On several occasions during the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, the commissioner of the National Hockey League, Gary Bettman, has difficult decisions to make in terms of continuing the growth of his league as well as the sport of hockey in the United States. Lets not forget that the United States also made it to the Gold Medal games in Salt Lake City back in 2002, and they also lost to Canada in that game as well. With reports of that game at the time being the highest rated game since the Miracle on Ice from 1980, how couldn’t that momentum be sustained? There are a variety of reasons for the loss of momentum, some of which Bettman will have to deal with again after the 2010 Games.
First and foremost, people tune into the Olympics for a variety of reasons. Some people like to watch particular events such as figure skating, others just like watching their home nation succeed while others more just like watching the thrill of competition regardless of the sport or nations involved. Surely, a good chunk of the population tuned in for the Gold Medal game were watching a hockey game for the first time in a long time if not for the first time in their lives. But how many of those people were tuning in just for the hockey? How many of those people tuned in because Team USA made the final? If, for example, Finland was able to defeat the US in the semifinal, how many people would’ve tuned in for the Gold Medal game then? How many people would still watch the US play Slovakia in the Bronze Medal game? Both games could’ve been just as good as the Gold Medal Game between the US and Canada but would’ve garnered far less attention. This isn’t surprising, nor should it be. The reason why the Miracle on Ice remains such a well-remembered moment wasn’t just because the United States defeated the Soviet Union in a men’s hockey semifinal, it was also because the United States overcame the Soviets during a turbulent political period involving those two nations. If the United States happened to defeat the Soviets in, say, basketball the impact would’ve been nearly the same. Many do not even remember that the United States also had to defeat Finland follow the Soviet game to win the Gold Medal.
Those people are not very likely to become fans of hockey, to follow NHL games on even a part-time basis. However, that doesn’t mean nobody from that group will start following the NHL and many people who didn’t watch the NHL may find themselves becoming fans of Ryan Miller’s Buffalo Sabres, Zach Parise’s New Jersey Devils or at the very least find themselves against the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, who scored the Gold-winning goal on Sunday. However, International hockey and NHL hockey are two things that are not very similar to one another, although the former has instituted a lot of rules the latter put into place some time ago. One thing the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has not adopted from the NHL is the NHL’s more lax rules on fighting. People greatly enjoyed the Olympic Ice Hockey where fighting means an instant game misconduct on the fighters involved, and as a result there was very little fighting to be found in these games if any at all. On the other hand, its hard to tune into an NHL game and not see the crowd cheer on a fight if one happens. There are staunch defenders for and against fighting in the NHL but will the spectacle turn off prospective viewers? It will surely turn away some, sure, but definitely not all of them.
Another problem Bettman needs to address, one that Bettman has not adequately addressed throughout most of his tenure as NHL commissioner, is the marketing of his players. After the 2002 games, most of the stars that made up the US and Canadian teams were established stars for their respective teams, but how often were these players household names? How many people who aren’t Red Wings fans know who Steve Yzerman is? How many people could recognize a player on Team USA that didn’t play on their home team? These stars were never marketed before or after the 2002 Games to the general populace like how the NFL markets some of its quarterbacks or the NBA its star players. This problem persists even today. Most people who follow sports could tell you who LeBron James is, and those same people probably could tell you who Sidney Crosby is. But those same people could also tell you who Kevin Durant is, the rising star who plays for Oklahoma City, whereas they may not be able to describe Patrick Kane, a rising star of the Chicago Blackhawks who was on Team USA, simply because the NBA does a far better job marketing Durant than the NHL does Kane, if the NHL even markets Kane to begin with. Outside of Crosby and possibly Alexander Ovechkin, have you seen an advertisement that involves an NHL player that didn’t air during an NHL broadcast? It doesn’t do the league much good to market players only during a time where most people are already watching your games; you can’t draw in very many new fans in this manner.
A big issue that Bettman attempted to confront during these games is whether or not Bettman will allow NHL players to play in the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. While Bettman has no definitive answer either way, he did provide plenty of reasons why the NHL shouldn’t be involved in the Sochi games. One valid reason is the travel and schedule involved. Similar to the Torino games of 2006, where its Gold Medal game aired at 9 AM EST, Sochi’s time zone does not allow for easily viewable live games for fans back in the United States, and tape-delayed broadcasts are not nearly as good with the internet available for instant results. Because of this odd scheduling, Bettman notes that hockey will not be able to get the exposure he would prefer in Russia, that a 7:30 PM EST game between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning would be more profitable a game than a preliminary game between the United States and Switzerland aired at 2:00 AM EST. However, should the United States go on another run in Sochi like they did in Vancouver, Bettman would find his league in the backburner once more and lose the opportunity to market those players.
Another problem on Bettman’s desk is that many of the Russian players in his league, most notably Alexander Ovechkin, have noted that they will participate in the Sochi games regardless of whether the NHL takes an Olympic break or not. It is also important to note that the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League will allow its players to participate in the 2014 games and with the KHL attempting to pry away the NHL’s premier talent, may use the Olympics as a key point in recruiting the likes of Ovechkin or Ilya Kovalchuk. Bettman must be wary of the KHL when making his decision on the matter.
For this season and beyond, Gary Bettman’s decisions in marketing and the 2014 games could bring about great growth of the NHL or could return it to the stagnation it experienced during the early part of this past decade. The growth of American hockey, as seen in these Olympics, is vital to the growth of the game in the United States. It seems to me, though, that the prospects of a Team USA full of American hockey stars looking to take care of unfinished business in Sochi seems a lot more marketable than a hum-drum two weeks of mid-February NHL games, even if most of the former is aired in the middle of the night here in the United States. The question is, does Bettman realize this as well?