By: Chris Albert
Wojtek Wolski was seventeen years old when he became Colorado’s first round draft pick in 2004. Expectations were high for the big left wing from Zabrze, Poland. After several successful seasons in the minors, Wolski played his first full season for Colorado in 2006-2007 recording twenty two goals and 50 points; impressive numbers for any rookie season. Fast forward to February 2, 2012 and a mere five years after making his debut, Wolski has cleared waivers and been demoted to the New York Rangers minor league team. What happened since his debut six years ago? What about Wolski?
The problem regarding Wolski, and the rest of the hockey for that matter, is one of notoriety. Yes, the NHL is the fourth largest sport in US so it must deal with the problems that come with it (lack of coverage, especially by ESPN), but this problem and the problem that faces players like Wolski everywhere is one created entirely by the NHL itself and it is due to the NHL’s failure to increase the coverage of the game.
After the lockout in 2004, the NHL realized that it had to make some changes. These changes appeared not just in the way the game was played, but also in the way the game was marketed to its fans. ESPN and the NHL went their separate ways and the NHL had to make the best of that decision. The NHL realized that like any other professional sports league, hockey was built on its stars. Therefore, the NHL executives decided that hockey needed a couple of big names that they could use to introduce fans to the new and improved league. In Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin they found their superstars and, since their rookie year in 2005-2006, the two have lived up to their billing. This marketing approach has ushered in a whole new generation of fans, but unless the league is content with the status quo and is satisfied with stagnation, it must change. This approach is creating problems for the NHL both now and in the future.
First, by focusing on a few players, the NHL is preventing the casual fan or new fan from exposure to players from around the league. This is especially true of the Western Conference where stars like Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar, San Jose’s Joe Thornton, Nashville’s Shea Webber and Pekka Rinne, Calgary’s Jerome Iginla, Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, and the Sedin twins from Vancouver go largely unnoticed on a nightly basis. Commissioner Gary Bettman has fought tooth and nail on his Southern Expansion Experiment (placing hockey teams in southern states to increase viewer ship across the country), but how often do we see Dallas Star’s Loui Erikkson and Jamie Benn or Phoenix’s Shane Doan and Radim Vrbata? One of the best lines, and stories for that matter, has been the Kris Versteeg, Thomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss line for the Florida Panthers, but they rarely appear on any NHL commercial or news segment. How can Bettman and the rest of the NHL expect the experiment to work if no one knows the players who play for southern teams? These players are or will become stars, but their chances of being noticed are low so long as the NHL continues its marketing process and so long as they play for teams in the Western Conference or other nontraditional hockey markets. While this phenomenon is especially prevalent in the Western Conference, it also exists with players from the Eastern Conference. So how exactly does this phenomenon affect the casual or new fan?
Let’s take a casual hockey fan from Colorado, Bill, who has only been exposed to hockey through the few games he’s watched, some advertisements he’s seen, and the rare highlights that ESPN chooses to show in their daily Top Ten Plays. Bill wants to buy tickets to a Colorado Avalanche game and his choices to buy tickets to see the Avalanche play the Washington Capitals or the Nashville Predators. Well barring any extenuating circumstances, it should come as no surprise that Bill buys tickets for the Capitals game. Is that because the Capitals are one of the hottest and most exciting teams in hockey today or because Ovechkin is having another superstar year, racking up points and goals the way he has in the past? The answer to that question is a resounding no. In fact, while Nashville appears to be a lock for the playoffs and is pushing for a division title in the incredibly competitive Central division, Washington is currently battling with Florida for the Southeastern Division title. This year, the Southeastern Conference is the worst division in hockey and based on points alone, Washington would not be in the playoffs. The reality here is that the Capitals are having a down year; two of their stars are hurt, others aren’t playing well and Ovechkin is having yet another pedestrian year. Contrastingly, Nashville is led by the outstanding play of its top two defensemen, Shea Webber and Ryan Sutter, and their goalie, Pekka Rinne. Each is arguably having a more significant and successful year than Ovechkin or anyone else for the Capitals. Furthermore, Nashville has scored more goals and has a better plus/minus. Unfortunately, Bill is still going to be buying a ticket for the Capitals game because the NHL has failed to motivate him to do otherwise. Casual fans want to go to games to watch their team, but in watching games, they want to watch the superstars. They want to see hockey played at its finest, by its most exciting players and therein lies the problem; aside from those few stars the NHL cares to showcase, casual fans do not know many of the league’s most exciting players.
If the NHL continues to market its sport in the way it does, by focusing on two main players and keeping the rest in the periphery, it will stymie the growth of the sport. Instead of getting fans excited to watch their team play whoever comes to town, fans will continue to only be interested for the big names. This in turn will hurt the NHL in the place it hurts the most, the wallet. The NHL needs growth and that growth can only be obtained by introducing the casual fan to hockey. If casual fans continue to be interested in only the big names and great teams, ticket sales will never increase, nor will television ratings, which in turn means that advertisers will invest less of their time and their clients money in NHL events. There is a huge market out there and the NHL needs to open itself up to it.
So what about Wolski? During the 2009-2010 season, Wolski was traded from Colorado to Phoenix where he finished the season with a career high twenty four goals and sixty five points. Wolski had been having a fairly pedestrian career in Colorado, but after being traded Wolski was a point per game player who helped lead the hapless Coyotes to their first playoff appearance since the 2002 season; A feel good story right? This garnered about as much attention as my intramural football team losing its second consecutive championship and for the NHL that’s a problem. Of course, the NHL cannot cover every career in detail, nor can it market one player for having one good year, but the lack of information and coverage provided by the NHL and its inability to grasp onto a good story is damaging.
Over the years, sports fans have been exposed to countless stories of athletes from other sports that have overcome adversity in their own lives; Michael Turner, Tom Brady and Jimmy Graham to name a few. Fans of any sport can relate to a good story; they can relate to the players, not just the stars. So why can’t the NHL provide fans with a broader view of its league by introducing them to more players and those player’s stories? Sure we can blame networks like ESPN for failing to provide coverage of the hockey, but isn’t this a much deeper problem, a problem for which the NHL must take responsibility?