Rabid Habs

The NHL From 10,000 Feet

Arizona empty arena, NHL

With respect to Commissioner Bettman, as the curtain has closed on All Star weekend, I’d like to provide feedback on the state of OUR game, through the lens of a fan.

Firstly, allow me to provide full disclosure. I’m not an academic. I don’t profess to have an intimate understanding of the existing profit sharing model, or the collective bargaining agreement. I don’t have a seat on the competition committee, nor does my opinion count during disciplinary hearings. I’m a fan, first and foremost. But, I’m also a consumer. I have a budget, with an allocation for sports and entertainment. Beyond this, I’m of no particular interest. Despite my insignificance, I’d like to share my opinion as I consider the health of this great sport to be at risk.

To refer to the game of hockey as a sport is to speak an ignorant language. This is not a sport, it’s a business (NHL). Gradually, over time, the divide that exists between the two entities has widened – significantly. Sure, ideas are tabled as enhancements designed to improve the fan experience, but the underlying driver is financial, plain and simple. The notion that the new television contract would improve televised accessibility for fans was erroneous. Living in the Ottawa area, I was previously able to watch all Canadiens games in HD. Much like granite counters in new home construction, HD should be standard. The Habs game in Edmonton on October 27th was only available via CTV Montreal, which, in the Ottawa area, was broadcast in standard definition. That said, I’m extremely fortunate. For many other consumers, outside the broadcast area, catching a Canadiens game is no longer as simple as turning on the television. People have been forced to purchase upgraded packages, stream games, or follow along on Internet message boards. So, in summary, this new revenue stream, which has increased owner profits, raised player salaries and grown the salary cap has further taxed your fans.

I’m not going to dive deeply into the All Star event. Frankly, it’s low hanging fruit. I wasn’t in Columbus and can’t offer any insight into the off ice events, but the on ice product was both stale and, honestly, deflating. The breakaway challenge has run its course. The goalies are pawns. Nobody wants to look the part of a fool, so it’s easier for them to simply not try. The creative envelope for the shooters has been pushed as far as it can go. Short of seeing a guy being shot out of a cannon, or skate on a tight rope, this circus has come to an end. The game on Sunday was absolutely terrible. Hockey can’t be played at half speed, with no contact. Based on the television ratings, it would appear that the American audience would rather watch a monster truck event. At least the monster truck event might provide a degree of unpredictability.

With the Canadian dollar fast approaching .75 cents, the league will continue to push expansion. Personally, I couldn’t be more opposed. In fact, if the game was truly interested in enhancing the fan experience, the league would consider contraction. At the very least, 2-4 teams should be looking at relocation. Why, because as a season ticket holder (partnership), I’m tired of carrying costs and sharing profits with markets who can’t make the business viable. It is frustrating to see crowds in Florida as prices in Canadian markets continue to rise. Further, the schedule, far too often, determines the outcome. This season, the HABS have endured both extremes; they played 2 games in 11 days in January prior to the All Star break and have twice played 5 games in 8 days. So, as a consumer, I’m charged full price – in some cases premium pricing, despite the fact that the on ice product suffers. Of course it’s not in either the players or owner’s best interest to reduce the number of games, but a 70-76 game schedule would help to avoid stretches of 5 games in 8 days.

What will be interesting is how the Canadian consumer, the drivers that propel revenue, adjust through this economic climate. Hockey games represent discretionary spending and are among those preliminary cuts when families revisit budgets. It’s not that we don’t want to go, it’s that we can’t afford to. Do I resent PK because he signed for $72 million, no. But, as salaries and the cap continue to rise, so will ticket prices. The idea of bringing a family of four to a game won’t be in many fan’s futures.

As for the on ice product, the league continues to be plagued with inconsistencies. Personally, I think the game is too fast for the current officiating crew. The league needs to adapt, something that they have proven to do at a snails pace. Thinking outside the box, why not two linesman, a referee and two off ice officials who manage from the pressbox, assisted by a bird’s eye view of the entire ice and enabled by instant replay. It could help police the game. Speaking of policing, why is John Scott still on an NHL roster? I have no issue with fighting. I don’t like the staged stuff, but a fight that builds organically introduces energy into the building. But, who’s left for a guy like Scott to fight? It’s like carrying a golf bag full of drivers while playing a par 3 course. It just doesn’t make sense. I appreciate and respect those in the anti fighting crowd, but with far fewer fights and goals, what am I tuning into watch? Truth is, the NHL needed and, some may argue, continue to need a sideshow to captivate the audience. Case in point – the Devils and Leafs game Wednesday night. Would anyone pay to watch this game? Imagine this was your first NHL game. Would you come back? So, in summary, few if any physical altercations, fewer goals, inconsistent refereeing and a schedule that has teams play 5 games in 8 nights all point to an inferior product.

I don’t have all the solutions, but I’m concerned, perhaps unjustifiably. Maybe the integrity of the game is beyond reproach. Maybe the on ice product is better today than ever before. Sadly, the fact that good games are highlighted suggests to me that they are few and far between. When I think of hockey I think of stagnation. I think of an old boys club who have done it this way forever and are hesitant to change. I think of a sport who takes it for granted that the fans will come and, in some cases, pay whatever price is charged. I believe though that we might be seeing a new ideology – at least from the fan’s perspective – emerge. I saw it in Montreal during the holidays when fans said no to the world junior championship and the $350+ price for premium seating and ticket packages that offered little value aside from team Canada vs the USA on New Year’s Eve. The big markets will continue to drive this business forward. Unfortunately, that’s bad news for fans of teams like the Leafs and Canadiens as you will be asked to continue to pay more to offset loses in Dallas, Florida and Phoenix among others.

I love this game. My tale is not meant to be one of woe, but rather to serve as a call to action. I’d rather see action now, as opposed to down the road when the product is truly suffering and fans have abandoned the game in favour of alternatives. Hockey isn’t life, but it’s darn close. Here’s to hoping that it’s continuation is secured for generations to enjoy.

I welcome your feedback. Please connect with me via Twitter @LWOScjcasselman.