When the 2004–05 lockout ended, the NHL rebranded itself with a remodeled logo and turned its attention to promoting just two players, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, to hockey fans (old and new) across the globe. Fast-forward eight years: Both stars have had challenges, but each battled to remain on top. In addition to winning the Stanley Cup, Crosby scored the golden goal at the Vancouver Olympics to cement his place in Canadian hockey lore, and Ovechkin, whose goal-scoring prowess has returned after a brief hiatus, was the first to carry the Olympic torch in hopes of being the face of the games in Sochi.
And just as both players have faced obstacles and matured, so to has the NHL and its demands to continually market on this continent and beyond. The big question for me now is who are the faces of the game? Because though Crosby and Ovechkin are still around, there is a broader base of players to draw from now. In Chicago, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have become go-to faces. So to have Milan Lucic and Zdeno Chara in Boston. And in Detroit, where Nick Lidstrom for so long was a constant, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have been able to carry on the “Red Wing Way.”
Look through the standings and you’ll find a core of young, prolific players that can help carry the weight of the league that Crosby and Ovechkin did for so long. John Tavares on Long Island, the Staals in Carolina, Jamie Benn in Dallas, Doughty in L.A., and the Sedins, with new contracts in hand in Vancouver… the list really is endless.
The bigger challenge is not which two to focus on, but rather how to expand the list to 30 or 40 players without diluting the message. The national TV networks in both countries have tried to expand the list, but in the end, ratings and advertisers don’t see the names on the backs near as much the logo on the front. Rightly or wrongly, national rights deal more with teams than players. The NHL itself has decided to market events rather than people. Outdoor games and Olympics are now a greater focus than individuals. Probably because these events can be planned and executed. Players get hurt, go into slumps and quite frankly can’t be relied on to deliver elite-level play every shift.
Is it something about hockey that just doesn't lend itself to promoting individuals? Is it that legendary, ever-present code? Is there that underlying hockey modesty that gets in the way of growing the game? Many have criticized goal celebrations, or post-game salutes to the fans, or those goals from Tomas Hertl or Tomas Vanek that start between the legs and end up in the net as “hot dogging.” And yet, they help. Since the Hertl goal against the now-retired Rangers goalie Martin Biron, I have seen every other team use that goal to promote matchups with the San Jose Sharks. Flamboyance sells. Fun sells. NHL players have fun playing the game.
Unlike the other pro sports, stars in hockey play about 30 percent (or if you're Shea Weber, 50 percent). Meanwhile LeBron James might play 42 or 43 minutes of a 48-minute NBA game, Tom Brady touches the ball on every Patriots’ offensive play and Justin Verlander stands in front on 35,000 Tigers fans, alone on the mound, and throws the baseball 100 times.
That night against the Rangers we spoke of, Hertl played less than 12 minutes with no shift longer than a minute, yet made a huge impact in a split second. In fact, his three goals that night occurred on three shifts that totaled 80 seconds in duration combined.
I’m writing this because I am tired of hockey being bashed. Most often by those of us in and around the game. For every suspension that gets hours of attention, there aren’t enough of those great Hertl-style stories told. Like the return to the NHL by Manny Malhotra, or the hard work of young guys who never dreamed of playing in the NHL, like Will Acton of the OIlers or Carter Hutton of the Predators. We tend to eat our own. Only a few, over the years, appear to be above that fray. Gretzky, Lemieux, Messier and now maybe Crosby. Perhaps that's why we can't promote individuals a great deal in hockey—with every compliment there would be two complaints.
Is it too much to ask, once in a while, to enjoy the game for what it is? It’s the toughest, fastest, most entertaining team sport in the world. And perhaps, every once in a while, we can celebrate the game and its players, as opposed to waiting for another player safety hearing.