On Thin Ice: NHL Season Opens in Obscurity

Ric RobertsContributor IOctober 14, 2010

UNIONDALE, NY - OCTOBER 11:  Derek Stepan #21 of the New York Rangers skates against the New York Islanders the Nassau Coliseum on October 11, 2010 in Uniondale, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

"If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound?" That saying could be attributed to the beginning of the NHL, which started its regular season on October 7, 2010. The problem is, the season opened in Europe and not many people noticed.

This is a sport that was formerly considered part of the Big Four, along with baseball, basketball and football. So to kick-off the new year with little to no fanfare across the Atlantic Ocean is not really a step in the right direction.

The more time goes by, the more apparent it becomes that the powers that be in the NHL have no clue how to build the sport. From the inability to market their stars, to the lousy television coverage, and from the resistance to learn from other leagues, to the perceived incompetence of commissioner Gary Bettman, hockey continues to fall behind.

To the casual fan, the faces of the NHL are only Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. That is fine, but with the majority of the teams located in the U.S., how about promoting some American players? American fans are always loyal to teams local to them, but would be more loyal to the league as a whole if some of their fellow countrymen were carrying the sport.

By playing games in Helsinki, Stockholm, and Prague, you are catering to the international fan. But when it comes right down to it, it is the local market fans that you need in the seats for the rest of the regular season to pay the bills. Taking away two chances for parents to bring their kids to home games will only hinder developing young fans that will grow up with your product.

Not only are the games on at unreasonable times when they are across the pond, but the television coverage is also nonexistent. With the NHL's current deal to show games on Versus and NBC, a vast majority of the U.S. viewing audience will not see a live game until the Winter Classic is played on January 1. That is almost three months after the season has started.

The NFL tried regular season games in London, and it just didn't work. The time the game had to be played, the scheduling problems it caused for the team and the league, and the lack of interest from American fans that lost a home game just aren't worth it. While hockey is a much more international game, these problems the NFL faced also affect the NHL.

And what good did it do the league to have games played when no one could watch them? The other major sports make a spectacle of the beginning of the season. It is important to create an atmosphere of excitement for bringing back the fans after the long offseason.

The NFL has their Kickoff Weekend, MLB does Opening Day with a marquee matchup for the first prime time Sunday night game on Opening Weekend, and the NBA selectively schedules games with teams and players that the fans are interested in seeing to start their campaign. This is all good marketing ploys to maintain popularity and to attract new fans.

Further proof of the poor coverage can be seen by looking at the programming on ESPN. They show games for the NFL, MLB, NBA and MLS. NASCAR races for both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series are on the "Family of Networks." And there is still boxing and even a weekly MMA show. The only major sport without a highlight/analysis show or game broadcast is hockey.

The commissioner's office will probably say that ratings and attendance were both up last year. The thing they won't tell you is that it was an artificial bump. Versus was available in more homes which helped. Also the ratings, attendance and interest are always at a high during an Olympic year.

The question is, what has the league done to capitalize on the increased visibility? By not getting a better TV deal, having talk of not allowing the NHL players in the 2014 Olympics, and the European season openers, it appears that more harm than good was actually done.

If Commissioner Bettman and the team owners don't get it together, they will no longer have to worry about the Big Three sports ahead of them. They will also be looking up at the Next Three sports of NASCAR, Soccer (MLS) and MMA. And if that happens, then it won't be long until we get to tell our kids about a game we loved that now only exists in sports' history books.