With the NBA season's lockout settled, the NHL will now have additional competition for popularity.
Explaining the sport's greatness to a nonfan can be an overwhelming task. The only way to convert new fans to the NHL is showing them the great product that is hockey.
The act of drawing fans to games can be made simpler with a few changes.
After the 2005 lockout, commissioner Gary Bettman attempted to improve the NHL's style of hockey by introducing various rule changes.
The new style of play saw penalties called with much more ease; it is now next to impossible to slash, hook or hold a player in even the minimalistic sense without being sent to the box for a two-minute penalty.
The result of this is supposed to be increased offensive opportunities. The drawback is that giving out soft penalties over and over again gives the referees the power to control a game.
Look at the box score (via NHL.com) from a November 3rd game between the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers. From 12:21 to the end of the period, there was only 1:39 of full-strength, five-on-five hockey.
Whether or not these penalties were warranted is debatable, but the constant stoppages and power-play situations detract from the flow of the game.
New viewers would be turned away from the game if they found out the men in white stripes can determine a game's outcome so heavily.
If all the penalties are definite penalties which must be called, the refs have no choice. However, there are times when a game would be better off if they just put the whistles away.
Another drawback from soft penalty calls is that players are more likely to try selling them.
Not many on-ice actions are more annoying to an honest hockey player than being put in the penalty box when an opposing player dives.
The NHL should not be promoting the act of diving.
By calling penalties based on whether or not a player falls down, reaches up to his face or otherwise pretends to be injured, the referees are encouraging players to fake it.
Nobody wants to see that, especially not people who are thinking of watching hockey, a sport with such an extensively tough reputation.
Last season the Boston Bruins showed the Vancouver Canucks that playing hard-nosed hockey was a better way to win than flopping around on the ice.
With the recent alterations to the head shot and boarding rules, referees now have a hair-like trigger on making penalty calls for big hits.
Players are put in the penalty box for delivering hard hits simply because they look bad.
Zac Rinaldo, the NHL's penalty minutes leader this season, had that happen to him in a game against the Florida Panthers earlier this season. He delivered a great clean hit to Tomas Kopecky, but was put in the box.
This is no way to promote hockey's physicality.
Players like Scott Stevens were celebrated for delivering great hits. Fans like seeing destructive action on the ice.
Last February when the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders had an all-out brawl, some worried about whether or not it was good for the game.
Here are the facts; games like that happen very rarely.
There are usually only a handful of NHL games each season that get more than two or three fights. That was the most brutal hockey game since the Ottawa Senators and Philadelphia Flyers set the single game record in 2004.
Here's another fact.
The NHL's highlight video of that February 11th game, showing goals and saves (no fights), had less than 3,000 views on YouTube at the time of this slideshow's publication.
HockeyFights.com posted a video on YouTube of the game's first line brawl. It has more than 450,000 views.
The second line brawl's video, featured in this slide, also has more than 450,000 views.
Coincidentally, the entire arena can be seen and heard standing and cheering during the fights.
Anyone who worries about the NHL's image being tarnished by fights should cease doing so immediately.
People like to see fights. The NHL should not try to hide them.
Continuing with the last slide's call to let the fights go, the NHL should celebrate the bouts as well.
Fans are understandably keen to watch a fight that features any superstar; this is probably why NHL.com promoted Evgeni Malkin's skirmish earlier this season.
This slide's video shows a fight between Matt Niskanen and superstar Steven Stamkos broken up before it can begin.
The referees likely break up the fight with the best interests of Stamkos in mind; they don't want a talented goal scorer injuring himself throwing punches.
However, think about how this headline looks to a casual sports fan: NHL Scoring Champ Steven Stamkos Gets into a Fight.
Non-hockey fans would be attracted to watch Stamkos play. Not only would they be drawn by the young forward's scoring abilities but would admire his willingness to fight as well.
There's a reason physical players often become fan favorites. Think of Rick Tocchet in Philadephia, Wendel Clark in Toronto, Darren McCarty in Detroit, Shawn Thornton in Boston...the list goes on and on.
Stamkos is not a power forward or grinder like any of those players, but people like knowing a player on their team is willing to do whatever it takes to help their hockey team.
