NHL can make splash on Thanksgiving by going outdoors
It was probably around halftime of Thursday’s 45-14 rout of the Philadelphia Eagles by the Detroit Lions that America started asking itself, “I wonder what else is on TV?”
There was a Bogie movie, a dog show and some Simpsons re-runs. All solid alternatives to that NFL clown show. But the one thing many of us would have preferred wasn't one of the options.
A hockey game.
There’s a pervasive sense that the NFL owns the holiday, that its games are as much a part of the festivities as an overcooked bird and squabbling relatives. Going head-to-head with pigskin? Ratings suicide.
But not every family holds to the same traditions. There are plenty of households that would choose hockey over football if given the choice. And considering how successfully the NHL has carved out a niche for itself on another football-dominated holiday with the New Year’s Day Winter Classic, there’s no reason why it couldn't establish a beachhead on Turkey Day as well.
It makes sense that NBC would be on board, unless, of course, that afternoon replay of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a real audience grabber.
And unlike the CBA-mandated blackouts on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, there’s nothing preventing the NHL from scheduling on Thanksgiving.
It’s not like the league has historically abdicated the date to the NFL, either. In 2014, the Oilers hosted the Predators. The year before, the same two teams met in Nashville while the Canucks took on the Senators in Ottawa. All three of those games were evening starts, meaning they missed out on the heaviest traffic during the traditional pre- and post-meal gatherings around the tube, but they at least offered a break from football for the guests who wouldn’t leave.
But if it wants to maximize its exposure, the NHL needs to grab that afternoon audience. And it will need to offer a more compelling matchup than Edmonton vs. Nashville if it hopes to replicate the success of Jan. 1.
There are plenty of options. The league could follow the NFL’s lead by designating the day as an annual home game for one of its most faithfully followed clubs like the Bruins, Red Wings, Blackhawks or Rangers. Trot out a traditional rivalry like Montreal playing Boston, or one involving limited travel, say, a date for the Islanders with the Rangers. Or it could use the date to showcase a hot rookie like Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. Put any one of those in place and you've got yourself an afternoon that’s perfect for sweatpants and second helpings.
Or better yet, the league could go bigger ... by going outdoors.
The NHL is staging two Stadium Series games this season and while many fans could names the teams involved, very few could pin down exactly when either will be played. Sure, awareness will be heightened closer to the actual events, but it feels like there’s a marketing opportunity that’s being missed by not claiming a static date and building a new tradition. Maybe the Stanley Cup champions get to play host as a reward for their success, or the league could stage a contest in a pop-up stadium at a non-traditional location to create a unique experience. Hey, who wouldn’t tune in to watch a game played at one of those mountain-top rinks built for the Molson commercials?
The fear of getting thumped in the Nielsens is probably holding the league back from a frontal assault on the NFL, but a Thanksgiving game doesn’t have to draw the biggest ratings of the day to be a success. It just has to become part of the conversation. And on a day when people are predisposed to killing time with televised sports, a bold approach would allow the NHL to do exactly that.
The numbers game
• The Rangers and Bruins, who play each other today at 1 p.m. Eastern time, have seen 22 of their last 30 meetings since Mar. 24, 2007 decided by one goal. Eight of them have been decided in overtime or the shootout.
• Blackhawks star Patrick Kane is riding a career-high 17-game point streak (10-18-28). He also leads the NHL with 34 points and 21 assists.
• A note on Washington and Tampa Bay, who battle each other today at 5 p.m. ET: Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, who have won a combined seven Maurice Richard trophies, have faced each other 31 times in regular-season play with the Capitals owning a 22-7-2 record in those games.
• Patrick Kaleta might be one of hockey's most hated players on the ice, but he has an entirely different reputation off it.
• Are Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby feuding? The two Pittsburgh legends come clean after rumors of a rift surfaced on Wednesday.
• Buffalo rookie Jack Eichel is looking for answers as he tries to break out of the worst slump of his life.
• Yeah ... about those Matt Duchene to Philly rumors ...
• An Atom team from Nova Scotia got a big, shiny surprise when it walked into its dressing room on Wednesday night.
• Here’s a look at the 10 oldest NHLers in history alongside a video introduction to an 86-year-old player who is trying to earn a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.