How To Fix The NHL - Here Is The Seven Step By Step Process

Paul SalmanSenior Analyst IMarch 2, 2010


Let me start by saying I am not a Hockey fan. However, I am a sports fan. I can watch almost any form on competition on TV, even if it is not known as Football, Baseball or Basketball.
These last 2 weeks have shown, again, that I will watch two people dance on ice if it is judged and a winner is rewarded. I will watch old women playing shuffle board on ice with brooms...for hours at a time. I will watch a 50K cross country race where nothing happens until the final 400 meters.
However, I will also watch, and be extremely passionate about Hockey. I do not remember being this passionate about Hockey since playing NHL '94 on Sega and being told I cannot play with the Kings since Gretzky was unstoppable! (I used the Blackhawks because Roenick was equally as unstoppable) - except every four years during the Olympics, with this year, as with most being the most passionate of all.
As I watch these games, I feel as though I like Hockey (begrudgingly) and almost tell myself that maybe I will try watching the NHL. Can this passion for the Olympics carry over? Maybe I can align myself with the local team and try to root for them. I live in the NYC area so I have 3 teams to pick from with a very loyal and passionate fan base for each.
I would argue watching Hockey, when its a big game, is more exciting than watching Baseball or Basketball.
Wait, can Hockey really be third on my list after Football and Baseball? It sure felt that way this past week!
So what can the NHL do to keep me coming back to hockey after these last two weeks.
Well to start, the issue in America is not Hockey, the issue is the NHL itself and how poorly it's run. The NHL needs a complete overhaul in order to get me, and other non hockey/sports fans who felt passionate about the Olympics, come buy its product.
Here are my steps to making the NHL a better product for all of us. (If you listen to Colin Cowherd on ESPN radio, he touched on some of this, however I have broken it down, expanded on it and added my own thoughts on what would make this be a "Watchable" league)
1. Cut down the teams from 30 to 16, maybe 24 MAX! By reducing the teams, you heighten the level of talent, which is what made the Olympics so exciting and WATCHABLE, and you keep it to the regions and cities that care the most. Nashville, Carolina, Phoenix, I am sorry if you live there and are a fan, as a whole, these are not Hockey towns - the list below proves it. The true Hockey fans will follow the sport where ever it goes. The key is to get the casual fan, which the NFL has perfected.
According to Forbes, here is a list of the most profitable NHL teams as of 2009:
Toronto Maple Leafs *
New York Rangers *
Montreal Canadiens *
Detroit Red Wings *
Philadelphia Flyers *
Boston Bruins *
Chicago Blackhawks *
Dallas Stars
Vancouver Canucks *
New Jersey Devils
Pittsburgh Penguins *
Minnesota Wild *
Los Angeles Kings
Anaheim Ducks
Colorado Avalanche
Calgary Flames *
Ottawa Senators *
Tampa Bay Lightning
San Jose Sharks
Washington Capitals
Carolina Hurricanes
St Louis Blues
Buffalo Sabres *
Edmonton Oilers *
Columbus Blue Jackets
Florida Panthers
Nashville Predators
New York Islanders
Atlanta Thrashers
Phoenix Coyotes
Going off the list above, here are the cities/states that get teams in no particular order. The list is based on either cities that have a profitable team, a passionate hockey fan base, or a combo of the two.
New York (1 Team), Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota, Vancouver, Calgary, Quebec (yes they get a team back), Edmonton, Winnipeg.
You may point out the Edmonton and Buffalo are not very profitable so why are they on the list. Well, I have kept them due to their passionate fan bases. Buffalo for example is a city that loves their Sabres (as much as their Bills - maybe more since they are more relevant) and a team that has been winning (while the Bills of the NFL can't even make the playoffs).
2. If you noticed a pattern above, all of my "saved" teams, are evenly distributed between the U.S. and Canada. Yup, you guessed it, make two conferences. One being the USA and one being Canada.
USA: New York (1 Team), Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota
Canada: Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto,Vancouver, Calgary, Quebec (yes they get a team back), Edmonton, Winnipeg
Although this will not be a true USA vs. Canada set up as the players of the NHL are all international and are mixed (Sid the Kid would stay in Pittsburgh - don't worry Pens fans), this still creates a rivalry that fans can get passionate about and support. This will create a USA vs. Canada feel. Years down the line we can discuss what country has won more Stanley Cups over the years. We do this in the NFL with AFC and NFC, it would just be much more relevant here given the regional loyalty.
