Sometimes you’ll see a headline and immediately scoff at the idea that it’s true. That something so ingrained in a sport could be taken out and replaced. Whether it’s billed as being for the growth of the game or even for as something as simple as money, the idea of it being removed is bizarre.
The headline that made me question its legitimacy was a Sportsnet article about the NHL possibly getting rid of the NHL All-Star Game. This was originally reported by Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston during the intermission on last Saturday’s Hockey Night in Canada. Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s a done deal and that the NHL is going ahead and scrapping the All-Star Game, but the fact they’ve discussed it enough to become newsworthy means that it wasn’t brought up offhandedly. This is something the NHL is likely considering.
Replacing the All-Star Game & the Olympic Connection
The All-Star Game has been around since 1947, so what could the NHL be considering when replacing a pillar of the game?
So far details are thin, but it would be an overseas event to help promote and grow the NHL’s brand in Europe. What the event would be exactly is unclear, but the NHL has taken the next step with hiring European businessman Jaka Lednik to oversee the NHL’s growth strategy in Europe.
The growth of the NHL’s brand on an international level seems to have become the focal point for league-wide decisions. This ties into why the NHL pulled out of going to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. The NHL even listed reasons as to why they decided not to attend the 2018 Winter Olympics, one of which is that they never saw any growth as a result of attending the Olympics.
Some of their other reasons include the risk of player injury, the three-week disruption in the middle of the season, and that the International Olympic Committee wouldn’t be paying for the NHL’s participation costs starting in 2018. Then, there is also the issue of the time-zone difference which would have games on very early in the morning, which would greatly affect television ratings.
Although it’s to our dismay as fans since the NHL has been going to the Olympics since 1998, it does make sense for the NHL to not attend the Olympics at least for financial reasons.
Growing the Game Internationally
Without having the sentimental and historical attachment to the All-Star Game, it does make sense to remove it in place of an international event that would make up for not attending the Olympics. What doesn’t make sense is why the NHL would be targeting Europe as the place to grow the NHL brand and not China instead.
In Europe, it wouldn’t be about promoting interest in the sport since hockey is already a major sport in most European countries, but it would instead be about promoting the NHL. That is an uphill battle. There are already dozens of professional hockey leagues across Europe with the most prominent leagues being the KHL in Russia, the SHL in Sweden and Liiga in Finland.
Hockey fans there already have a team that they cheer for so the only way that the NHL could promote interest would be by selling the fans on watching their country’s top players who happen to play for an NHL team.
Now compare that to China, where the NHL has already taken a step in growing the game by having two preseason games played there. It’s an untapped market. China has a massive population and doesn’t have much exposure to the sport aside from the KHL recently creating an expansion team in Beijing in 2016.
In terms of growing the game in China, the NHL would’ve been better off continuing to go the Olympics. The IOC has said that the NHL’s attendance of the 2022 games in Beijing is conditioned on their attendance of the 2018 games in South Korea. So if the NHL had just taken the hit on going to South Korea, then they would’ve been able to attend the Beijing Olympics which is where their interests lie.
The Future of the NHL
For now, the NHL has just been discussing the idea, it hasn’t been decided on yet. But, if this were to happen, it would mean that by not attending the Olympics, the NHL will shelve the All-Star Game in order to make up for the lost international promotion.
The idea of promoting the game internationally seems premature when there are still NHL teams that struggle with their attendance and struggle to make a profit. So, how can the NHL justify marketing the league in Europe and even China when they still need to create new hockey fans in cities where they already have teams?
For now, there is still the All-Star Weekend to look forward to in Tampa Bay this year on Jan. 27 and 28. After that, we will see what the future holds for the All-Star Game.