Winner’s Circle

by Ryan

When you’re constantly shunned, you’ll look for any sign of attention to get excited about.

The inferiority complex most hockey fans have is unavoidable, and even the most devout puck followers understand the differences between the NHL and the powerhouse leagues it competes against. So, when you see an AP story entitled “NHL bouncing back from lockout doldrums” you have to give it a read. In fact, any use of the word “doldrums” in the past tense when discussing hockey is cause for a celebration: We’re back, right! Right?

Well, sort of. The premise of the article was basically this: Wayne Gretzky said some cool things about the Olympics and NHL ratings are up. I wonder what an NHL executive will say when I ask them about the improved ratings? Good things? You mean they responded positively to the press release Versus sent out on their behalf? Impressive!

I may still be trapped in a black and white hole of despair, but I didn’t see anything in that article that I didn’t already know about the current state of the league. TV ratings are improved, hockey looks good in high definition and a lot of people watch the playoffs because the hockey is better. That doesn’t necessarily mean that hockey is more popular than it has been in the past as much as it is more watchable. Versus is in more households as is NHL Network, and the ratings will benefit from that fact.

Still, what I found more interesting in that article is this:

The apparent boost from the Olympics on NHL ratings may not have much impact when the league decides whether to allow its players to compete in Sochi in 2014 — in fact, it may prove one of commissioner Gary Bettman’s concerns. He has questioned whether the NHL will benefit as much from a Winter Games in a distant time zone as from one in North America.

Following the high drama and high ratings of the Vancouver Olympics a lot of people argued that the NHL should most certainly support the Olympics in Sochi in four years. Many people didn’t understand why the league wouldn’t want to support the Olympics after doing so for the last few Winter Games, but reading this reminds me that it’s not that simple. The decision to send NHL players to Russia in 2014 is not a matter of supporting the Olympic movement but rather of utility. Simply put: the NHL doesn’t support anything unless it is getting something out of it.

The NHL helped to market the hell out of the Vancouver Olympics because they anticipated a payoff. You give in order to receive, and receive the did. They got lucky when Canada bounced back from a bad start and the United States made a somewhat surprising run to attract a ton of attention to the North American Gold Medal game. The NHL gives by announcing Team USA’s roster at its baby, the Winter Classic, and it receives when the sports world is talking about hockey again. Miller stood on his head, Crosby caught him looking down and PTI debates the significance. Ca-ching.

Wayne can talk about the purity of the international game all he wants, but the NHL doesn’t support hockey for the sake of hockey: It supports hockey that supports the NHL. Take the ongoing IIHF World Championships for example. The NHL hasn’t said much about the tournament because honestly, why would they? It takes place during the absolute apex of the NHL season, why would they want to take away attention from the Stanley Cup Playoffs? So of course players are going to turn the tournament down, they’ve already done their thing in Vancouver and know that’s where the real competition is at: North America. Don’t doubt that the league will market the World Juniors like crazy this winter, a tournament that often takes place in North America and involves dozens and dozens of future NHL stars. There is something to gain from having hockey fans fall in love with the stars of tomorrow, rather than a group of German names they’ll never remember from a tournament they can’t watch in prime time.

We won’t have a decision about the Sochi games for some time, but when the discussion kicks back up remember this: the league isn’t completely stupid. If they are going to put NHL players in that tournament they will expect to get something in return. If it’s not TV ratings or international exposure to grow the European game in their favor, well, I’m not sure what else there is to offer. The “Olympic Spirit” we heard so much about won’t matter if the price isn’t right.

Sure it’s great that people say hockey is “back” or on the rise, but if you ask me hockey is exactly the same as it ever was. The game is what it is, it just depends on who is watching and how you get them there.