This piece could have just as easily been titled, A Summary of Why The NHL Sucks. Buckle up.
From agitating commentators that can’t keep up with the flow of the game to the insufferable ‘Real Smooth’ Gatorade commercial, we all know the National Hockey League has a problem marketing the game. It’s a sport that seems to try it’s absolute best to make itself completely unwatchable.
Players have so little personality that there are commercials with their blandness being a running gag. The leagues superstars, namely Crosby and McDavid, are blank canvases ripe for white middle aged hockey fans to project their fantasies onto.
The ones that aren’t, such as Ovechkin, are criticised for expressing emotions or daring to have a personality that strays outside of the ‘good Canadian boy’ archetype. And maybe this is what keeps the dedicated fans wrapped up in the fantasy that the league has constructed, a character type to be praised and one to be othered.
It’s unsurprising then that such polarisation exists. Yet, none of us can walk away. We watch diligently every game that we can, eagerly await updates about our favourite players on social media and are seemingly always keeping tabs on our teams.
When the NHL has made it’s reluctance to give a damn about fans so vocal, sometimes even I wonder exactly why I stay so invested.
Take, for example, the incident in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where Ryan Getzlaf used a homophobic slur and faced no punishment from the league simply because it occurred during the playoffs. This teaches that the right of others to feel that hockey is an inclusive environment that can be a true community comes second to preserving the perceived ‘quality’ of the game.
The league makes it’s target audience, middle class white men, abundantly clear at every turn, and by taking no action when players are discriminatory they are, by default, taking the side of those who wish to keep hockey exclusive. To an extent, this actively works against growing the game in non-traditional markets.
Female fans are patronised with ‘ladies nights’ and Valentine’s Day campaigns featuring players accused of rape. Not even two weeks ago an Ottawa Senators assistant General Manager was arrested for sexually harassing a 19 year old boy- yet his position in the organisation remained unchanged.
Gay fans are placated with Hockey Is For Everyone while being expected to overlook the hyper-masculine nature of locker rooms and ingrained player behaviours meaning there is still not a single out NHL player. Not to mention, the overflowing amount of racism present in the sport at all levels.
Blatantly xenophobic presenters with almost Trump-like personalities make intermissions painful to sit through, as Don Cherry harks on about ‘hot-dogging’ and the disgrace of Russian players showing even an ounce of emotion in their goal celebrations.
To further the idea of the NHL shooting itself in the foot, the on ice product is getting more and more difficult to watch, despite the trend towards speed and skill becoming wildly evident. If the game is stopping every ten or so seconds in the final minute of the game as one team continually ices the puck to run down the clock, it makes for a disjointed and unsatisfying end to a game in a sport praised for its ‘flow’ (please just call a delay of game penalty).
Every NHL game could be someone’s first and last. It’s the only sport in the word where you have to explain that the referees aren’t calling penalties in the final period of a playoff game to avoid being accused of… doing their jobs? The league works so hard to make it’s product as unlikable as possible and then owners such as Eugene Melynk are quick to blame the fans and threaten to move the team.
And don’t get me started on the the hell of being an international fan. Streaming blackouts and egregious shipping costs make legal streams and authetic merchendise impossible to rely on. I can name on one hand the number of international NHL fans I know with authentic sweaters, it’s just not a viable option.
To quote Steve Dangle, ‘hockey will be great, when it’s finished’. The NHL is the league I hate to follow but I can’t seem to stop- god knows I’ll be glued to my phone all summer to keep up with the draft, trades and free agency.
I could write for days on the failings of the National Hockey League, but as fans we must demand more of the league and it’s management. It’s all well and good to boo Gary Bettman at the presentation of the Stanley Cup, but as long as tickets are sold, change is unlikely to come quickly.
How do you market a league that can’t decide what it wants to be?
Feature image credit: NHL.com