Poor National Hockey League. The ratings for this year's Stanley Cup Finals have been breaking all kinds of records for futility, from losing head-to-head matchups with women's college softball and a baseball game that rained out (in St. Louis, a better than average hockey town, the ratings for game 1 were so low that it wasn't even registered by Nielsen) to narrowly avoiding the worst rating in the history of prime time network television on Saturday. (To put this size of this abyss into perspective, the Stanley Cup Finals on NBC on Saturday drew approximately 1.3 million viewers. In comparison, "Emily's Reasons Why Not", which was cancelled before the credits starting rolling on its only episode, drew 6.2 million viewers.) While it's not surprising that there has been low interest in a series featuring two small markets (one of them being Canadian) coming off of a shut-down season, it's pretty sad to observe the NHL and the proud game of hockey taking such a beating.
As my three or four regular readers have probably noticed, I haven't written more than the occasional blip about hockey. That's because personally, I've never been much of an NHL fan (I'll explain the reason for this later in this post), and therein lies evidence of a major problem: if a person, such as myself, who devotes the majority of his television time to watching sports events of all stripes can't sustain much interest in the NHL, the hopes to attract a larger audience beyond hardcore hockey fans will be almost impossible.
The thing is, my non-NHL fan status has nothing to do with an aversion to hockey as a sport overall. In fact, I'll grant anyone the argument that hockey is the most exciting of the four "major" sports to watch live. I've been to plently of Blackhawks games (back when they actually fielded teams consisting of players that weren't Canadian Junior League rejects) along with being an Illini hockey regular and loved every moment of those experiences. Even more importantly, EA Sports NHL Hockey is neck-and-neck with Madden as the best sports video game for Playstation 2. (Sidenote: Back in college, my buddy Danny M and I made the greatest create-your-own athlete in the history of video games, which was a hockey player named "Ass Whooper". To give you a mental picture of what he looked like, he was essentially Shaq on ice skates. We actually got the Whooper to check a referee through the glass in the middle of a game, which was certainly the pinnacle of my video gaming career.) It's a fast-paced game with tons of hitting – what's not to love, right?
The NHL's problem over the past few decades, though, is that it has been a poorly run from the top league level all the way down to local franchises. While David Stern has been a brilliant commissioner of the NBA to turn that league into an international phenomenon and the NFL has had great stewards in Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue (the entrenchment of baseball in the American psyche has allowed Major League Baseball to survive under the ineptitude of Bud Selig), the NHL has suffered from terrible vision and leadership from Gary Bettman, which is the death knell for a league that doesn't have the built-in interest of basketball, football, or baseball.
Therefore, here's my plan for what the NHL needs to do in order to even have a chance in this fragmented sports world:
1) Get Back on ESPN Somehow – This might not even be possible as ESPN has figured out that cheap softball and poker programming is killing the NHL in the ratings. Still, as long as the NHL doesn't receive exposure from the Worldwide Leader in Sports, where the lack of games on the ESPN family of networks has trickled down to only cursory coverage of the league on SportsCenter, it's going to continue to die a slow death. Coverage on OLN, which is in approximately 30 million fewer homes than ESPN, is not going to work for if the NHL ever wants to be considered a "major" sport again.
2) Sell the Franchises in Chicago and Boston to Owners That Care – The Blackhawks and Bruins are two Original Six franchises dripping with history and tradition and located in huge media markets that have fanatical sports fans. They ought to be the teams that the NHL can count on to bring more attention to its product. Yet, they have been saddled with quite possibly the two worst owners in all of sports with Bill Wirtz in Chicago and Jeremy Jacobs in Boston (when ESPN.com called upon readers to write in letters regarding the worst owners in sports, Jacobs and Wirtz were respectively the #1 and #3 vote-getters).
Without question, Bill Wirtz is the biggest reason as to why I never became more than a less-than-casual Hawks fan. While I have been watching multitudes of White Sox, Bears, Bulls, and Cubs games for as long as I can remember, I was never exposed to Hawks games in my formative years. That's simply because I couldn't be exposed to them even by accident. Not only do the Hawks, to this day, not broadcast its home games on television under the guise of "protecting its season ticket holders" (funny, having 162 Cubs games over-the-air on WGN didn't exactly hamper their season ticket base), but they were one of the first franchises in any sport to completely move all of their local broadcasts to cable. That wasn't good for me since my family, like the majority of families up until the late-1980s, didn't subscribe to cable at all. Therefore, the only hockey games I ever saw on television up until I was a teenager were the NHL All-Star Games, which featured no checking and 17-14 scores.