That dedication is an admirable asset which should be shown to non-hockey fans.
One of the reasons Darren McCarty became a fan favorite in Detroit was giving a beating to Claude Lemieux in the midst of an incredible rivalry.
During the late-1990s and 2000s the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche were both Stanley Cup-contending powerhouses. This, combined with the physical hatred the teams shared for each other resulted in one of the most easy-to-market matchups ever.
While seeing two powerhouses is an inviting aspect, giving fans something to look forward to is even better.
When teams are angry with each other, they play harder. It results in a more intense and energetic game. That is the type of hockey that will draw and keep fans.
For example, look at the upcoming Winter Classic between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. Aside from the competition between the two clubs in relation to playoff contention, the teams share a legitimate hatred.
After a feisty preseason game highlighted by multiple fights and Sean Avery turtling against Wayne Simmonds, the teams continued in their first regular season meeting.
On November 26th there were two fights in a hit- and scrum-filled game.
It is almost guaranteed that not only will the game be close and exciting, but potentially rough as well. The NHL needs to take advantage of this natural energy and promote the game, fights included.
Once it's there, they need to be wise in letting the physicality go.
Last season after that brawl-filled Penguins-Islanders game, both teams were seemingly given their own set of rules for the next meeting. On April 8, 2011, there were two fights.
The first, between Eric Godard and Trevor Gillies, resulted in not only five-minute majors, but 10-minute misconduct penalties also. The fight started when the Islanders were down 1-0. Gillies was likely looking to fire up his team, so the two squared off and dropped their gloves.
Though neither player did anything beyond what usually happens during a fight, both were given 10-minute misconduct penalties.
After the second fight, Zenon Konopka was given a two-minute instigator penalty and 10-minute misconduct in addition to his five for fighting Arron Asham. Konopka did nothing out of the ordinary (he didn't even deserve an instigator penalty); it was just the NHL attempting to curb the intensity that hockey game had the potential to bring.
Islanders fans had little to look forward to at that point in the season. The team was bad and not going to make the playoffs. The glimmer of integrity the team could save was their "don't try to push us around" mentality.
The rivalry created interest, and fights put fans in the stands. The NHL responded by stopping the fights, a move which would only help to empty the arena.
On November 22, the NHL Network television station seemed to think that Sidney Crosby is the only hockey player in the history of the world that anyone should ever care about. Roughly 10 minutes of the 60-minute "NHL on the Fly" show was about one player.
Though the return of one of hockey's best forwards is certainly a reason to be excited, the NHL needs to stop pretending he's hockey's crown jewel.
He's been showcased in two Winter Classics already and is often the talk of nationally televised games.
During the 2010 Winter Olympics, Crosby was playing in a game between Canada and Russia.
Also playing that day were Johnathan Toews, Jarome Iginla, Dany Heatley, Ryan Getzlaf, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Semin and Ilya Kovalchuk.
However, NBC marketed the matchup as "Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin."
New fans need to understand that there are many great players to watch. Watch a television spot for an upcoming Penguins game; it is almost a guarantee that Crosby will be highlighted in the commercial. The same cannot be said for the rest of the game's elite.
As popular as Crosby is in the city of Pittsburgh, he's despised in many places as well. Promoting one player so heavily is not a good marketing strategy when that player is disliked so widely.
A great result of hockey's dynamic style is the variety of playing types the stars are capable of.
A small, speedy player like Martin St. Louis can excel in the NHL, just as a large, strong player like Zdeno Chara can.
Jarome Iginla can make it as a rough, gritty power forward. Pavel Datsyuk can make it to the net by dancing around everyone.
Regardless of what type of action a new fan wants to see, the NHL can offer it.
On any given night the league has some form of a superstar on display. The NHL needs to showcase that every style of play is capable of success and stardom.
One month ago, Frank Seravalli of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote a great article that asked, "Can Wayne Simmonds change how we think about hockey?"
Seravalli pointed out the lack of black hockey fans and raised points about how a player like Simmonds could drive interest in the African-American community.
Kevin Weekes, a former NHL goaltender who is African-American, said in Seravalli's article: "Kids don't just buy a pair of Air Jordans anymore and join a basketball team. It's time for hockey to expand its footprint in the same way, to transcend the similar barriers. There's no better conduit than a guy like Wayne."
