Just once, I wish the National Hockey League would try something new with its marketing.
The league released its national broadcast schedule on Monday morning, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, the Chicago Blackhawks lead the way with 17 appearances on national television.
And that’s fine, I suppose. The Hawks still pull huge ratings for NBC whenever they’re on TV. The two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins are in second place with 16 appearances. They’ve got the Cups and they’ve got the best player on the planet in Sidney Crosby. That makes a lot of sense. Not much else does. While identifying these problems below, I’ve got two suggestions on how to fix the league’s national broadcast schedule.
Start featuring the league’s younger stars
Once again, the NHL has opted to hammer on the same narratives its been pushing this entire decade instead of using its new, young stars to carry the game into the future.
The two most up-and-coming teams in this league are the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers (Sidenote: I think Nashville has arrived now, which is why they’re not mentioned here). Each team is led by a No. 1 overall pick who is delivering on the expectations set for them, with Connor McDavid in Edmonton and Auston Matthews in Toronto. They’re each getting three national TV appearances this season. Three. The league has two of the brightest stars its had in years, and the average American sports fan will probably still not know they exist because the league won’t put them on national TV. Every McDavid/Matthews matchup should be a national broadcast, considering its just twice each regular season. Yet their two matchups are on a Thursday night in late November and a Sunday evening in December and probably won’t be available to those south of the Canadian border. That’s a disservice to American hockey fans.
The league is going to need some new faces soon, too. Here in Chicago, Jonathan Toews will turn 30 during the next postseason and Kane hits 29 this November Sidney Crosby will be 30 next Monday. Alex Ovechkin is going to be 32 in September. The big stars that NBC touts each season are going to start fading in the not-too-distant future, and they’re going to need replacements. Better to get a head start on that now.
‘Rivalry Night’ and flex scheduling: an idea
“Rivalry Night” is a good idea, on principle. Rivalries are what make hockey great, and Hawks fans can agree, with the heydays of the Blackhawks feuds with the Vancouver Cancuks and the current disdain we all hold for the St. Louis Blues as recent examples of appointment hockey viewing. But some of these scheduled games are just not rivalries. A game between the Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers hasn’t been noteworthy since June 2010, yet there it is as a “Rivalry Night” broadcast on November 1. Alex Ovechkin is an incredible player, but there is no rivalry between the Hawks and Washington Capitals, like the league will try to tell us on December 6.
You know what could help the NHL with some of these Wednesday night games? Stealing the NFL’s flex-scheduling option. In the back half of the NFL season, certain games featuring more noteworthy performances can be moved to the more desirable 3:00 CT broadcast in the late afternoon or even the Sunday Night Football national broadcast on NBC. It helps the league get more eyes on games that could have playoff implications or feature some of the games brightest stars. The NHL could benefit from a similar approach. Schedule a bunch of games for Wednesday nights, then pick one worthy game and “flex” it into the “Rivalry Night” broadcast each week. Maybe you could capitalize on a rivalry that develops over the course of a season. Or get us something more legitimate than the March 21 broadcast between noted rivals St. Louis and the ... Boston Bruins?
Or NBC could just start small and give us someone, anyone, or anything on the pregame show other than Mike Milbury. But I’m not holding my breath for that, either.