Adding on to that is when the Hawks finally looked as though it would breakthrough in the early-1990s with stars in their primes such as Jeremy Roenick, Ed Belfour, and Chris Chelios (peaking with a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1992), Wirtz did everything in his power to drive those players away. As a result, the Blackhawks have made the NHL playoffs only once since 1998 (this isn't even counting the fact that they haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1961, which is the longest championship drought of any franchise in hockey). Not only that, this is in the midst of the diluting of NHL going through expansion overkill, which brings up the following point.
3) Contraction of the NHL Back to True Hockey Cities – Back in the day, the Blackhawks would play the Original Six teams along with the Blues and old North Stars (when they were in Minnesota) for a majority of their games throughout the season. Now, as opposed to having a schedule filled with dates against the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs, Hawks fans get to see plently of insomnia-curing tilts with Columbus and Nashville.
Back in the early-1990s, the fashionable thing for all sports leagues to do was to look southward and westward for fast-growing markets as expansion and relocation targets. I'll grant that there were a number of open markets that were too large for the NHL to ignore, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, Dallas, and Atlanta. However, the league's obsession with new-wave warm-weather towns such as Nashville, Raleigh, and Tampa led it to abandon a number of cold-weather towns in Canada and, for a period of time, Minnesota (an absolutely crazy move since Minnesota is the only place in the United States where its residents' obsession with hockey is on par with Canada – the North Star State is to hockey as Indiana is to basketball) that were passionate about hockey. What looked like great moves to growing markets turned out to be a removal of the game from the areas where people care about it the most.
From my view, there are six teams that should easily be axed: Columbus, Nashville, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida, and Anaheim. We could probably cut it down even more, but I believe that the remaining 24 teams keeps the most desirable markets, franchises, and rivalries.
4) Realign, Forget About Geography, and Bring Back the Wacky Names – The next step after contraction is realignment. While geography ought to still be a factor in placing teams in conferences and divisions, the NHL should bring back an important part of its history. Despite the fact that Chris Berman annoyingly insists upon calling the NFC North the "Norris Division" every single freakin' week during the NFL season, the pre-1993 NHL names for its conferences and divisions which gave no references to geographic locations were a unique aspect of the game that should have never been eliminated.
Here is how I envision a new NHL:
Adams Division: Montreal, Boston, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Atlanta (gets the nod over Florida only because of Lil' Jon)
Patrick Division: New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh
Norris Division: Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Minnesota, Colorado, Dallas
Smythe Division: Los Angeles, San Jose, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Phoenix (the Coyotes need to stick around as long as Wayne Gretzky has a stake in that franchise)
5) Reemphasize Rivalries by Returning to Unbalanced Schedules and the Divisional Playoff Format – It wasn't too long ago that the Blackhawks-Red Wings rivalry was considered to be the fiercest and most important intercity rivalry on the Chicago sports landscape – even more than Bears-Packers or Cubs-Cardinals. These days, however, a random Bulls game against the Grizzlies attracts more attention than what is arguably the NHL's greatest rivalry. A large reason for this occurring (besides the Blackhawks supremely sucking at the same time that the Red Wings have been putting together championship teams) is that the NHL made the decision at the time that it renamed and realigned its divisions geographically that teams would play "balanced" schedules that pared down the number of intradivision games along with eliminating the divisional semifinals and finals from the first two rounds of the playoffs and going to a straight seeding of all teams in each conference irrespective of divisions.
So, we now have a situation where the best thing that the NHL had going for it – great rivalries – is now deemphasized to the point that it's hardly registers any interest to the average sports fan anymore. Therefore, I'm proposing that the NHL brings back unbalanced schedules where each team would play those outside of its division only twice (once at home and once on the road) while having the rest of its schedule filled with intradivision matchups. This would then make it fair to also go back to the divisional playoff format, where rivalries truly come to fruition. Imagine if the Bears played the Packers or the Yankees played the Red Sox in the playoffs every season. That's essentially what the NHL used to have and it could have it again.
The NHL should give up on its hopes that it will ever come close to the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, college basketball, college football, or NASCAR in terms of national interest. There's absolutely no reason, however, for such a historically-rich league to get beaten in the ratings by fishing shows, the WNBA, and John Stamos TV pilots. The sports world will be a lot better off if the NHL can get back on its feet to be a respectable league once more.