Hockey is not a premiere sport in the United States. To be honest I’m not sure it ever will be either. While most sports fans would probably agree about that, I doubt that’s acceptable to the 24 owners of American NHL teams. Obviously they’d like to see the league and game be more popular. Can’t say I blame them either.
That puts commissioner Gary Bettman somewhere between a rock and hard place. It’s a clear, but very difficult objective for the Bettman and the NHL. As a result, the league has made significant efforts to think outside the box and do anything they can to raise the game’s profile and popularity over the last few years.
It would be easy to imagine a scenario of the NHL adopting wacky changes or gimmicky promotions to generate more interest and buzz. After all, there’s a fine line between genius and insanity, and Bettman’s reputation in most hockey circles is probably closer to the latter.
But despite the pressure and ugly potential (let’s be honest – the combination of pressure and potential could be disastrous here), the NHL has emerged as one of the most forward thinking sports leagues around.
Even though Bettman and co. aren’t perfect, I think it’s time we give the NHL credit for taking chances and scoring win after win with unique and risky ideas.
Over the last few years the NHL has pushed major league sports promotion with must-see TV like the 24/7 Penguins-Capitals HBO documentary, subtle rule changes that actually improved the game, and fantastic events like the Winter Classic and the 2011 All-Star game draft. I can’t think of another sport that would try a draft like the NHL did on Friday.
While the draft could be improved for future All-Star Weekends (I could do without interviews between every selection and would love to see the draft happen on the ice, minutes before the actual All-Star game), it was ballsy and fun. I loved seeing players pick rivals, teammates etc… I loved the awkward conversation between Carey Price and Tim Thomas about Shea Weber’s “clapper.” And watching Phil Kessel get selected last created a sense of humility that’s often lost among superstar athletes. Also, he’s so easy to dislike. That whole sequence was perfect, weird and amazing all at once.
And even though I made fun of the NHL’s Research, Development and Orientation camp last summer, I don’t know another sport so open to trying out new rules and concepts to improve it’s game.
The NHL has taken chances to advance the game and it’s popularity and they’ve done it in a way that hasn’t jeopardized how fans and potential fans perceive or relate to it. They’ve walked that fine line of appeasing traditionalists while appealing to new fans.
The NHL isn’t perfect and still has a long way to go, but let’s take a step back and give credit for taking chances and doing some unique things. It’s been mostly successful and redefined how many see the NHL.