It is difficult to say whether or not the popularity of hockey is growing in the states. In the last few years, the NHL has often enjoyed higher ratings and more sold out arenas than leagues that are considered to be widely popular, such as the NBA. However, some argue that hockey has a long way to go. One major criticism is that the barriers to entry are high, as would-be players have to either be born in a place with frozen lakes or ponds, or be able to access the equipment and ice time necessary to grow as a player. These physical and economic barriers are undoubtedly much higher than those presented with the average sport. Additionally, while many sports feature teams across most major markets in America, the NHL features significant holes in their markets. For example, the Northwestern corner of the states continues to have no hockey team at all. This may offer a reason why the NHL has an easier time filling seats in America, simply because there are less seats to fill in the states due to the heavy concentration of Canadian teams.
The NHL excels in some aspects, but are far behind related sports like football as far as positioning themselves with respect to concussions and injuries. Furthermore, teams with hockey-rich cultures are losing clout in the league, while teams residing in California, Florida, and Texas (where hockey is not close to being the state’s most beloved sport) are excelling. That being said, it is undeniably true that there are some things that the NHL really does right, especially in comparison to other professional leagues. The inclusion of a streaming service with which fans can stream out of market season games is a great development in increasing the reach of the game and the involvement of fans.
These are problems from a viewer’s perspective surrounding the NHL, and not necessarily those that pertain to the organization itself:
15 East Coast Bias
The east coast bias is something just about every sport has to reckon with. The short version of the story is that many of the country’s major media centers are located on the East Coast (New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, etc...). The result is that it seems to take more for a team playing in the Western Conference to get noticed or to achieve headlines. This all shouldn’t be too surprising- it makes sense that major news outlets would want to report on big city teams. The problem here, is less about the strength of coverage of the east coast teams, and perhaps instead about the vacuum of hockey coverage in the western half of the United States.
Western Conference coverage relies on local papers, few with the reach or power to influence popular conceptions of hockey culture. Another effect that comes from the bias is that teams around these major markets tend to be under more of a microscope, accelerating changes that are made with the teams in those areas.
14 Fluctuation of the Canadian Dollar
The slide of the Canadian dollar is a burden shouldered equally by players and the teams they represent. While it affects all professional sports leagues, it has more of an impact on leagues like the NHL, in which a disproportionate amount of the teams come from Canada. When the Canadian dollar lowers in value, league revenue lowers, and in turn the salary cap lowers as well. This causes players to be more concerned about the value of their salaries and teams to be more hesitant in taking on players or trades that cause significant cap hits.
League commissioner Gary Bettman responded to the issue “It’s a fact of life, it’s something we all deal with”, downplaying the issue, while stating he still expects to bring in record revenue. The salary cap crunch will affect some of the league’s best teams, but may be positive in the sense that it evens the playing field (or ice).
13 Outdoor Games
Another facet of the NHL a lot of fans take issue with is the allocation of outdoor games. Some teams, such as the Chicago Blackhawks, are included in a disproportionate amount of games due to their history with teams that host the games. Many teams in the league have not yet been able to host these coveted games. There are legitimate reasons for some teams not to be able to host, the most convincing of these being climate. As a result of this, climate change has become a concern for the future of outdoor games, a beloved display of the sport. Admittedly, the NHL has done a decent job planning the games for the 2016-17 season, scheduling games in Toronto, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Winnipeg. With the exception of St. Louis, which is a declining hockey market with a dwindling fan base, these are all great hockey cultures with a rich history in the sport.
For those who were hibernating all year, or at the very least not watching hockey, the NHL opted to change the overtime format to 3-on-3 for five minutes followed by a shootout. What seemed true in theory proved to be correct in practice, as star player’s skills were given a chance to shine with more space to work on the ice. This new format led to many teams attempting to adopt a more defensively conscious style of playing offense, since counter attacks and odd-man rushes became more prevalent. It was a format many teams were forced to adjust to and learn during the season. Goalies became much more of a factor, as they figured out they could lead a player up the ice with a long pass to lead to a breakaway.
The number of shootouts has lowered, which is regarded as a good thing by most hockey fans. However, one problem with the format is teams that have a heavier concentration of star players become more likely to prevail, and teams that do not have that (but instead have more depth) generally experience more troubles in overtime.
