Wednesday, February 16, 2005

NHL Brand Erosion: A Consumer's Report

Early last summer I chatted with a pump-jockey at the local gas-station. The Toronto Maple Leafs had just been eliminated from the play-offs by the province's other NHL franchise, the Ottawa Senators. I asked the guy if he was cheering for the Sens now. He looked at me as if I just didn't get it. "It's the Leafs or nothing," he said, his tone making clear just how far I was testing his patience.

Being a sports fan is an irrational business, and it's possible I'm missing some crucial mechanism in the soul to prevent me from joining their ranks. It's more likely I had it taken from me when the Winnipeg Jets followed the money to Phoenix. That was an eye-opener, alright. The way I see it, Leafs fans would be done a world of good if the franchise were sold to Albuquerque for a few years. The truth is the League, the team owners, and precious few Leafs players could give a rat's ass about gas-guy's irrational loyalty. If someone were to wave enough money from the Cayman Islands, the team would move, and the League would nod its approval.

As Gary Bettman gets set to announce the forfeiture of the NHL season, it's difficult to ascertain which party has behaved more irrationally: the League, the players, or the fans. After all the talk about "philosophical differences" between the League and the players, it now seems the ideological chasm can be bridged by a mere six million dollars. At this point, neither side is going to win with the fans. The fans had the least to lose, and plenty of time to consider that paucity. Now spring training is underway in baseball; a last-minute agreement and a 28 game season would be an outrageous act of contempt toward hockey consumers.

I used to watch regular season games, but for the last few years the only hockey I could be bothered with were the playoffs. I gradually lost interest after Winnipeg was sold. A sense of geographical loyalty plays a role in my disenchantment, but only a small role. The Phoenix acquisition of the Jets was the beginning of an unmerited league expansion that even an international talent pool couldn't fill. With talent spread that thinly, the game has become a dump-and-chase bore. The season is three months too long, the League is six, possibly eight teams too large, and everyone involved is too fat in the head to do the right thing and downsize appropriately.

Still, the inconceivable can happen. A few years ago I took my father to the Hockey Hall of Fame. As with the League whose praises it sings, the Hall of Fame is mostly an expensive and mediocre attraction. It's only when you get to the historical archives that you finally arrive at material with genuine interest. In fact, getting a close look at Lord Stanley's Cup was almost worth the exorbitant price of admission. Until I saw it with my own eyes, I had no idea Winnipeg won the Stanley Cup three times! It seems the Jets were not the first Winnipeg team to vie for it: the Winnipeg Victorias contested for and won the cup in 1896, 1901 and 1902.

It’s over a century later. Perhaps the Stanley Cup will regain its iconic brand value among hockey consumers. It seems like a crazy dream, but who knows? A Winnipeg team might once again lay claim to it. Stranger things have happened in the irrational realm of sports.


DarkoV said...

I miss the NHL. A Lot. Yeah, there are too many teams and the talent is diluted (There should be NO professional hockey team in a city that has a mean annual temperature above 70 degrees). But I can't think of another game that combines speed, guile, brute force, and continuous action as well as hockey. No meetings after every failed play to hatch a plan (Duuuh, I think we should score a TD soon). No standing around with a smirk before launching the ball/puck at your opponent. Bettman's a jackass, but then the game does attract a certain brand of imbecile to the sport (Eddie Livingstone, Harold Ballard, and yeah Darcy Tucker). But the game is so great and it'll outlive the modern idiots that are trying to Bambi it down.
On a trip a while back to Lake of the Woods, we were hanging around waiting for our rented houseboat to be cleaned up from the previous revellers. We stopped by at Kenora's little museum (Really worth seeing..I'm Serious). And what was there but a picture of the Kenora Thistles. The Thistles, a prickly sort I assume, won the Stanley Cup back in 1904 or 1905 and still hold the honor of smallest city to hoist the Cup. It's stuff like that which makes hockey so unique.
But, I'm with you about the 28 game schedule. Can this year. Start from scratch. Bettman in the penalty box.

Whisky Prajer said...

The Kenora Thistles! I mentioned this to some friends yesterday, and wondered aloud if the NHL couldn't operate on a model similar to FIFA, and The World Cup. I know I said the NHL needs to downsize, but why couldn't they have over 100 teams? It wouldn't matter who you are, if you come up with the points, you get a crack at the cup. My friends mentioned a movement called "Save Stanley" which, I'm told, wants to wrest the Stanley Cup from the NHL and return it to its origins as an award of merit given to a hockey team that proves itself. I'll have to look into this...