Ask any hockey fan what the worst thing about the NHL is and they’ll probably give you an answer that boils down, at its heart, to: “This is the worst-run league in the universe.”
And while some people might say that’s not fair, people only think the NHL is poorly run because it is. There are plenty of issues that aren’t entirely the league’s fault — a mathematical lack of “traditional” hockey markets that could ever hope to support an NHL team long-term, the fans’ parochial approach to just about everything and broad disregard for anything that doesn’t have to do with their favorite teams, its overwhelming whiteness, etc. — but many of its problems are self-made, and at this point made without apology.
Take, just as a recent example, the draft lottery show on Saturday night. Everyone with even a passing interest in the outcome of that lottery was immediately annoyed by the league’s decision to have the first 80 percent of the lottery announced before the Vegas/San Jose game, and then reveal picks Nos. 1-3 nearly four hours later. This was an incredibly predictable thing, done as a clear ratings grab in a way that would only ever irritate the people most likely to want to see it. And yet the NHL did it, because the NHL isn’t even a Mickey Mouse league, but a knock-off Mickey Mouse you see in dollar-store toy aisles.
Or take, as a separate recent example, the league’s continued inability to sort out the goal review system in a way that is satisfactory to literally anyone, from GMs, coaches and players, to broadcasters and fans. The long-gestating problems with that particular aspect of the league reared their heads again on Sunday afternoon as the Penguins feel — at least somewhat rightly — that there’s no way to definitively say whether the Patric Hornqvist non-goal actually crossed the line. There may be plenty of better ways to go about this, or at least explain the “why” or “why not” of the decision, but the NHL pursues none of them in favor of sticking with a disappointing status quo.
Or even take, as another example from Sunday’s Caps/Pens game, the fact that Brian Dumoulin got a shoulder to the head from one of the league’s dirtiest players, who will nonetheless face no discipline whatsoever, neither a penalty on the hit nor a call with the league’s misleadingly named Department of Player Safety. The reason why is that Dumoulin allegedly moved his head a split second before Wilson made contact, to a degree significant enough that the NHL says the victim was actually at fault. It’s one of those things where even Wilson’s defenders (i.e. Caps fans) can’t believe the call, but if the roles were reversed and Carter Rowney put the exact same hit on Dmitri Orlov, they’d be foaming at the mouths. Such is the subjectivity of literally any dangerous hit administered by anyone in the league, and we get about one of these controversial headshots every single night.
No league on earth should be able get away with being run this poorly without fear of fan revolt, but the NHL, for all its problems, continues to tout ratings improvements, more people coming through the gates at every playoff game, and climbing revenues.
Because it can also regularly guarantee entertainment on the level of Game 2 in the Predators/Jets series.
That’s it. That’s the only reason. But it works and it will continue to work.
The NHL is a niche sport and no one is under any delusions otherwise. That’s why the TV contract stinks ($2 billion over 10 years versus, say, $24 billion over nine years for the most recent NBA deals) and this is still a sport driven mainly by gate revenue. But when the markets everyone acts like we’re supposed to hate suddenly fall into that niche — Tampa, Nashville, even Vegas — everyone suddenly acts like things are great.
Because you see people spouting the reason why the NHL “works” even though it logically shouldn’t on a pretty regular basis. The league’s own website recently did a feature on Vegas’s Spanish-language radio broadcast, which has potentially helped draw in more non-white fans into a sport that often acts like it really doesn’t want them. Broadcaster Jesus Lopez, whose call airs on ESPN Deportes radio, told NHL.com, “I know it’s no easy task to replace soccer with hockey in the Hispanic community, but we have this slogan: Once is all it takes. Once the people see a game, they’re going to fall for it. It’s as easy as that.”
That may not have been true for, say, that cynical, low-scoring Golden Knights/Kings series, but while it became a trope for people to say, “I just want 82 games a year of Jets/Preds,” it became a trope because these are two great, fun teams playing at peak operating power, each elevated by the other in ways lesser teams cannot always bring them to their fullest potential.
This is why the NHL, much like the NFL, is able to show such contempt for its biggest fans. It knows you aren’t going anywhere. You’re hooked. If you’re reading this column, you probably have a lot of gripes with the way the league operates and yet you will never not watch it because, well, hockey done right is just that good.
And the thing is, the game is changing for the better all the time. Every year, the better, faster, more skilled players being drafted push out the older, slower, more defense-first guys who came up in the ‘90s and early 2000s. There are more colorful personalities — Patrik Laine — to offset the Connor McDavids who still act like cardboard cutouts of themselves when they’re not on the ice. And the way they play the game is starkly different from even where it was 10 or 15 years ago.
Sidney Crosby was the perfect player for this era, in that his body and skillset were perfectly adapted to the post-lockout game. Connor McDavid is the perfect player for the future of the sport, an entire league of talent playing like McDavid does — fast, and more like soccer players in his control of the puck than anyone before him — is going to be the reality in less than a decade.
Crosby was one, in the existential sense, with the style of hockey played for about a 12-year stretch and as such became one of the best to ever put on skates. McDavid, Laine, Karlsson, and the like are giving us a taste now, in a transitional period, of the shape of puck to come.
“Get them once and they’re hooked,” should be the league’s operating philosophy, and we know because it worked on all of us. It’s Facebook in that it is widely seen as a horrible actor in society, but also indispensable as part of fans’ lives. It’s McDonald’s, extremely unhealthy but so good to eat.
We’re willing to put up with all of the unpunished headshots and sad ratings stunts and inexplicable review decisions because at least a few times a week, you get a game like Preds/Jets, and all is forgiven.
The NHL is deeply and almost irredeemably flawed, but hockey is perfect. Which is why the NHL gets to be flawed at all.
All stats via Corsica unless noted otherwise.
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