In a League where the team always comes first, the NHL needs to take a page out of the NBA playbook and put players on center stage, specifically Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. The first go-round when Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin entered the League piqued interest and became the rivalry for hockey fans, but it didn’t push far enough past the fans of the sport. This is written with a decided American slant to how hockey is viewed, and if you go off of the ratings this past year, it isn’t being viewed like it should be in the States.
A year into the career of the number one and two selections of the 2015 NHL Draft one has to ask how much of an imprint on the sports scene have these two made? These are generational talents, but outside the hockey world, these two could walk down the street and not get noticed as the future of the NHL. When you have organization-changers like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird walk through the door, there better be people from outside your business circle taking notice.
The dynamic between these four athletes is strikingly familiar. McDavid, like Magic, is the flashy talent that you can’t take your eyes off because you might miss something spectacular. Eichel, like Bird, is the competitor that night in and night out you can’t give an inch against or he’ll make you pay. Both play in different regions of North America for teams that have passionate fan bases that identify with their team. Both bring a background that will have people gravitate to their personality. Now the NHL has to display these abilities past hockey fans to show the average sports fan that these players deserve nightly attention.
Admittedly, Magic and Bird is a heady comparison. They entered a League that had sagging television interest. The NBA Finals in the early 1980’s were on tape delay. With the star power of Magic and Bird, the NBA had two names everyone in the sports world knew. Yes, they had the benefit of playing in two major American cities — Buffalo and Edmonton are not Boston and LA. Today, though, that doesn’t matter because the world has gotten smaller and you can market a player in New Brunswick like you could if he was in New York. We have highlights on our phone whenever we want them, so the location of the team does not matter like it used to.
That’s where the NHL needs to step in and put these players directly in the line of sight of sports fans. Forget the big cities for television ratings and selling the players. Yes, playing for the two best teams in the League helped cement Magic and Bird on the marquee, that is an undeniable fact — and no, their teams did not play every year of the 1980’s for the title, it just felt like it.
The Oilers and Sabres look to be a long way from the Lakers versus Celtics dynasties but watching it build, seeing which one can get their team to the ultimate hockey prize is a story that can sell. Creating interest for players that are expected to be franchise changers, in turn, creates more interest for those teams and from the fans of the teams they are chasing. Hockey is a sport that has shown how the chosen one’s path to glory is one that we all want to take with them.
McDavid was sidetracked last year with an injury and Eichel had some adjustment to the NHL and there are no guarantees that these players will be icons of the game or win titles. What we did see was enough to believe all the scouts that called these two generational players. Yet, we didn’t see them enough.
Two Simple Things
- Put Connor McDavid on US television in prime time. He was a point a game player last year and fans need to see that.
- When Buffalo and Edmonton play it must be aired nationally in Canada and the US. (Of course, neither match-up will be)
I’m not totally in favor of marketing players over teams and we have seen it backfire. Done right, it can spark interest but the League has to push when these players are on the ice. The NBA model has made games between a team in Oakland and Oklahoma City appointment viewing. Look at how Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and James Harden are known commodities and this was well before individual or team accolades. The NBA has followed a simple plan that if you have talent that people are talking about, make that talent accessible to them.
Too often hockey players get overlooked for the best athletes today and the main reason is the League hasn’t showcased the talent. Today’s NHL players aren’t talked about with their contemporaries the way the players of the past are. A byproduct of spotlighting these two will be how other players get well-deserved attention. Rattling off the talent that is just starting to make their name and comparing that group to the established professionals is always a good thing. It gets a conversation going and the NHL needs to get more people talking about the game on the ice, which leads to more people watching it.
The NHL was handed the ‘golden ticket’ of talented players and it would be a huge mistake if this League does not do everything possible to cash it in.