2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs logo2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Can the NHL Survive Without an American Superstar?

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman presents the Stanley Cup to Slovak player Zdeno Chara.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman presents the Stanley Cup to Slovak player Zdeno Chara.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
David SachsContributor IIMarch 29, 2012

We Americans love razzing Canadians, especially when it comes to sports.

It’s so easy.

The National Football League boasts birds of prey like the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons. Up north, the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos seem cuddly in comparison.

But when it comes to hockey, Americans have little to brag about. Sure, there was the Miracle on Ice.

In 1980.

The National Hockey League is centralized in America and supported by American consumers, yet non-American players dominate the ice. According to QuantHockey.com, 516 Canadian skaters took the ice this season compared to 228 Americans. Sweden has the third most players with 67.

So can the NHL survive without a bona fide U.S. superstar?

Yes. But it can’t flourish.

The NHL has a distinct disadvantage in the ratings race against the NFL, NBA and MLB. You know how most of the tags on your clothes say “Made in Taiwan?" There’s a permanent tag on each NHL player that says “Made in Canada.”

The sport is theirs.

Hockey was invented in Canada, it’s their national pastime, and that’s not about to change any time soon.

Still, fans respect athleticism and dominant play, no matter the nationality. Skill trumps country. Sure, Sidney Crosby is Canadian, but that’s not his No. 1 identity: he’s the best player in the world.

The Boston Red Sox’s David Ortiz and Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki aren’t American, yet remain fan favorites. Then again, baseball is America’s pastime. And home-grown stars like Derek Jeter and Prince Fielder keep things red, white and blue.

Hockey’s biggest stars are Canadian (Crosby, Steven Stamkos), Russian (Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin) and Swedish (Henrik and Daniel Sedin). It’s not just their stat sheets but their story lines and style—their personalities—that elevate them.

America’s biggest names are Tim Thomas and Ryan Miller. Last time I checked, goalies don’t get the cheerleader, and standing up the president of the United States doesn’t endear you to American fans.

Then there are New Jersey Devils forward Zach Parise and Toronto Maple Leafs winger Phil Kessel—both great players but lack the rock star status Americans covet.

If NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is content with his league simply surviving, then the status quo is just fine. Hockey will endure and remain the seventh most popular spectator sport in the country (yes, it’s even behind NASCAR).

But for the NHL to vault into the ranks of its NFL and MLB brethren, it needs a U.S.-born star.

Uncle Sam’s fans already sustain a league dominated by non-Americans, so imagine what an American version of Ovechkin could do for the sport. The Russian Machine rose Washington's fan base from the dead and transformed the Verizon Center into a scary venue for opponents.

The Great Eight is having the worst season of his career but takes home millions in endorsements.

Why? Because we value his personality—and his play.

Hockey is the fastest sport in the world (again, behind NASCAR). The product is better than ever. The NHL just needs an American poster boy to push it over the edge.

Follow David Sachs on Twitter: @DavidASachs

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