Does the NHL Want Connor McDavid as the Face of the League?

When Sidney Crosby was set to enter the league, he had NHL executives licking their chops. A season-long lock-out surely alienated the casual fan, and having a bonafide superstar to promote was just what the doctor ordered. The draft lottery saw the Pittsburgh Penguins as the lucky recipients of Crosby’s services, although some believe it was rigged. (It wasn’t. Yes, the Penguins needed saving, but imagine the Anaheim Ducks getting Crosby? A non-traditional market that actually likes hockey having the face the of the league? Right up Gary Bettman’s alley if you ask me). But I digress.

Sidney Crosby at the 2016 Stanley Cup Parade
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Crosby was the perfect marketable player. He was a clean-cut kid, totally dedicated to his craft, and had the skills to back it up. In a time where the NHL needed a re-boot, and a new image, Sid the Kid fit the bill. Pittsburgh is a great hockey city, but it’s not a New York, a Chicago or a Boston. Crosby’s star power, fan appeal, and talent were the reasons he became the league’s golden boy. Him being in Pittsburgh helped that market, there’s no question, but it wouldn’t have mattered what city he played for. The NHL threw everything into promoting him, so much so that it caused a lot of fans to eventually resent him.

Who is the Next Face of the NHL?

Unlike basketball, where individual players tend to get the spotlight, hockey is the ultimate team game, where the logo on the front of the jersey means fan more than the name on the back. The NHL has been criticized for not promoting its stars nearly enough (probably by the same people who got annoyed hearing about Crosby, but anyway). Over the past few seasons there have been a number of marketable stars, rather than just one headliner. Or at least, fans want it to be that way. But is having one “face of the league” a la LeBron James a better marketing ploy?

Ovechkin vs. Crosby was one of the most marketable “rivalries” even though it was mainly fabricated by the media. I don’t know what’s ultimately better for the growth of the game, but if there is a truly generational superstar, he deserves the attention. Enter Connor McDavid. Labelled the “next Crosby”, McDavid is widely hailed as that one of a kind star, who will transcend the game of hockey. Now obviously we have no way of knowing how McDavid will pan out, but if the prognostications are correct, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

McDavid is similar to Crosby. He’s a good Canadian kid, polite in interviews, non-controversial. A good example for children aspiring to play the game. He has all the skill, all the drive and all the tools to be the perfect NHL front-man. The question is, will he get the chance to be as a member of the Edmonton Oilers? An article surfaced from The Hockey News discussing McDavid’s star power, and if the Oilers failures will ultimately hold him back. It feels like that’s actually true, because an NBC executive had this to say about Edmonton:  “As they get more competitive, they’ll see more airtime.”

Promoting McDavid is the NHL’s Job

I understand NBC is all about money. I also understand it’s an American channel, geared towards American fans. The assumption is that they don’t care about Canadian teams, especially those that aren’t competitive. (Which is all of them at the moment). As a fan, I would want to see my favorite team play. I also want to see relevant teams play. But I always tune in to see the best players play. As a hockey fan, I want to see all of the best players, not the same ones over and over again. What happens if the Oilers are bad again this season, does that mean NBC will shut them out again next year?

It sounds like an excuse to me. The Toronto Maple Leafs drafted American-born Auston Matthews, another apparent star in waiting. Other than their Centennial Classic game, the Leafs won’t be on NBC’s schedule, despite possessing an extremely marketable American star. I understand the Leafs are terrible. I understand NBC caters to the big markets. But by depriving viewers of exciting young players such as McDavid and Matthews, will they ever really learn to appreciate the game?

 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The NHL did everything they could in terms of marketing Sidney Crosby. (If he played for a Canadian team, would they have done the same?) Again, I understand NBC broadcasts to American cities, but if the league is serious about promoting its stars, it sure doesn’t seem that way by looking at the schedule of one of their major partners. The Boston Bruins appear 17 times on NBC this season. They haven’t made the playoffs the last two seasons. Shouldn’t they have to play their way on, like the Oilers have to?

NHL Fans Deserve to See McDavid

It’s okay to admit that you don’t want Canadian teams on NBC. Blaming the individual markets such as Edmonton? That’s less okay. No offence, but do non-Bruins fans want to see all those Boston games? How about non-Flyer fans who have to see Philly play 20 times? Real hockey fans want to see McDavid play, and they should get that chance. I know the Detroit Red Wings make the playoffs every season, but which of their players are you looking forward to seeing 13 times this season?

I know NBC picks the most popular regional teams, hence the reason why the Chicago Blackhawks are on 21 times. But in terms of promoting stars and young talent, well that seems to be the least of their worries. The Nashville Predators are a team on the rise, and now have one of the most exciting players in the league in P.K Subban, and they’re only on twice. In terms of what’s on NBC, that likely won’t change anytime soon, because it’s all about the dollars. But the strength of the NHL should be their players.

Will McDavid ever get the attention he deserves in Edmonton? The comparison to Gretzky and his move to Los Angeles isn’t fair in this day and age, because with social media, things are a lot different now. (McDavid certainly gets all the press here in Canada). At the end of the day, McDavid has to earn the attention, and live up to the hype. And maybe once that happens, the NHL will really take notice. But blaming Edmonton? The Oilers aren’t holding him back. If the NHL wants to showcase him, they will. Bettman always gets what he wants.