By Harry Hawkings
The last decade in the National Hockey League has been interesting to say the least. Two work stoppages have led to the loss of almost a season and a half of games, with fan angst at an all-time high during both of these lockouts, most recently this past winter. And yet, the NHL is in the middle of a ten-year, $200 million dollar television deal with NBC Sports, revenues last season were an all-time high, and attendance is actually up this season despite the lockout (Link 1). Remarkably, the NHL has managed to not only retain, but grow, its fan base over the last ten years.
Coinciding with the league’s growth has been the resurgence of one of its greatest franchises, the Chicago Blackhawks. For years under former owner Bill Wirtz, the team struggled, only making the playoffs once in the final nine seasons before his death. This was the consequence of a series of penny-pinching decisions by Wirtz, who refused to spend money on free agents and would keep home games off local television, infuriating members of the fan base who were not season-ticket holders. It was so bad that after Wirtz died in 2007 following a battle with cancer, fans booed during a moment of silence at that October’s home opener.
But after Wirtz’s son, Rocky, took over ownership of the team before that 2007 season, everything changed. Awarded high picks in both the 2006 and 2007 drafts, Chicago selected forwards Jonathan Toews fourth overall and then Patrick Kane first overall to form the core of their current roster. The games were on TV again. Rocky opened his checkbook to sign big name free agents such as Marian Hossa and Brian Campbell. And in June of 2010, the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup in half a century, defeating the Philadelphia Flyers four games to two.
…the cover of Sports Illustrated was graced with the Blackhawks, proclaiming them the “Team that Saved Hockey.” This, however, is not entirely true.
Chicago didn’t make it out of the first round the next two years, but began this year on an incredible streak, going their first 24 games without a regulation loss. The streak garnered national media attention, with ESPN even leading their “SportsCenter” broadcasts with it; this had generally been unheard of since ESPN lost their hockey broadcast rights following the 2005-05 lockout. And the cover of Sports Illustrated was graced with the Blackhawks, proclaiming them the “Team that Saved Hockey.” This, however, is not entirely true.
Unquestionably, a turnaround by an Original Six franchise from bottom-dweller to perennial contender is something that the League has benefitted from, both financially and by energizing a proud and vocal fan base.
There are many reasons that the NHL has grown in recent years following an embarrassing low point after the cancellation of an entire season in 2004-05, and one of them certainly is the Blackhawks’ resurgence. Unquestionably, a turnaround by an Original Six franchise from bottom-dweller to perennial contender is something that the League has benefitted from, both financially and by energizing a proud and vocal fan base. But there are several other, more significant factors that have moved the NHL from a punch line when speaking of the four major pro sports in North America to a much more significant player on a national scale.
Without Crosby and Ovechkin, there likely is no huge renaissance for hockey as more than just a niche sport.
One was the arrival of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Coming off the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season, the League was lucky to have two generational talents enter its player ranks simultaneously. It gave them two golden marketing tools: two superstars on teams that traditionally did not like each other and were young, dynamic, players who immediately began to take the NHL by storm. Even though neither of their teams, Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins or Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals, was very good that year, the race between them for point scoring supremacy and then rookie of the year honors was scintillating. Their jersey sales were off the charts, generating revenue for the League and their teams. And people everywhere wanted to see them, filling NHL arenas across North America as people began to realize how special they were and what they could bring to the casual fan. Without Crosby and Ovechkin, there likely is no huge renaissance for hockey as more than just a niche sport. They opened up a huge treasure trove of revenue and marketing potential.
Another was the set of rule changes implemented by the League following the 2004-05 lockout, all of which were designed to increase offense and make the game more open to the casual fan. Rules such as the two-line pass were abolished, giving teams the ability to use the entire ice sheet when trying to score goals. And perhaps most significant among these rule changes was the implementation of a shootout to decide games that remained tied after 65 minutes of play. Though the shootout has come under fire in recent years because many people find it to be a gimmick and a silly way to award points in a playoff chase, the opportunity to see the League’s players show off their best moves on almost a nightly basis certainly contributed to making the game exciting for more people to watch.
A third, and perhaps most significant, thing that helped to “save” hockey is the Winter Classic, which has given the NHL a national spotlight they rarely had before. The Winter Classic is a showcase of the NHL’s most successful teams and players outdoors in football and baseball stadiums, returning hockey to its roots in an outdoor game with tremendous theater. Broadcast nation-wide on NBC on New Year’s Day, the Winter Classic has become a tremendous success, filling massive and historic venues such as Ralph Wilson Stadium, Fenway Park, Heinz Field, and Wrigley Field to capacity. Every Winter Classic has been a close game, with two of the five being decided in overtime or a shootout and all five being decided by two goals or less. The last two Winter Classics have been accompanied by HBO’s brilliant and wildly successful sports documentary series, “24/7,” which chronicles the four weeks heading up to the game and then the game itself from behind the scenes. For a sport that has always been notoriously secretive, the ability for people to see players and teams like they have never seen any player or team before has drawn in even more fans.
So while it is true that the Blackhawks helped the NHL regain some credibility and exposure following this year’s work stoppage with their streak, they did not “save hockey.” A perfect storm of talent and better marketing saved hockey. Chicago’s resurgence as a whole has been great for the League, but to really understand why hockey has grown, you must look at a picture much bigger than just them.