NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is a monster reason the NHL has essentially fallen of the face of the earth in the United States. The two main problems he's caused that stick out is the unbelievably lack of television coverage and constant league expansion.
Prior to the season cancellation in 2004, the NHL was celebrated throughout the country, mainly because the product had great coverage provided by ESPN and ESPN2.
When hockey resumed, Bettman decided to go another route and signed a television contract with the Outdoor Life Network. Since then, OLN converted into Versus, the current "home" of the NHL.
Versus is a very unknown network and is not nearly in the same amount of households in the U.S. as ESPN. It's not even close.
A short while ago, the NHL's television contract with Versus was about to expire and Bettman decided to renew the contract, instead of possibly getting a new deal with ESPN, which would have provided the league with an exponentially greater amount of exposure than Versus would have.
With that said, Versusdoes a very good job when they're covering the NHL. Their studio panel provides very entertaining coverage before, during, and after games. Their postgame show "Hockey Central" does a great job of catching hockey fans up with the days events.
The main problem with Versus its not available in as many homes as the NHL needs. The league should take a step back and decide whether to take a different route with its coverage when the current contract is close to expiration.
Another channel that has brought the NHL into homes in the United States is the NHL Network that debuted in October of 2007. This was a great opportunity for Bettman to give hockey fans in this country the coverage they deserve.
But instead of adding the channel to the regular cable lineup (i.e. Golf Channel), he made it a premium channel that the viewer has to pay for (i.e. NFL Network).
The NHL is also broadcast on NBC. Their coverage is extremely limited to Sunday games and the Stanley Cup Final. NBC's contract with the NHL is expiring in the near future.
Without television exposure, the league will just not get the publicity or marketing that it needs to thrive in this country. This is why the league should desperately seek a contract with ESPN. ESPN enhances everything it touches, simply because it has endless resources.
Remember, the NHL was a staple on ESPN2 when it first launched and had a huge part in success of the sister channel.
Constant league expansion has also hurt this league with the likes of teams sprouting up in areas such as Phoenix, Florida, Columbus, and Atlanta. Expansion has worked in some cases, such as Dallas, Carolina, and putting a team back in Minnesota.
Hockey should be primarily located in cold weather areas, simply because it is a cold weather sport. Has anyone ever seen a pond hockey game in Arizona or Florida?
Another problem with over-expansion is the talent becomes too widespread throughout the league. When looking at a New York Rangers schedule, I try to make it to any game that I can. But, I'll always try to go see the better quality teams.
I would love to go see players like Rick Nash, Vincent Lecavalier, and Ilya Kovalchuk in person, but what ambition is there to go see the Columbus Blue Jackets, Tampa Bay Lightning, or Atlanta Thrashers?
Over-expansion in the NHL is good for young players who have always wanted to make it to the professional ranks. No offense to those players, but when I go to an NHL game, I want to see the best of the best. Not Johnny Ice Skates who got the call-up to the pros because some no-namer has a bad hamstring.
Contract some teams and you immediately improve the quality of all 30 teams in the league.
Gary Bettman must realize these two issues in addition to the many more that are bringing this wonderful league down. Hockey is such a beautiful game and it truly is a team sport. Never do you see guys creating dances because they score goals, because you'd get put into the boards on your next shift.
There is a great amount of respect shown between teams and players you simply don't see in other sports. There are a few bad apples that come along, but their act doesn't last too long.
Bettman must do what is necessary for this league to improve. Hockey fans have been waiting for him to do that for over a decade, and sadly, there doesn't seem to be a light at the end of this dark tunnel.
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