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.
Any given hockey player is only on the ice for a fraction of the game. During Game 5 of the Penguins-Rangers series, a game that went into overtime and lasted 67 minutes, Sidney Crosby was on the ice for just 23 minutes. Hockey fans know that's a lot of ice time in a grueling sport, but newbies tuning in to see Crosby tear up the opposition probably aren't aware that they'll have to go to the trouble of figuring out when he's actually playing. Tune in to a Cavs game in the fourth quarter, and you know LeBron James will be on the court. That's just not the case in hockey, and while the constant substitution adds an extra level of intrigue for die-hards, the finer points of line changes are always going to flummox new fans.
Hockey equipment is bulky and obscuring. The easiest player to find on the ice in the 1990s was the bare-headed Craig MacTavish, who stood out as the only player in the league who still had an exemption to the NHL's helmet requirement. Hockey players are mostly the same size, shape, and color—the last representing another big marketing problem for the NHL—and are dressed in heavy gear that's tough to see past even in close-ups, much less during the fast-flowing action. Sure, football players wear facemasks, but they vary greatly in size and shape and tend to line up in the same spot at the start of each play. NFL broadcasts also have long breaks between plays that are usually filled by tracking shots of individual players. The most exciting aspect of hockey is that there's no dawdling, but this constant speed and flow makes it challenging for neophytes to tell what's going on. Which brings me to the third point.
New fans need to be taught which parts of the play to watch. The typical hockey goal comes from a quick centering pass to an open player, who often skates in from the blue line at high speed. Seasoned hockey fans know to watch for players skating into slot openings and the subsequent centering pass. To a new viewer, this all looks like pinball. It's even more difficult to predict when a goal's about to happen when the camera can't show the complete area between the goal and the blue line.
Fortunately for the NHL, technology has come to the rescue. High-definition television has brought televised hockey closely in line with the thrilling experience of watching a game in person. Most important for new fans, HD goes a long way toward solving two of the problem areas I've described. Not only does HD turn the faint black blur of the puck into a well-defined punctuation mark, it makes sweater names readable and toothless smiles recognizable. The 16-to-9 aspect ratio of HDTV also offers a broader horizontal view of the ice than standard-def television's 4-to-3 aspect ratio. Players don't just appear out of nowhere, charging the net at full speed. Rather, plays develop in real time, allowing you to follow the action and learn how the action builds and goals get scored.
It's unlikely that Best Buy will sell more HDTVs by offering better rink clarity. But as HD broadcasts increase, the hardware spreads, and the majority of NHL games are (hopefully) once again carried on a channel that some people have actually heard of, sports fans who've only seen Sidney Crosby in commercials will become more inclined to watch an actual hockey game. Once they do, they'll see that the NHL is one of the world's greatest team games, not just Sid the Kid's personal playground.