One story in the NHL this year that has received a lot of coverage is the lack of scoring in the NHL. Defensively minded teams, especially during the growth in prominence and strength of the Western Conference, have become more numerous and capable of creating these kinds of games. Many solutions have been proposed, such as more space on the ice, bigger nets, calling more penalties and limiting goalie pads. Next year, the NHL will be adopting the option of limiting goalie pads. It is a controversial subject, and the reasoning goes something like this; goalies in the NHL used to be shorter. Over the years, teams have unsurprisingly been gravitating towards goalies who take up most of the net. Now that goalies take up more space, it is more difficult to score.
There have also been differences in advantages of goaltender equipment noted by goalies themselves. Cory Schneider comments: "Again, we want to make sure guys are protected, that’s No. 1, that’s what we talked about. They’re making things out of Kevlar now and reinforced plastic. I get the odd stinger or bruises but I’m not sure how many games have been lost to puck-related injuries from goalies. Safety is paramount but I think we have the materials now where we can create smaller, lighter and faster and guys can still be protected."
10 Video Review and Challenges
There seems to be much more good than bad that has come out of the inclusion and advancement of the use of video reviews and challenges in the NHL. It is one of those things in sports where if the goal scored by one’s home team is reviewed and ruled a non-goal, video review is awful, but if the away team’s goal is overruled, it feels like a great idea. It seems like a difficult argument to make that violations shouldn’t be called, or that the reviewers get the call wrong enough to warrant calling the reviews or challenges into question– the margin of error is quite slim. However, the offside coach’s challenge does appear to present a bit of a conundrum, and perhaps it would be better if that option was let go. Some fans noticed this year when teams would quickly review a play on a tablet to check if any player may have been offside in order to try to overturn a goal. At the very least, it would make sense to introduce a clause that requires a causal relationship between the offside player and the goal that was scored.
9 Goalie Trapezoid
Introduced to the league in 2005, the goalie trapezoid rule is one of the more bizarre rules in hockey, especially when one considers that when a team’s goalie plays outside of the trapezoid, the advantage that it gives a team in 2016 is quite negligible. In theory, the advantage of the rule is that restricting the area that a goalie can play inside makes it easier for the offense to keep possession, since goalies are no longer able to skate to the corners to handle the puck. If anything, some feel that the net is more vulnerable and the offending goalie is putting his team at a disadvantage. Others reiterate the idea that goalies should be able to use their stick-handling skills in this way and contribute to offense, since the speed of the game is no longer as much of a concern as it was ten years ago.
8 Outspoken Analysts
It’s no secret that some of the faces of hockey in the league have voices that some find grating. The loudest of these fans reside in Canada and are not particularly pleased with the way that Hockey Night in Canada has been taken over. One of the most maligned voices in the sport comes from analyst Mike Milbury. To be sure, Milbury knows hockey, but unfortunately he has garnered an unpopular reputation for being reactionary and off-putting in his analysis (some of which tends towards the extreme). He recently came under fire for saying, "If you're going to slash him, break a bone. If you're going to hit him from behind, give him a slight concussion".
This was likely intended to be a joke, but it does stand as a good representation of what some find off-putting about his style of analysis. While some may like his descriptions of one team “peeing” on another, others find him more difficult and distracting to watch. It is possible that networks see him as someone who can hold the stage well, and that he introduces a unpredictable, wild-card element that makes analysis more bearable.
7 Drop in Penalties
Naturally, the NHL has become less physical, with brawls or players simply dropping gloves happening less now than in the past. The ‘goon’ stereotype is less and less common. Even though the 2015-16 playoffs appeared to make the case that big, physical teams still have an edge in the league. In the 2014-15 season, the average amount of penalties in a game was 6.1, compared to 11.7 in 2005-06. There are many reasons for these changes. Players are under pressure from coaches not to take bad penalties, and learn throughout the course of their career how to approach plays in ways where they don’t end up in the box. Still, this doesn’t mean that we don’t see players playing dirty, it is just that they know what officials are likely to call and that they base their behavior around their knowledge of what falls in the eyesight of referees. Maybe it's just one of the ways the game evolves.
