While today, Sunday November 20, 2011 will likely be remembered as a memorable day in the annals of NHL hockey history, the events of today have brought to light a deeper problem that Commissioner Bettman and the NHL will be faced with for years to come.
Today we learned of the imminent return of the league’s undoubtedly most talented forward, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsbugh Penguins. Suffering a concussion on January 1, 2011 after a collision with then-Washington Capital David Steckel, Crosby has not played in an NHL game since January 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Penguins PR staff announced early on Sunday afternoon that Crosby would be back in the Pittsburgh lineup on Monday night when the New York Islanders visit the Consol Energy Center.
Now, Crosby’s return is without doubt fantastic news for the Penguins, the NHL and the entire hockey community. In any situation a league playing without it’s number one superstar is sure to face it’s obstacles; just ask Roger Goodell about losing Tom Brady in 2008 and Peyton Manning in 2011. The league and the sport simply isn’t the same without that player.
However, the return of Sidney Crosby, and Versus’ (or NBC Sports, whichever they like to be called) imminent decision to preempt the scheduled game between the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens in order to broadcast said match-up between Crosby’s Pens and the New York Islanders is what has revealed a fundamental problem in the NHL’s marketing strategy.
The Boston-Montreal rivalry is ageless. A tale as old as time. For as long as there as been the NHL, there has been hatred-a-brewin’ between the B’s and the Habs. Countless classic encounters have taken place between these two storied franchises. From the days of Maurice Richard, To Bobby Orr and Patrick Roy, all the way up to today’s confrontations between Zdeno Chara and Max Pacioretty, these two cities have seen it all. This rivalry is undeniably the best the NHL has to offer and way very well be the best in all of sports.
Instead of treating the country’s viewers to another classic bout between these two original six rivals, and a chance to watch as the defending Stanley Cup Champions go for their 9th straight victory, we get to watch Sidney Crosby’s ten minutes of ice-time against the worst team in the Eastern Conference — the same team that was just on the receiving end of a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of the Bruins on Saturday night –.
The problem that the NHL has created for itself is that it is constantly limiting it’s growth potential. Through the constant pushing of guys like Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the league is limiting it’s audience. The way the NHL and Versus are forcing the same handful of players, while great for the teams involved, is unhealthy for the league as a whole. Now, one can argue that the use of this tactic is to draw in the casual fan who might have more interest in an individual talent, rather than a team as a whole. However, if you are able to draw in these casual fans, you are creating an audience that may only be interested in watching a game that features one of the over-marketed players.
Prior to the change of schedule for Monday’s game, the Pittsburgh Penguins already had four of their next six games slated to be on national television (NHL Network, Versus, CBC). While fans are being force-fed dose after dose of Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and New York Rangers, the talents of players like Colorado’s Matt Duchene, Carolina’s Jeff Skinner and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos aren’t being properly showcased.
If the NHL ever plans to grow to a point in which it can surpass the popularity of the NBA, MLB, or even the NFL (that’s a long-shot), the league must do a much better job in properly managing and marketing their teams, as well as their superstars.
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About the Author: Boston Bruins writer for Hockey Independent. Have written for The Hockey Guys and SB Nation Boston. Follow me on Twitter @_BWoodward or shoot me an email at BWoodward.HI@gmail.com.