12 Ideas for the NHL in 2012

Clearly the NBA learned nothing from the NHL over the last few seasons. The NHL had a lockout that nearly crippled the league in more ways than one. Not only were games and TV contracts lost, arenas left empty, and countless marketing dollars nowhere to be found, but the reputation of the league was tarnished, only to be slowly creeping back to pre-lockout levels now, a full six years after the fact.

While NBA owners and players argue over three percent of the share of the league they threaten to give the same fate to a league that saw record numbers watch the playoffs and championship series. Whether fans watched because they rooted for Dirk and the Mavs or hoped that Lebron, D-Wade, and Chris Bosh would simultaneously break their legs is irrelevant.

Their sport was hot, and now they’re digging their own grave; news that could be great for hockey fans. Key word – could.

In the wake of their stupidity stands the NHL, a league prime to capitalize on millions of fans who’s TV’s are tuned to less than exciting comedies, dramas, and reality television shows. The huge question is how.

People watch baseball and basketball because they grew up playing it. A basketball is 20 bucks and there are hoops almost everywhere, and the only things baseball requires is a glove, a ball, and a friend. Hockey will never be able to compete on that level, but implementing more youth programs around the country, mirroring the efforts made in Philadelphia by the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, could, at the very least, help put a stick in kids hands more often than not. Coupled with that is an across the board understanding that our countries economical future is uncertain and at present is downright shameful, therefore prices should be lowered for equipment and rink time. Money for expensive equipment is simply not an option these days, but there is no reason that multi-million dollar companies can’t help out with programs that are supplemented by NHL teams and owners.

As it stands now the NHL is obviously failing in the way it markets. Ask 100 people in any shopping mall in the country and there are two names that every person will recognize. Outside of Crosby and Ovechkin people will struggle, which leads us to idea number two; Gary Bettman needs to step down as commissioner. I’m aware that this is not going to happen, but the second part of this idea is much more practical. Bring in a marketing guy, preferably someone with a background of transforming a mediocre product into something people talk about. Apple did it; the UFC did it, why can’t the NHL do it?

That being said, marketing players requires marketing personality, something that hockey players are not necessarily oozing with. In addition to hiring a marketing guy idea three would have to include teaching players to be more comfortable in their newfound celebrity. Whether it is on television, at signings, at restaurants, or anywhere that fans can be influenced by their attitudes and charisma; the players need to learn how to step up and take charge of recruiting fans to the sport.

24/7 was a major step forward in trying to showcase the personalities the NHL has, in addition to the talent on the ice, however it is on HBO, immediately shrinking the possible viewing audience by nearly 70 percent of households. A reality show was a great idea, one that I’m sure Bettman did not come up with, but idea four is a caveat onto this; try to get a behind the scenes show, much like 24/7, on basic cable. Will it be as vulgar and over the top? No, but it will have the possibility to be seen by a much larger audience. That’s the point.

The next idea is in much the same vein as the last. The NHL and its TV contract department must do whatever needs to be done to get off of Versus, or NBC Sports, or NBC International, or whatever it is they want to call themselves in 2012, and onto a real network. It doesn’t matter if it’s less revenue to start, revenue will be made up in other areas when more fans are converted. Considering the fact that ESPN2 shows crossfit games I’m sure they have the market share time for the NHL, especially with a litany of NBA timeslots to fill, creating a golden opportunity for the NHL.

Being on a network with the reach and reputation like ESPN and its family is a plus, but people still aren’t going to magically turn the dial, they need a reason, and what better reason than feuding teams, players, coaches, cities, etc. Americans love feuds almost as much as train wrecks, so give them one. Ok, fabricating hatred between teams or individuals is bad, but the Crosby vs. Ovechkin feud was programming gold. With the way hockey players are, nothing needs to be made up, just encourage their own animosity to come out both on the ice and off of it. Those feelings could not only fuel better ratings, but could also stimulate the players to play just that much harder.

With feuds, growing animosity, and a sure hatred that some teams have for others there is sure to come more physicality, one thing that hockey cannot live without but has decided to try and lessen in recent years. Hockey needs hitting, it needs fighting, and it needs the threat of something happening to a grinder if he goes after a star. Ground rules are also necessary; let’s get this straight, hockey isn’t bare knuckle boxing, but it isn’t pillow fighting. The NHL has to realize that they can’t push fighting to the brink of extinction and claim it as a positive step forward. The lack of fighting, or the threat of fighting, is directly connected to the incessant amount of boarding calls, cheap shots, illegal checks, hits to the head, and dangerous plays. Fighting needs to be an integral part of the game for the game to survive. The game would actually be safer with it playing a bigger role. And let’s not misconstrue the viewing public’s taste, people love to watch violence, it’s just taboo to admit it in the world of hockey these days. MMA seems to be capitalizing on the blood lust just fine.

With the re-implementation of fighting, the league must also repeal the instigator rule. Doing so will not only further encourage the physical players to fight each other, but will also help get rid of the bad penalties that currently riddle the league. In addition to this change the league must also establish written rules regarding the headshots, boarding, intent to injure, and hits to a defenseless player penalties that I continue to complain about.

Most of the rule changes listed here require players to be more prepared to take on an even more daunting physical battle night after night. Two things that the NHL can do to combat that side effect are, one, to play less games on the schedule. This not only will keep players fresher throughout a grueling season, but will also make every game truly mean something. Two, league officials must also contact hockey companies regarding the equipment that they are making. For years the idea was to continue to “improve” players padding by making every piece of equipment larger, harder, and stronger. This design is more of a flaw than anything else. These days players are already bigger, stronger, and faster, and now strapped with padding that enables them to hit another person with virtually no pain to themselves means that they are less like hockey players and more like American gladiators. By making padding bigger hockey companies created more concussion problems for the players. It’s time to reduce them.

The last rule change is the most drastic. The NHL should adopt something that European soccer leagues have been doing for years. If a team, or two for that matter, underperforms in the NHL they should be sent down to the AHL for the next season. This would increase the probability that the players will give it their all towards the end of the season given the realization that there is no longer “nothing to play for”. They’re literally playing for their job, a motivation tactic that could increase viewership despite a team being underwhelming all year long.

All of these changes, when combined, have the possibility to increase popularity of the NHL, while at the same time helping to save players from nasty concussion problems that currently plague it’s most popular player.

Yes, I realize that none of them will ever actually happen.

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