Lockout Opportunity: Back to the Future

The NHL has entered its third lockout in as many tries under Mr. Bettman’s commissionership. The fissure, and therefore the dominating storyline, centers on distribution of hockey related revenue, contract term limits, and escrow. In short, finances. The blame game is also taking up a healthy amount of copy.

However, unlike the previous lockout where reforms were made not just to the distribution of finances, but to the actual on-ice product, there has been little discussion on ways to improve the same this go-around. If crisis creates opportunity then it makes sense for the League to look beyond the dollars and cents (millions of each) to other core problems that could be addressed.

Despite the myriad of “fixes” that were implemented to improve the on-ice product following the most recent lockout, some items were left on the table or didn’t even make it out of the oven. One such idea was an attempt to re-infuse the NHL with the heritage of hockey.

When Mr. Bettman was handed the reins of the league it was with a mandate to market the NHL to new U.S. markets and make the game more enticing to U.S. television networks. It was a foolish, nearsighted mandate that prompted even more foolish, nearsighted changes.

In particular, Mr. Bettman replaced traditional divisional and conference names with more geographically suited references. It was an admitted attempt to mimic NBA strategies and he wagered that non-traditional hockey fans would have a better understanding of the game if the more geographically discernible names were used.

Aside from being an insulting underestimation of human intelligence, it severed a unique connection between past and present that separated hockey from other major sports in favor of this new, supposedly more fan friendly nomenclature.

Mr. Bettman made two exceptional miscalculations, one emotional and one business. First, like a cable company only offering discounted rates to new subscribers he failed to consider the traditional, established fan base who wondered why he was effectively discounting “our” game for prospective fans in Florida. Second, instead of understanding and marketing the unique heritage of hockey – a game that celebrated its history by ensuring it always remained a living part of its current form – Mr. Bettman stored it away in the janitor’s closet next to the urinal pucks.

Gone were the Adams, Patrick, Norris, and Smythe divisions and The Prince of Wales and Campbell Conferences.  In their place were geographically correct substitutes with no identity beyond a shallow point of reference. Gone were teams in traditional markets in favor of expansion to non-traditional markets where it didn’t even snow in winter.

The Prince of Wales Trophy

Did more people watch hockey because they could geographically associate a division? Of course not. Look at the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys are in the NFC East. Does that mean people don’t watch the NFL because it’s not geographically accurate?

Mr. Bettman took what was a wholly unique game with a singular identity that at every opportunity paid homage to its rich past and failed to see it was a strength not a weakness. In place of this heritage we were given generics like the Northeast Division or the Western Conference all in an attempt to make the game more marketable like the National Basketb… I can’t even finish that sentence.

Ironically, it had the opposite effect of its intended purpose – it made the game less marketable. The compelling nature of hockey is that it is unlike any other sport. Just start with the simple fact it is played on skates. None of the other three major sports requires its athletes to first learn an alternate form of mobility. It should have been obvious that trying to model hockey on anything other than its own model would be a mistake.

The hard lesson hopefully learned is that geographical association and other attempts to make the game more generic are not more important than identity – particularly in marketing. The League should see hockey’s unique identity as the strength that it is and the marketing opportunity it provides. Sports and sport teams are a retreat for fans where they belong to something bigger than themselves – a passionate collective sharing a singular identity. From one team to the next and one sport to another, fans like feeling different while simultaneously feeling included. In no other sport is that more embraced than hockey.

But Mr. Bettman dispassionately undid hockey’s heritage under the misguided notion it would make the game more marketable to non-traditional markets. It’s time to go back to the future. The opportunity exists in this lockout for hockey’s heritage to once again be front and center where it should be. Fans would embrace it for the added identity it would provide and the league would be stronger for it.