After three straight seasons of warm-weather cities greeting a hard-won Stanley Cup with a yawn, the 2008 NHL playoffs have been a boon for old-fashioned hockey fans. Original Six franchises have locked horns. Three-fourths of the remaining teams are from cities that actually experience winter. And I'm particularly happy, because my hometown Pittsburgh Penguins have won eight of nine games to reach the Eastern Conference finals against the archrival, cross-state Philadelphia Flyers.
Lest hockey fans think the rest of the sports world shares this enthusiasm, there are always people like my friend Elizabeth—a native New Yorker and avid baseball fan—to remind us otherwise. On the day of Game 4 between the Penguins and the New York Rangers, with Pittsburgh up 3-0 in the best-of-seven series, she asked me if I thought the Pens were going to triumph. I answered enthusiastically that they would, prompting her to respond: "So, when's the first game?"
There's nothing new about the American public's lack of interest in hockey: The amount of media space given to the NHL's unpopularity rivals that devoted to coverage of the sport itself. Glowing pucks, teams in the desert, and national television coverage have all failed to budge the sport's popularity needle upward. The only way the league has been able to get any traction in the States outside of the insular hockey-fan community is to shoehorn a few individual superstars into the national consciousness: Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux, and most of all Wayne Gretzky. (I've provided helpful links for each player in case you don't even know who those guys are.)
The NHL has now pinned its hopes on Sidney Crosby. The Pittsburgh captain's youthfulness, leadership skills, and "aw shucks, eh" attitude are reminiscent of Gretzky's makeup in his early years. With Crosby's hockey talent apparent from an early age, the NHL has eyed him as the Great One's successor since the now-Penguin's early teens. If you've seen a hockey player in a commercial, it's probably Crosby skating around on behalf of Gatorade and Reebok. The Penguins are regulars on Versus and NBC hockey broadcasts—great for Pittsburgh expats like me—most notably during the NHL's heavily hyped Winter Classic in Buffalo, N.Y. The New Year's Day outdoor game at Ralph Wilson Stadium drew the league's highest regular-season ratings since 1996; league executives had to be particularly thrilled when Crosby won the game in an overtime shootout.
Marketing Sid the Kid seems to be working for the NHL on at least a superficial level. Elizabeth later told me that hearing about Crosby made her want to attend a hockey game for the first time. Still, the NHL's one-great-player marketing strategy is doomed to failure. Promoting individual stars just doesn't work for hockey for three simple reasons.