6 Poor Positioning Towards Stories that Draw League Interest
The John Scott story of the 2015-16 season perfectly exemplifies the NHL’s inability to capitalize off of stories that draw would-be fans into watching hockey. For those who aren’t familiar with, John Scott is an enforcer-type player who is mostly (and barely) used for his physical presence on the ice. The NHL changed the All-Star game format to 3-on-3 and opened the nomination process up to the internet. As a joke, fans voted John Scott and he earned a fan nomination by the grace of the internet. Instead of accepting Scott’s inclusion into the All-Star game as a consequence, the NHL positioned themselves as “the bad guys”, attempting to push Scott into the minors to make him ineligible for the game.
This was met with fan outrage until the NHL decided to let him play in the game. Aided by the help of teammates, he actually scored two goals and won the MVP award for the game. So despite the league's best efforts to present it, the story actually became a great story for the NHL anyway- but it still begs the question, "why not be the good guys who let it happen?".
5 Compelling National Interest (Canada)
The lack of Canadian teams making the playoffs this year presents a big problem for the NHL. Canada is the country where hockey lives and breathes, where many NHL stars are raised and groomed, and most importantly for the state of the NHL, a major market for hockey. From April 14th to the 17th, ratings for the playoffs were down 61% from last year’s metric in the country that is home to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Montreal Canadiens, and the Vancover Canucks. “Even with no Canadian teams, those are shockingly low numbers,” said one media expert. “There were regular season games on TSN two years ago that did better than that.”
So who is to blame, the monopoly of media coverage in Canada or the weaker-than-usual teams? Likely both are issues that need to be addressed.
4 Tanking Problem
Not many would disagree that the NHL has had a history with the tanking problem. For those who are unfamiliar, the draft lottery odds go to the worst performing teams. Unintentionally, there is then an incentive for teams who have already been eliminated from playoff contention to perform as poorly as possible so that they can become eligible for the best draft picks. Usually the tanking strategies come more from management than they do from the players themselves, as less effective lines are chosen and young promising players are stored in the minors.
One solution, known as the Gold Plan, would be that teams eliminated from playoff contention start earning points that go towards draft lottery odds, so that the highest performing teams after playoff elimination are rewarded and the incentive to tank is removed. The teams having terrible seasons would still, in this case, have a better chance due to the ability to play more games after being eliminated.
3 Handling Misconduct in a respectable manner
Admittedly, sexual assault involving players is a tough issue to handle well. On one hand, it doesn’t seem right to hide away a star player because of allegations that may not be true. However, if the allegations are true, the league can come out of the situation looking poorly and expose themselves to more than criticism. There are obviously motives for false allegations involving star players, but the NHL doesn’t really have a place acting as judge and jury. One of the most recent examples of this was the NHL’s declaration that the rape allegations against Patrick Kane were “unfounded”. The language used here by the NHL implies more than what the evidence of the case presents. The real story is that the woman who brought the charges forth stopped cooperating with the prosecution due to high levels of stress associated with the case.
Though it is true that there were inconsistencies with her report, it does not mean that the claims were “unfounded”, as the NHL suggested while likely turning away some fans of the league.
Concussions have been a topic of debate and criticism in the NFL in the past couple of years, and it seems this debate will be extended into the NHL, much to the dismay of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “It’s fairly clear that playing hockey isn’t the same as football,” Bettman said, “And as we’ve said all along, we’re not going to get into a public debate on this.” It does not seem like this is going to go away. Former players are suing the NHL, using the argument that brain trauma may have been exacerbated by playing conditions (needing to play to keep a spot on a roster).
The prevailing idea in the sport is that enforcers, players with penchants for fighting and checking players against the boards and falling against the ice surface, have a high risk for traumatic brain injury. The implications of the lawsuit is that if the NHL starts to see this a problem, more credence and attention will be given to in-game head trauma, so as to prevent the culpability of the league in the eyes of the current players and the courts.
1 Coverage at College Level
In winter of every year, many North American families watch bowl games in support of their favored college football teams. The same is true in basketball culture, in which many who do not even watch the season tune in for the elimination tournament known as March Madness. Even college baseball gets more air time on networks than college hockey, so what gives? One issue facing college hockey is that the teams are heavily concentrated in specific regions of the states. With the exception of some northern states, college hockey is predominately a northeastern activity. Another is that college hockey is almost never covered by major networks.
If it is too difficult to gain access to watching college hockey, it would make sense that it is extremely unpopular to watch. It is an interesting phenomenon, especially considering the pressures on the NHL to produce a league with higher scoring. College hockey generally creates higher goal tallies than its big league counterpart, and is usually just as exciting.