, Chairman Mao seems to forget that you can’t make a Great Leap Forward when your foundation’s sagging.

Whether it’s the monotonous overdivisional schedule, higher ticket prices, a lack of media visibility, Versus’ TV availability, or simply fans’ realization that, after the make-up fest that was the “Thank You, Fans!” 05-06 season, the fundamental disconnect between the suits that run the league and the fans they seem to tolerate didn’t disappear—the big boys who run the show have never been on the same page as the people who attend or watch hockey games—it’s become painfully obvious that the concerns of the NHL’s current and former fans aren’t nearly as important as projecting what shape future fans will want the game to take.

Maybe the NHL’s owners are still so thrilled about their surging bottom lines and franchise equities that they’ve forgotten the fundamental flaw they’ve authored into the game—two scorched-earth-policy lockouts.  When you burn the village to save it once, people come back.  When you take out part of the village, rebuild it, and then napalm it over the course of a bitterly public, year-long firefight, people leave. 
Make it more expensive to watch in person, harder to find on ye olde tv dial, and swear that “the fans” in Detroit would rather see the six straight games against Columbus and Minnesota instead of every-year home-and-homes with the Leafs, Habs, Rags, and B’s, and you’ve got a ticked-off fan base.

In the NHL’s case, you’ve got a fan base that’s shrinking.  Those swaths of empty seats, even in the biggest NHL markets (American and Canadian), aren’t just indicative of the higher ticket prices—in some cases, they represent fans who’ve simply moved on from the game. 

The vast majority of sports leagues work tremendously hard to make finding and following the game as easy as humanly possible; the NHL rarely markets itself outside its own telecasts, and in the U.S., if your cable system doesn’t cary Versus, or you don’t shell out $170 for Center Ice (at $20 more than last season), you won’t see hockey outside your market, period.  If you don’t live near an NHL city, hockey may as well be played on Mars.  Why follow a sport that not only immolates itself at least once a decade, but also demands so much time, energy, and money from their most dedicated fans to simply watch on a regular basis?  The most die-hard NHL fans in the U.S. have only one option to satisfy their ravenous appetite for hockey—buying a pirated Canadian satellite dish so they can see the NHL get an even shake on Sportsnet, TSN, and the NHL Network.
Hockey fans are, by nature, a reflective bunch.  Hockey’s such a nuanced game that players constantly look to refine their play, and as fans, we look for the same sense of advancing the game’s evolution.  We’re always going to want to tweak what is, at present, a tremendous on-ice product, so demands for change are a sign of health in the NHL’s case.  At present, however, the NHL’s fans are extraordinarily dissatisfied with the game and the cost of following it.  We’re upset about the schedule, ticket prices, finding games on television, the lack of on-ice passion, the re-emergence of the trap, and to some extent, fans are simply tired of the endless changes applied to the game as well.

The NHL assumes that once it gets fans in the building, they’ll fall for the superior on-ice product, and the league can count upon a constant “revenue stream” from the converted.  Thus, they can move on to converting more fans and making more money from those new fans.

Why does the NHL refuse spend at least a few weeks out of the regular season to simply worry about making the fans they have happy?  Why doesn’t it ask its fan base what they really want?  Why not hold fan summits as well as Board of Governors meetings?  Instead of simply saying, “We know our fans prefer X,” why can’t the league do more than simply offer the occasional survey to its “Fan Faceoff” panel?
So many answers could come from organic sources.  Worried about the NHL’s flawed replay system?  Ask fans who’re experts in surveilance to tweak the video system.  Ask ballistics experts whether RFID chips could provide a cheap and easy solution to determing when the puck crosses the goal line—assuming that they can survive the beatings pucks take.
Concerned about serious injuries?  Ask fans who have medical backgrounds to discuss advances in protective equipment, or ways in which the NHL can separate a clean hit from a headshot by looking at the bodily motions involved.

Worried about goal-scoring?  Ask fans who play goal and fans who score goals to discuss concerns about reducing the size of goaltending equipment, composite stick technology, and developing and refining offensive skills.
Concerned about ticket prices, or scheduling?  Allow everyone in attendance to voice their opinions, and record the data.

Since the NHL seems so perplexed about marketing its players, why not ask fans whether they expect the controversy and hype of the NFL, or whether they simply want to have the opportunity to get to know their favourite players as more than simply guys who say, “Well, the bounces didn’t go our way.”  Maybe we just want to know that our favourite players are human beings who are willing to make connections with their fans via blogs, team-moderated Q and A’s, or meet-and-greets.

Just think about how much the game could prosper from yearly or twice-yearly summits in every NHL arena, and meetings held by NHL fans in non-NHL markets.  The NHL would reap the benefits of a deluge of free feedback, easily, effectively, and cheaply gauging the pulse of their fan base on any and every contentious issue that puts those precious “revenue streams” at risk.

The NHL needs to stop assuming that it’s, “Done, done, on to the next one” as soon as a fan watches or attends an NHL game.  Fans aren’t invariably hooked as lifetime, season-ticket-buying fans.  Those who don’t buy season tickets matter, as do those who simply watch the NHL on TV, and die-hards and casual fans alike need to know that they have a voice that is heard.

Instead of preoccupying itself with pushing into more and more homes, Bettman has to back up his claims of having 30 healthy, happy NHL markets, and that means putting just as much work into “growing the game” in the most traditional NHL markets as well as the newest ones, at not only the corporate levels, but also the most grass-roots ones, establishing the same aggressive and nontraditional marketing strategies that Nashville and Atlanta use to sell the game in Calgary and Detroit.

Stop worrying about the fans you’re trying to gain, NHL, if only for a month, and start worrying about keeping the ones you have, and keeping them happy.  We hockey fans aren’t walking dollar signs, and it’s time that you really and truly asked us how to make the NHL’s foundation truly strong enough to build upon.

Filed in: NHL Talk, George James Malik, | KK Hockey | Permalink


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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

From breaking news to in-depth stories around the league, KK Hockey is updated with fresh stories all day long and will bring you the latest news as quickly as possible.

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