Like many organizations managing the complications of the pandemic, the NHL took on an incredible amount of damage from 2020 to 2022.
Credit where it’s due though, the league rolled with the punches as best it could. It wasn’t perfect – perfect was never really an option given the situation – but you can pretty easily make the case that at times what was offered barely resembled the product they prefer to sell.
They did what they had to do and stayed alive. They played in front of nobody and held on to some sponsorship money, the salary cap and the player's pocketbooks were squeezed, and the experience of going to games – when a few fans were eventually allowed in the buildings – was strange and at first, a little uncomfortable.
Even as the league tried to get back to normal in 2021-22, postponements and the weird Olympic break that never was and a season that stretched until nearly July always felt a bit like the way Sochi would paint storefronts of dilapidated buildings during the Olympics to give the “Alls fine, nothing to see here” vibe.
But as I mentioned in the opening: they took those blows and soldiered on. That left the league reeling, still on their feet and in the fight but barely hanging on till the round’s final bell.
This summer, the league got to sit on their metaphorical stool in the corner to plan for another round, and like Rocky, the league can still come out swinging in a big way. There’s comeback potential, and I’m here to make the case that it’s finally in a good position to do so. In fact, I expect it to.
I expect that because…
They’ve got a normal start and finish time, at long last
The season starts on Oct. 11th this year, and wraps up six months later (April 13th). Isn’t that clean and tidy? (Yes, it started around then the season before, but after a very short summer that the players did not enjoy.) Then we can embark
on a proper playoff schedule, and finish at least a couple weeks ahead of last season. There’s a normal little all-star break, a couple outdoor games in early 2023, and a proper season where fans can know what to expect. That’s a good starting point.
The games will come with full fans and no restrictions
Without launching a debate about whether the pandemic is “over” or not, going to games should be back to complete normalcy. No masks, no restrictions on what or how food or drink are sold, just … the good ol’ hockey-going experience. That means rowdy fans and energy and all the things that breathe life into the odd game that needs the help.
Fans at home will also benefit from getting proper media access
For years now, no reporter could sidle up to a player and just take the temperature of what’s going on with the team off the record. They couldn’t ask a unique question outside the public scrum that could elevate an individual feature. They couldn’t get that little nugget from a disgruntled player that there’s internal drama.
Of course, teams don’t like that this part of “reporting” is back, but let’s be real: the NHL is an entertainment product, and the human element is entertaining as hell. We’ll all gain from reporters having locker room access once again. Enough with the Zoom.
Not yet, but very soon, the salary cap will start going up
Estimates have it going up 10 million per team by 2025-26. Right now really good teams are being punished for being good at the wrong time. The top of the Atlantic – Florida, Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Boston … you can make the case they all had to get a little bit worse, at least the first three mentioned there, and directly because of cap issues.
I realize this doesn’t help today, but it can help teams commit bigger money for longer term, and keep their players. You want teams to be able to compile strong teams and keep them together if they want. Trades are fun for fans, but if the goal is to accumulate good players, and right now as your good players need to get paid, it gets awfully tight.
The league also has true, prime-aged superstars
While Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are both still in the league (and were still very good last year), Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews have taken over. You need great players to interest fans, and the NHL has a few prime-aged legit superstars right now, both at just 25 years old but with over a half-dozen NHL seasons experience behind them. Will Matthews get to 60 goals (or better) this season? Will McDavid top his 123-point season last year? They’re going to be must-see TV.
Great locations for events
Some years the NHL all-star game is in some small market that actually has winter (ugh) and players cannot wait to do anything but attend the event. This year the all-star game is in south Florida, and the NHL Draft is in Nashville. All that guarantees is that more players and media attend, and so it’s more entertaining for the rest of us.
We’re also on the cusp of big growth in innovation
I don’t know what Sportsnet has been public with, but I know there will be some telecasts this year that increase their use of interesting, fun info. Whether that be from puck tracking tech, or from new camera angles, the game and how it’s brought to fans will start to look different in the season and years ahead.
This is all a lot of optimism, I know, but as a sports fan who’s followed the game through the dark times, I find the cusp of so much light exciting. There’s going to be the usual issues that come with every sports league that aren’t fun – people get hurt, and officials get yelled at, and all those other unavoidable parts of the business. But by and large, the NHL is in a good spot to come back swinging after taking a beating the past few rounds, and if they do, fans, in general, will come out the winners.