Sunday’s Olympic Gold Medal Hockey game between the United States and Canada was the sport's most watched game in 30 years. More than 27 million people tuned in for the final event of the 17-day long Vancouver games.
It has been five years since the NHL, the sport’s most prominent professional league, re-opened its doors following a yearlong lockout.
The resuscitation of the league has been marked by gimmicky overtime rules, defection of players to overseas, and championship games broadcast on (cough) the Versus Channel.
The 2009 playoffs marked the beginning of a slow and painful revival of interest to the league when its two biggest stars, Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, faced off against one another in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The series went to seven games, with Crosby’s Penguins winning the series on the road in Washington D.C.
Quick, who did the Penguins beat to win the Stanley Cup?
Give up? The Detroit Red Wings of course!
Four million people watched the Stanley Cup Finals during game one, and 7.5 million saw game seven.
In contrast, 10.5 million watched the Lakers clinch an anticlimactic NBA Finals in game five just two weeks later.
The question is being posed across message boards, the blogosphere, and that god-awful Sports Nation show on ESPN with Colin Cowherd: will the dramatic Olympic Hockey games generate more interest in the NHL?
My answer: temporarily.
Before the Games started, less than 50% of Buffalo probably knew Ryan Miller played for the Sabres. After stonewalling opposing countries en route to the Americans’ miracle silver medal run, he is instantly one of the league’s brightest stars.
Is that going to make people watch hockey this time next year? Doubtful.
What is going to make more people watch hockey is when it returns to ESPN.
What is going to make more people watch hockey is when 8-10 teams are cut high and dry, dissolved into a smaller, less diluted talent pool of 20 or so teams.
What is going to make more people watch hockey is when they stop trying to combine figure skating with mixed martial arts, and actually put out a dignified product, rather than one that relies on the occasional fight to bring fans to games
(Fights are fun to watch, and for the contingent of fans out there who pay only to see Brandon Prust beat the living brains out of someone, sorry but you’re in the minority when it comes to overall fanship).
Here’s the reader’s digest version of a plan to sustain popularity in the NHL – I’m calling it the Necessary Revamping Project:
First, drain the league to 20 teams. The wealth of talent is not at a level to provide great hockey night in and night out. This would obviously need to be a gradual process, because wiping out teams from 10 cities in one fell swoop would piss off more locals than John Rocker ever could.
So, for the next five years, two franchises are eliminated after each season. The defunct teams would be chosen based on a panel vote of the league’s owners. Only non-playoff teams would be eligible for expulsion.
Note to John Rocker: she's not Serena Williams, she's actually a hooker; don't believe everything you hear.
There’s an incentive to play good hockey: make the postseason or die. Don’t you think there would be some highly watched regular season games then? The NPR begins to make headway as a revitalization of entertaining hockey.
After each season, the players from the extinct teams would enter a supplemental draft. Are players going to lose their jobs? Yes, there will be players cut from current teams, and players from the eliminated teams that are not picked up.
What that will do is create a 20-team league that is loaded with the absolute best players hockey has to offer. ESPN, which is expected to sign back on with the NHL in the coming years, will play a key role in publicizing every team. The fewer the franchises, the more opportunities to play on national television.
So far, we’ve covered institutionalizing the sport, and revamping the rosters. That’s a pretty hefty overhaul, but I’m not done yet.
"NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is on hold, line one"
Get rid of shootouts. They are fun ways to end games, but would Kobe and LeBron ever go head-to-head in a free throw contest for the NBA title? By deciding games on a shootout, you compromise the game itself with a completely different method of play.
Until the league is down to its final 20 franchises, keep the shutouts. They keep people watching, which during the NRP is crucial to survival.
Some of the changes made during the NRP are going to be wildly unpopular, but in a relatively stagnant business like the NHL, the ends will justify the means.
Once the league is down to twenty, conferences will be eliminated and a 76-game season will be installed. Each team plays all of the others four times, two at home and two on the road.
The playoffs will then consist of the top 12 teams. The first four teams will receive first-round byes, while the other eight will face off in three-game series.
I would almost go as far to make the preliminary round single-elimination, but bringing a season’s worth of work down to one 60-minute game is not fair to those teams, and hey, the NRP is all about fairness (coughs louder).
Seriously though, with all the talk in sports today about money, the NHL is the only league that actually needs a boost. The NCAA wants to expand its basketball tournament – that’s greed. The NFL and NBA are facing work stoppages – because of greedy owners.
Those sports are all looking to expand their market and dominate the financial globe.
Meanwhile, the best thing the NHL can do is consolidate. Put Ryan Miller and Alexander Ovechkin on the same team, and see what it does to viewership.
Maybe then the sport will matter more than once every four years.