The news of the NHL making another proposal to the NHLPA and that a counter-proposal is likely coming, knowing how close the two parties are, brought a lot of optimism in the hockey world that this season could be salvaged. I was reading a tweet from Pierre LeBrun from ESPN and TSN, one of the rather rare journalists worthy of the profession, where he was suggesting some recommendations for the NHL to help the league make itself more appealing to fans. While I did agree with some of them, I found others rather irrelevant, even disagreeing with a few. This doesn’t speak in any way of LeBrun’s ability to assess the fan base’s needs as let’s face it, we could all come out with our own list and each one would be just as good as it relates to us as an individuals, based on our own preferences.
PENTICTON, BC. — When the NHL announced that it was locking out its players once again, many fans including yours truly threw in the towel on a league that simply doesn’t seem to see the damage it’s causing with its continuous work disruptions. Personally, I immediately made the promise not to contribute to their Hockey Related Revenues (HRR) anymore and that, for the next five years. After all, that seemed to be one of the key sticky points in their negotiations. No tickets to games, no NHL Center Ice package, no NHL or Habs’ merchandise, even going as far as telling family and friends not to buy me any… I pay for my Bell ExpressVu satellite already so when the games come back, I’ll watch them. Let’s face it, I do love the game and I have commitments to All Habs Hockey Magazine and Fantômes du Forum, two hockey sites for which I care a whole lot about.
The problem is that as a whole, the NHL doesn’t believe that the fans have the collective spine to walk away from the game, especially not in Canada or in traditional hockey markets. Taking your customers for granted is a huge mistake in my humble opinion and saying it out loud like Gary Bettman did at the beginning of the lockout is borderline suicidal. The league has a lot of work to do in order to get hardcore fans like myself back at 100%, and there is no doubt that the sport has lost many casual fans for a long, long time. To get some of its popularity back, it will take a lot more than simply painting “Thank you fans” at center ice.
Here are a few of my suggestions on how the NHL can regain some of their fans:
10. Relocate a couple of teams
While we all know that the league would rather expand to 32 teams, there is too much uncertainty following the lockout and too many teams were already struggling in markets where they should not be. My preferred choice would be contracting two teams but I really don’t see that happening. The league however needs to re-build on a solid foundation and bringing a team back to Quebec City is a must. I would also be in favour of seeing another team in Ontario or even in Seattle. This would bring a lot of excitement and positive publicity to the NHL.
9. Generating more offense
The goalie equipment is still too big, especially the upper portion of the pads when goalies get into the butterfly, so more work is needed there. The league should also look at bringing back an old rule, which would force a penalized team to serve the full two minutes of a penalty, even if the team on the power play scores.
8. Find a way to encourage trades
Talk to GMs, including Brian Burke, and come up with ideas which would encourage trades between teams. Fans love it, as seen at the trade deadline. Should teams be allowed to trade cap space? Should they be able to trade additional salary? Should a team trading a high priced player be allowed to pay some of his salary if they trade him and keep the cap hit? Many options here and it does add to the excitement and to putting the NHL on the news.
7. Get rid of the instigator rule
Having a committee for the appeal process of a suspension is a step in the right direction, no doubt, but referees and league officials cannot fully handle the discipline. Let the players police themselves bring back accountability in hockey. Knowing that they are protected by rules, some players are taking liberties knowing too well that no retribution will come their way. If someone takes a shot at someone’s head, let the players teach him a lesson instead of penalizing them for defending a teammate! He’ll think twice before doing it again. Of course though, referees would have to use discretion so that goons don’t go after star players for no reasons, but that’s much less of a problem than the other problems the instigator rule creates. I’d go further by addressing the material used for elbow and shoulder pads, huge contributors to today’s concussions.
6. Realignment & playoffs format
When the NHL brought up realignment last year, social media, hockey forums and phone lines on hockey shows were flooded with comments. Want excitement and be talked about? Bring this back to the table and agree on the topic with the players. Come up with something that will address realignment and have a better way to balance teams’ schedules so cities can see every team at least once throughout the season. For the playoffs, give your regular season more importance by playing the highest ranked teams against the lower ranks within their conference. Have the first place team face the eighth, second vs seventh, etc. While it is a bit more travel, it pays off to finish ahead during the regular season. This should be in place for the 2013-14 season.
5. Three on three overtime
In the last eight years in the BCHL, only two percent of all games ended in a tie. That’s because they play five minutes at three on three if the game is still tied after the first five minutes of OT at four on four! Have your shootout after if you must, but give the three on three a chance. You’ll have the most boring game and the overtime will make your fans go home satisfied! You will have less shootouts and the three on three will be extremely entertaining, while still being a team game in a situation that can happen in a hockey game. I wasn’t a fan of it until I experienced it myself in Penticton.
4. NHL Center Ice
It should be free to anyone who wants it for the rest of the regular season this year. You want as many fans as possible watching your product, even new fans and getting them to watch for free will show how serious the NHL is when they claim being sorry. Allow them to watch not only the players in their city, but also to discover and get to know the stars from all 30 teams around the league.
3. Ticket prices
Every ticket should be sold at 20% off for the rest of this year. If owners were willing to lose more than half the season and possibly an entire season, what’s 20% off tickets sales to show their gratitude to their fans? Whether the arena is full or not should make no difference. This is a way to give back to the fans in a gesture that speaks loudly. They’ll still spend money at the concessions, parking and maybe even at the souvenir shops!
2. Fire Gary Bettman
This is not a choice, it’s a must. He’s the face of this lockout, and fans know that since he’s been in place, this is the third time he causes a work stoppage. Yes, he represents the owners (or some of them) but unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, you’ll also know that the frustration is directed at him, whether you agree with it or not. If the owners want, they can let him save face by letting him quit or retire, but he cannot be there when hockey starts again. This would go a long way into getting back some of the fans, including hardcore ones like myself. It would be perceived as a step in the right direction, just like when the Habs fired Pierre Gauthier and hired Marc Bergevin, bringing a new wind of optimism, a feeling that positive changes are coming.
1. Commissioner with Canadian roots
There is no doubt that the owners need someone who is a good negotiator and as astute lawyer to represent them but what Bettman has been lacking is a genuine understanding and love for the game, its history and its tradition. They need to find someone who will do not only what’s good for the owners, but what’s right for the league as a whole. They need either a Canadian individual or at the very least, someone with ties to Canada and NHL hockey. If they can’t get someone with charisma on top of that, they must find a front end man who will be the PR person who will represent the league in any public function. Tradition is good, and so is history and the league is in dire need of a new face, a new image.
Even after doing all of that, there will be enormous work needing to be done and the irony of it all will be to see the NHL relying heavily on the players they were putting down for so many months, asking them to give more of their time to be used, once again, in their marketing plots and at different events. The kiss and make up will be difficult between owners and players, but they must do it in order to regain the trust from the sports’ fan base. The much discussed $3.3 billion in revenue is a thing of the past and it may take a while to get back to that level once again… until the next lockout.
En français: LNH: Réparer les dommages