NHL 2011-12: 6 Reasons All Eyes Will Be on Hockey This Year
Like him or not, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's job is not an enviable one. Each season, he is expected to increase interest in a sport about which the average American is apathetic, while still remaining true to the die-hard hockey fans who have been watching since the days of one team and five rivals.
The sport suffered after 2004-05's lockout and has dealt with a lack of exposure on major sports television networks, as well as negative publicity for everything from concussions to post-championship riots.
Despite all this, the sport has been growing since experiencing rock bottom seven years ago, and Bettman has seen the sport reap the benefits from the expansion of the brand. Hockey may still be a bridesmaid in American sports culture, but this season will see the game getting more attention than ever.
The following are six reasons, good and bad, why the NHL will be a topic of conversation in 2011-12, and why the league and the fans can expect the sport to take a great leap forward by the time the last puck has dropped.
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HBO began following the Penguins and Capitals last year in preparation for the Winter Classic, and the series was considered a huge success across the board. Fans got to see the personalities of athletes who are normally very low-key and casual viewers gained a more intimate understanding of the sport.
The inaugural series featured the two teams and two players most well-known to the casual hockey fan; this year’s series will take a hard look at a rivalry that goes back much further.
The New York Rangers are an Original Six team whose 1994 Stanley Cup victory remains one of the iconic moments in hockey history. The Philadelphia Flyers were the first non-Original Six team to win a championship and changed the face of hockey with the Broad Street Bullies in the ‘70s, and the team continues to be one of the most watched, feared, loved and hated to this day.
Viewers will witness how the two teams deal with the pressure of playing in two of the most Cup-hungry cities in the United States. Neither team is docile, neither coach is passive and neither locker room will take a loss on January 2nd very well.
Showcasing the players, management and fans affiliated with these teams will either make the audience instant hockey fans or scare them away from the sport entirely.
Handling Crosby's Concussion
Sidney Crosby’s concussion recovery is among the biggest news in hockey; fans can find updates on his condition almost daily, even when there are no updates.
Crosby’s head injury makes the impending season interesting for a number of reasons. First and foremost, while fans do not want to see Crosby miss significant time because of health problems, the Penguins and the NHL will make a statement by keeping him out of play: the sport does not take head injuries lightly. By making sure that Crosby is completely recovered before he returns, the league will show that player safety far exceeds any other concern in the game and Eric Lindros-like situations may become a thing of the past.
The negative implication of Crosby’s health issues is the fact that the NHL’s most marketable player could be in the press box for much of the season. With more and more potential fans checking out the NHL, stars like Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Tim Thomas and the Sedin twins are going to be the faces of the league, and their performances could either create new fans or turn people off.
Whether you like the Crosby hype or not, there is no doubt that having a superstar playing every night gets people interested in the sport.
Dealing with Relocation Issues
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This past offseason saw the NHL forced to relocate a franchise from one of North America’s largest media markets to one of the smallest markets in sports, simply because the sport failed to catch on in Atlanta and the franchise failed to build a competitive team.
While hockey purists largely celebrate the fact that passionate Jets fans finally have their team, the NHL front office cannot help but be concerned about the fact that hockey is struggling in big markets. It seems all but assured that the Coyotes will be leaving Phoenix, so Bettman’s eventual approval of a sale will likely be a struggle between traditional, sure-thing small markets and experimental larger markets.
Bettman won’t let another team move back to Canada unless he absolutely has to, so expect him to make a strong push at encouraging buyers in Seattle/Portland, Kansas City and other American locations to give the Coyotes franchise a new home.
Phoenix’s relocation will not make or break the sport, but a move to a city with the right balance of interest in the sport and size of the market could be a big leap forward in the growth of the Coolest Game on Ice.
Recovery from Offseason Tragedies
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The offseason is normally a time of optimism as a hockey fan. The Cup travels the world with the new champions, free agents are brought in to fast-track teams to the Finals, and new draft picks become positive investments in the future. The 2011 offseason, however, cannot end quickly enough for hockey fans, for the most heartbreaking of reasons.
The deaths of three of hockey’s toughest players in gut-wrenching self-destructive fashion and the recent plane crash that killed almost an entire KHL team (one that featured a number of recognizable names for NHL fans) have kept the sport in the limelight for all the wrong reasons. This unprecedented summer of sadness is difficult for players, coaches and fans to deal with (illustrated beautifully in a piece by Jason Hitelman) and has raised a number of questions from fans and non-fans alike.
The fact that Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak all played enforcer roles has caused some to ponder whether or not fighting in hockey is connected, directly or indirectly, to personal instability in the form of drug abuse or depression.
While jumping to this conclusion is a dramatic step, the NHL has a responsibility to ask questions about these deaths and remain ahead of the curve in offering solutions to players who face personal demons. The league has taken greater strides than other sports when it comes to protecting players physically through strict rules against headshots in the last few years; this season, Bettman and Co. have an opportunity to set an example in sports on how to protect players mentally and emotionally.
Continued Success of Storied Franchises
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When a team in a new, non-traditional market wins a championship, that city shows a sudden, usually temporary interest in hockey. When a franchise with a rich history wins a championship, the sport may not necessarily gain new fans, but interest is reignited in millions of old fans.
After a streak that saw championships won by the Lightning, Hurricanes and Ducks, hockey has seen three Original Six teams win Stanley Cups and the six teams to compete in the last for Finals have all been from rich, traditional hockey backgrounds.
This season will likely be a continuation of this trend, and as the sport grows, new fans will be exposed to the history associated with many different big teams: the tradition of excellence in Detroit, the agonizing passion in Vancouver, the grit and intimidation of Philadelphia and even a possible re-emergence of the Maple Leafs to finally reward the unbreakable commitment of Toronto’s fans.
Like it or not, the success of the Blackhawks, Rangers and Blues will do more for the sport than anything the Predators, Lightning and Kings can muster.
Potential NBA Lockout
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The NHL took a heavy hit in 2004-05 when the season was canceled due to a lockout resulting from labor disputes. Since the sport returned, the league and players alike have been hard at work rebuilding the brand and reigniting interest in the game.
No good sports fan likes to see a league go through what hockey dealt with seven years ago, but the NBA’s own labor issue could provide an opportunity for hockey to take a great leap forward. With basketball’s preseason getting closer and closer, the reality of a lockout has become very real.
If the NBA season is shortened or canceled, hockey will have the opportunity to appeal to sports fans that get hungry for a competitive, fast-paced sport in the colder months. That’s not to say that basketball fans would naturally transition to hockey, but the United States is filled with sports-loving viewers whose interest can be piqued merely by exposure.
Given the NHL’s new commitment to exposure, capped by a big contract with NBC and the more widespread availability of the VS Network, 2011-12 could be the season that hockey stops being the sport that gets snickered at around the water cooler and starts becoming a more popular game in America.