3. Cut the season down from 82 games to 43 (I'll explain why 43 in step 4) games and make the season go from October through March - 6 month = 2 games a week per team. This will create a greater sense of urgency for each team, and create more of an "EVENT" feel for each game, comparable to the NFL with every week feeling like a holiday - but yes on a much smaller scale since this is still hockey and we are still in America. However, in Canada this could create an NFL feel for their games, since each game will be twice as important.
4. The schedule, now that its cut down, would be similar to the MLB set up where you play your league (or conference in this case) much more often than you play the opposing conference. Thus, you get to 43 games by playing the other 7 teams in your conference 5 times (35 games), creating a best of 5 against every team (not in order but overall for the season you have a 5 game series), and then you play every team in the other conference just ONCE (8 games).
Every team will be somewhat familiar with the opposing conference, however when they meet for the Stanley Cup, there will be a feeling that these teams are not familiar with each others style of play outside of the game tape. Here we bring in the football aspect of breaking down film of two non-familiar opponents and how they match up. Makes for some great TV!
5. The standings will be similar but slightly altered. Every game is worth 3 points. Win in regulation, you get 3 points. Win in overtime, you get 2 points, and the loser gets 1 point. I set it up this way because to me it does not make sense that currently if you win in regulation, you get 2 points and the loser gets 0, however in overtime the winner gets 2 and the loser gets 1. I believe every game should be worth the same number of points, and winning in regulation should be more greatly rewarded than winning in overtime.
6. Regular season games will be 5 on 5, 4 on 4 in OT with a shootout - if necessary. However in the playoffs, it's 5 on 5 all the way through, with unlimited overtimes. That is the fairest way to show who is the best team. Shootouts do not determine the best team.
7. Since the the labour dispute in 2005 where a full season was lost, attendance figures for the NHL has returned. This is because no one can argue that the NHL is great in person. Fans and non-Fans alike enjoy seeing the game live. However, TV audience has dropped off significantly, a lot of that has to do with ESPN's decision to drop the league from its schedule.
The NHL is currently on mostly on Versus and also on NBC.  Versus is distributed in 75 Million Households ,while ESPN is in 99.1 Million Households (both as of the end of 2009 - out of a total of 115 Million TV Households per Nielsen Data). This equates to a 21% greater distribution on ESPN than on Versus. This is a major problem for making the sport more visible and easily accessible. Again, this is all about reaching the casual fans. The Hockey fanatic will follow the league and the sport where ever he/she can get it.
As an example of what this means, last June, game three of the Stanley Cup, which matched up two of the most loyal NHL fan bases (Pittsburgh and Detroit - both teams that make my cut) was the highest rated program on the networks history, which was a 2.6 National Household rating. This equates to the percentage of viewers against the total household base.
Now on ESPN, during the same month of June, The College Baseball World Series match up of LSU vs. Texas, (two extremely loyal fan bases, however both smaller markets than the NHL team above) scored a 2.1 National Household rating.
That difference in rating equates to about 20%, which is almost exactly the amount of the difference in households between the two networks.
By being on ESPN, the NHL would naturally expand its viewership, and then by implementing some of the changes I lay out above which would generate more interest in the league. Combine the two and the NHL would expand its viewership due to the greater distribution, and generate more viewership with its new set up. Huge success right off the bat.
As may have noticed, I keep referring to the NHL as the problem, because again, I do not believe Hockey is the problem here.
However, how does the NHL get the attention of the World Wide Leader - ESPN.
What needs to happen is the NHL needs to change its format now while its still on Versus, which will increase its viewership on the current network. This will then allow them to keep setting records ratings on Versus, which will then allow the league to have more leverage during negotiations with ESPN. 
Currently, in certain time slots where NHL used to air, ESPN now airs Bowling, which at times has generated better ratings than NHL used to. ESPN has nothing against the league, it is just airing what the viewers want - and the viewers have spoken, they don't want the NHL in its current state.
That does not mean they don't want Hockey, as shown by the Olympics.
I am not old enough to remember the 1980 Olympics, since I was not alive! However, many who were will tell you that was a sports moment that they remember exactly where they were when they heard or saw it happen. It may be the only sports moment that generates that feeling.
Think about the moments that you remember exactly where you were when they happened. Most may be tragic moments like 9/11. As for sports moments, there are not that many, and a Hockey moment may be the most common one for most Americans.
What the NHL needs to do is find a way to replicate that feeling of Olympic Hockey. The overhaul laid out above should be a decent starting point.