It’s time to start over. It’s time to rebuild. It’s time to be patient for five years while this mess is fixed.
No, I am not talking about a bottom-feeding team embroiled in an ownership mess. I am referring to the NHL itself. The league has bottomed out and a complete explosion of its leadership is necessary.
Before dissecting the weaknesses, I want to identify the game’s strengths. The greatest asset in the NHL universe is the North American fan base – a dedicated, loyal group of people who have held this pro sport together through some horrible times. The fans of this generation deserve a 20-minute standing ovation and a collective induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The second greatest asset in the NHL universe is the community of players. These 700-plus guys are great. Never before have fans witnessed such skill, athleticism and dedication.
Now, let’s examine the ugly mess.
The 30,000 members of the NHL Fans’ Association recently identified their primary concerns related to the game and the issues that surfaced were unique, based on a fan’s nationality (approximately 60 percent involved are US-based fans and 40 percent are Canadian fans).
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. A tear comes to my eye when I hear American fans talk about the game on Canadian television stations such as CBC, TSN, Sportsnet or the French-language RDS. Americans who have witnessed the game on one of these networks speak like they have had an out-of-body experience. They marvel at how the same product can be packaged so differently in Canada. They have tasted the good stuff and long for an opportunity to taste it again. (See here).
The NHL is alienating fans with its limited, often low-quality TV exposure in the U.S. and fans are frustrated. Many are walking away from the game entirely. This issue is the primary concern of American fans.
Fans in Canada enjoy a plethora of quality NHL hockey coverage on television and, obviously, don’t share the same broadcasting concerns as their American counterparts. The consensus in Canada is that Gary Bettman should be replaced as commissioner of the league after 16 years as its leader.
Canadian fans feel this man has done more harm than good to the game. They feel Bettman is not in touch with the sport’s grassroots – in Canada – and the time has come to find a new and more informed leader.
The league must hire a fresh, new commissioner who recognizes the league’s priorities. They must be given five years to right the ship. The NHL must be on ESPN or another network that provides ubiquitous reach to Americans. The quality of the U.S. television broadcast must be improved.
Don’t laugh, but it’s possible for the NHL to re-claim its spot among the top four sports in North America. All of the stakeholders in the NHL community (most importantly, the fans) deserve a leader who aims top shelf for this goal.
Over the coming season, the NHLFA will focus on these two issues as its priorities and do its best to lobby the key decision-makers who can help improve the NHL. The fans have spoken. Television broadcasting in the U.S. must be improved and Bettman must go.
The co-founder of the NHL Fans' Association, Jim Boone is the chief operating officer for the Canadian Resident Matching Service and the president of Litnets Inc.