It may be difficult for African-American fans to have interest in a sport where there are so few players of that race. It's easier for people to go where they will not stick out.
The NHL needs black stars. Young African-Americans need a role model who lets them know, "This is not just a white man's sport. You can play hockey too."
If young, black players like Simmonds, Mark Fraser, Evander Kane, Anthony Stewart, Chris Stewart, Theo Peckham and P.K. Subban can drive interest in the game from a new demographic, fan interest will expand.
When the lockout ended in 2005, Gary Bettman and the NHL signed an exclusive television deal with the Outdoor Life Network.
Seven years later, OLN is now Versus, which will be changing its name yet again to NBC Sports Network in 2012.
Think about the logic, though—a major North American sport returns from a season-canceling lockout, then signs an exclusive deal with the Outdoor Life Network?
This is after being featured on ESPN, the United States' leading sports network, for many years.
The issue with being covered exclusively on Versus is that it limits national coverage.
The MLB, for example, is shown on ESPN, Fox and TBS. ESPN will also cover games on ESPN2, and sometimes TNT (the other Turner station) will cover games. This means baseball can be seen on five different channels.
MLB does not rely on one partnership for national coverage.
The NHL does; aside from Versus, it is covered only on NBC.
If the NHL signed nonexclusive television deals instead, this could allow more national coverage, giving more fans an opportunity to watch hockey.
Walk into any bar or restaurant that features sporting events, ESPN will be on a television. It does not matter what game is on, or even if it's just SportsCenter.
ESPN is America's sports channel.
Even if the NHL can only find one game per week to be shown on ESPN, this will greatly increase national coverage in the U.S.
Currently, the station has no point in covering hockey. By promoting a sport it does not televise, it is promoting loss of viewers (and therefore, profits). This is why hockey highlights are shown so sparingly on SportsCenter.
If the NHL is shown on ESPN, SportsCenter would have a point in showing highlights. The network would be promoting its own product.
The more NHL on ESPN, the better it is for the growth of hockey interest.
The standard broadcasting crew of national hockey games currently consists of Mike Emerick on play-by-play, Eddie Olczyk on color commentary and Pierre McGuire providing additional ice-level commentary.
Emerick is a Hall-of-Fame announcer who does his job well enough, though some might have preferred the excitement that ESPN's play-by-play man Gary Thorne brought.
Regardless, Emerick's commentary is not an issue. The biggest problem with the current presentation is Olczyk and McGuire's negativity.
After a fight occurred in the November 9 game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning, Olczyk made a comment regarding players taking visors off before fights.
He said players should receive an extra penalty for doing so.
Experienced fighter and ESPN analyst Matt Barnaby said via Twitter, "Totally disagree with [Olczyk]," and former NHL enforcer Darren McCarty replied, "There should be a rule that only suggestions on fighting in hockey should be critiqued by those who actually did it."
Even fellow commentator Mike Millbury lost it during one of McGuire's critical rants.
When the NHL was covered by men such as Thorne and Bill Clement, it was pleasant and exciting to watch; nobody had to listen to constant complaints and criticism.
Thorne could make even a golfing tournament sound intense, whereas Clement's commentary was insightful and educational. This is a sharp contrast to the misinformed, creepy, negative presentation that fans are subject to today.
Nobody wants to watch a sport that the television announcers constantly criticize.
Prior to this season, the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, putting the Jets back in a hockey-crazy city that will follow the team with more dedication than any southern United States market could ever compare to.
Gary Bettman has led the expansion of the NHL into areas where hockey has failed and will continue to fail.
The Phoenix Coyotes have made the playoffs two consecutive seasons, but somehow fail to draw an average attendance above 13,000.
The Winnipeg Jets sold that many season tickets within 17 minutes of offering them to the general public. That franchise has not made the playoffs since Atlanta won 43 games in the 2006-07 season.
The fans in Canada do not need a winner—they just need hockey.
If the NHL wants more fans, it needs to stop selling its product in a market that fails. Bettman needs to put hockey where it is wanted.
With Winnipeg back, the next step is Quebec City. After that, perhaps Hamilton deserves a team.
Whatever it takes to get more fans to the games is what should be done.