"What's the matter, she didn't like her overnight popularity?" Matthew Lillard, playing the very forgettable character of Brock Hudson in the 1999 movie, "She's All That", uttered that line. The movie came out during the height of the NHL's popularity. And the line is very befitting of the NHL's situation. In 1999, the Bird-Magic-MJ era of basketball, was, for all intent and purposes, over (I refuse to acknowledge Jordan ever played for the Wizards, much like I don't acknowledge The Godfather III, Oceans 12, any Rocky after III, or Richard Dreyfuss' believability in The American President). The NBA had just had it's Golden Era, but that had passed. MLB was a year removed from the McGwire-Sosa HR chase, and the steroid whispers were just now becoming real. MLB was still dealing with some fan backlash over the 1994-1995 players strike that led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Hockey was, believe it or not, one or two right moves away from becoming this country's third most popular sport at that time, ahead of the NBA, and inching closer to MLB. But, for some reason, Gary Bettman just will not let that happen. And it's his league. He's the commissioner.
For years in the post-Jordan era, the NBA struggled to find stars that fans enjoyed going to watch. Attendance dipped badly in the early 2000s until the LeBron, Wade, 'Melo draft came around to save us from the Shaq-Kobe Lakers. Meanwhile, even though attendance was up at baseball parks, the steroid whispers grew louder every year, making the most noise during the 2003 season, leading to a drug testing policy finally being put in place in MLB. Hockey was gaining momentum (save for the New Jersey Devils' trap system that bored the hell out of any casual fan) and it was poised for a major jump in American popularity. There was nothing embraceable about the NBA at this time and MLB's drug problem was wearing thin on its casual fans. The American sports fan was begging for something to get excited about other than it's Saturdays, Sundays and Monday Nights in the fall. The NHL responded with an exciting 2003 playoffs, culminating in a 7 game Stanley Cup Finals (no matter how forgettable game 7 was). And the NHL followed that up in 2004 with another 7 game Stanley Cup Finals. And it pitted old school vs. new school. A team from Western Canada against a team from Western Florida. A traditional hockey town against a new-school hockey town. Hockey had arrived. Casual fans were getting behind the sport in America. The "overnight popularity" was here. And then, in an instant, it was gone.
Despite the cautionary tale that was Major League Baseball in 1994-1995, the NHL and its players could not reach a collective bargaining agreement prior to the start of the 2004-2005 season. The entire season, and the playoffs, were gone. The "overnight popularity" was gone. The casual fan was gone. An entire season lost to greed, presumptions, and a league that attempted to prey on its new found popularity, rather than embrace it.
When the NHL returned for the 2005-2006 season, it promised to be a more up-tempo, fan friendly game. And for the most part, it has not disappointed. League scoring is up. The game is much faster paced and far more exciting. The new rules have really opened the game up and let the skill players show off their skill......to mostly half full arenas. Despite the brilliant product on the ice, the casual fan has sadly stayed away. And that is the fault of Bettman, the NHL and its shotty marketing. Sports fans want two things - their favorite teams to win and exciting, heart stopping competition. The two greatest words in sports are "game seven". Since 2000, MLB has provided 2 game sevens in the World Series (2001, 2002); the NBA has provided 1 NBA Finals game 7, in 2005 (and the only one since 1994). Meanwhile, the NHL has provided us with 5 Stanley Cup Finals that have gone 7 games - 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009. That's pretty impressive. But I challenge any casual fan to name me any champion other than the Penguins this season and the Red Wings last season. And that problem is a direct result of the lack of marketing the NHL does for its teams.
The "face of the NHL" just won the Stanley Cup two months ago. And yet, nary a peep from the NHL this summer, short of releasing next season's schedule and announcing the teams for next year's Winter Classic. For all the conspiracy theorists that claimed that Bettman was "helping Crosby" get the Cup to gain notoriety for the NHL, well if he did, then he's done a piss poor job of capitalizing on his end game. If the guys running the NHL were running the NFL, then Vince McMahon's XFL would be a budding success. Every time the NHL is faced with a golden opportunity, it scoffs at it, and tries to reinvent the puck.
A prime example of this backwards marketing plan is the Winter Classic. The Winter Classic is a brilliant idea. An outdoor hockey game in January. The idea is amazing. And it has gained much popularity the past two seasons. The execution, however, has been God awful. Actually, God awful might be an improvement over the implementation thus far. Words like catastrophic and complete and total blundering come to mind.
In 2008, the NHL re-launched it's outdoor game idea in what was a nice little test run on New Year's Day, in Buffalo, between the Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The NHL could not have asked for a better result. A full football stadium; a little snow during the game; a game that ended both regulation and overtime in a tie; and finally, the game's "face" (Sidney Crosby) scoring the game winner in a shoot-out, as the snow fell. Everything happened exactly as the NHL could have planned. An unscripted sporting event coming together so perfectly, it could have been scripted. And then, the NHL took it's popularity, and managed to screw it up, yet again. A test run on New Year's Day to judge an event's popularity is fine. But New Year's Day belongs to College Football. It always has and it always will. There are reasons that during the height of ER's popularity on TV, other networks scheduled its most popular shows NOT on Thursdays at 10:00 est. If you know that an audience is already entrenched in something, you don't try to steal them away.....you try to get your own audience at a less popular time. But not Gary Bettman. Not the NHL. He was convinced he could win over a football crazy audience every year on New Year's Day. Never mind the fact that there is a day begging, just begging for a great sporting event to capture a sports-starved audience. There is a weekend between the AFC/NFC Championship games and the Super Bowl, that until 2010, has gone vacant. Nothing goes on that weekend. There is no football. The NHL and NBA have regular season games that have no special context. Baseball is still weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting. Nothing goes on that weekend. Why, for the love of Wayne Gretzky, did the NHL not schedule its Winter Classic that weekend and get every sports fan in North America behind it? Now, the NFL has finally taken that weekend away, to an extent. That weekend is now the NFL Pro Bowl. But if the Super Bowl is Kim Kardashian, then the Pro Bowl is Khloe. It's still a very winnable weekend for the NHL, if they do it right. You know by say, having the biggest rivalry in the NHL play that weekend....what if they scheduled a game at a historical baseball stadium. Let's call it Fenway Park. So, the Boston Bruins would host it. And let's let them play their biggest rival. Two Original Six teams doing battle (like last year, when the Wings played the Blackhawks at Wrigley Field....just on the wrong day). The Bruins vs. the Canadiens. We'll play it Saturday, the day before the Pro Bowl, when nothing is going on. Or, if you're the NHL, you schedule it for New Year's Day again, and have the Bruins play the Philadelphia Flyers. Oy vey.
Apparently, the NHL just does not want to embrace its overnight popularity.