Ten lessons the NHL could learn from other professional sports leagues to grow the game

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As exciting as hockey is as a sport, the NHL has been lagging behind other professional leagues for some time. Hockey can only grow so much organically, which is why it’s time to start taking notes from other professional entities’ successes and apply them to hockey.

One of the most obvious ways to grow hockey is promoting more best-on-best atmospheres on the global stage, with Olympics participation and a reoccurring, stable World Cup of Hockey tournament. But that’s not the only way to boost NHL hockey. There are lessons to learn from around the sports world, if the NHL’s willing to be bold.

Become more player-centric

NBA (honorable mention, NFL and MLB)

There’s an open from the ’90s hit TV series “Seinfeld” in which Jerry Seinfeld talks about how sports fandom is really just fans rooting for certain clothes. The point being made is how sports fans are such careless die-hards for their team. With the advent of social media and the overall growth in the visibility of sports through the years, this has evolved.

There is still passion and connection fans have toward their teams, but there is also a deeper connection fans have with their favorite players. San Jose Sharks fans cross over as Dallas Stars and Carolina Hurricanes fans because of their loyalty to Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns. Even if the Sharks were better, those San Jose fans would still have some level of soft spot for wherever those beloved former Sharks would go.

The NHL can do a much better job empowering individuality and spotlighting players as opposed to being so locked in on the team logos. It can be as simple as promoting a player’s interest in style or working with a social cause. There are a handful of players — Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, etc. — that get that treatment, but even those individual promotions are closely tied to what players do on the ice.

Hockey players often get a reputation for having bland personalities, which might be true for some players. But others want to show off their off-ice persona and side interests but are hesitant because of the backlash they would receive from their peers for not being all about the team. A player building their brand should be viewed as a good thing and something the league, from the top down, leans into instead of shies away from. The NHL should want players to be more recognizable outside of the game, even if their star power transcends their role on the team. That can help bring hockey further into the mainstream and help increase fans.

Create the NHL-version of NFL RedZone

NFL

Across any sport, scoring plays tend to be the biggest draws. That’s why the NFL dedicates one station to playing every single one live, or close to it, on its busiest day of the week with RedZone.

That’s something the NHL should try to emulate, with its own spin to build on the current coverage. There are a few fundamental differences between the NHL and NFL, from the scheduling (all but three games, generally, are between two time slots on a Sunday for the NFL) to the fact it’s easier to anticipate scoring in football when teams march down the field. Power plays and empty net situations could be flashed to live, and other scoring sequences that aren’t captured live could be shown on a very slight delay.

Similar to RedZone, it would be wise to have this available as a cable add-on as well as via streaming whether it’s an additional cost on top of the current packages. That would keep it accessible for fans and help promote leaguewide interest. This could be kept to the busiest days of the schedule (which tend to be Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) or even just a Saturday special, to start.

Stagger the NHL schedule

NBA

Along with accessibility troubles with blackouts and streaming, what hurts a fan’s ability to watch a lot of hockey is the schedule itself. The schedule tends to be packed with games on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. And oftentimes, the bulk of those games all start at the same time so fans with streaming packages can’t even flip to other games during intermission to get a better leaguewide view.

An adjustment could be as simple as staggering the start times, similar to the NBA. It’s something the NHL is experimenting with this season, with a 16-game night Oct. 24.

Realistically, this probably isn’t the answer on every busy night of the schedule because the timing isn’t ideal for every market. There’s room for some shifts here that shouldn’t make start times too late in home markets (from 7:15 p.m. local starts up to 7:30 on occasion). But there’s also room to spread out the schedule throughout the week to have fewer bulky days.

It’s still possible to have a day with few games to emphasize national coverage (like TNT on Wednesdays in the United States), and 16-game slates Saturdays. But adding more games to Mondays, Fridays and Sundays will allow fans to watch more hockey leaguewide to boost viewership. Some fans might only care about their team, but the current schedule setup is stopping others from trying to broaden their interests.

More appointment-watching games

NFL

The NFL has the marketing advantage over the NHL in spotlighting games by the simple fact there is just one game per week, but there is a lesson to be taken from its philosophical approach. For a long time, the NFL was all about a loaded Sunday schedule and “Monday Night Football,” with the occasional game Thursday night. In recent years, “Thursday Night Football” has become a staple, and there are requirements for each team to get a minimum amount of prime-time exposure.

Logistical pros and cons aside, it’s a shrewd move by the NFL to give football fans more appointment-watch football. Beyond just “Hockey Night in Canada” weekly or yearly occasions like the Black Friday showdown, there could be room to have another series of special games. Maybe there’s a way to truly have a “Rivalry Night,” which NBC experimented with in the past, or a monthly divisional showdown that gets “big game” treatment on a national scale. Even games with secondary broadcasts could be eye-catching, like the NHL’s Big City Greens Classic to teach young fans about hockey.

If fans show they like something, it’s smart to give them more of it, while also maintaining a level of exclusivity. For example, the NFL’s longtime Thanksgiving tradition was to have the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys host a game, but in 2006, it added a third Thanksgiving game that has a rotating cast of teams. If hockey fans make a spectacle out of, let’s say, the Winter Classic, why only have one Winter Classic for the entire league? There is a way to give fans more dates to circle on their calendars without watering down the excitement of the event.

More flexibility with the salary cap

NBA

With recent Stanley Cup champions, there’s been some conversation about cap circumvention and how teams have used long-term injured reserve to set themselves up for the best possible run in the playoffs. The NHL operates under a hard cap that doesn’t allow for a lot of creative avenues for team builders. The NBA, on the other hand, has a soft salary cap that creates more opportunities for teams to make moves by shifting things around and using a bevy of exceptions.

There is a fine line to this, as the NBA has probably gone too far with some of its cap exemptions and multiple aprons. Some of that can take away from the fan experience because it can get so complicated and hard to follow, but the NHL can still grow without going full NBA — even with a simple solution of changing the current restricted free-agent system that hurts a player’s chance to earn more in their prime, and often leads to managers’ signing costly unrestricted free-agent deals.

Implement a designated player rule

MLS

Another way to add cap flexibility could draw from Major League Soccer’s designated player rule.

The rule was implemented to help the MLS in a competitive international football market. Teams are allowed to spend over the cap to bring in three big-name players, from David Beckham to more recently Lionel Messi. It’s helped give a competitive edge to the team by adding the players and adding more legitimacy to the league.

The NHL doesn’t need the latter, since it’s already the highest level of league hockey. But it could be a way to pump up the value of star players in hockey and promote a more competitive environment in a league that barely uses offer sheets. Because the situations among leagues differ, three designated players might be excessive, But maybe allowing one or two players per team would promote more player movement among the elite tier to spice things up and drive interest. If two, maybe there could be more stipulations with only one designation for UFAs, and one has to be for a drafted player. With this rule, a team like the Buffalo Sabres could find its two designated players by extending franchise player Rasmus Dahlin to a contract that’s above the cap next summer and sway Auston Matthews to join.

Don’t be beholden to the way it’s always been

MLB

No league likes to hold on to its history quite like Major League Baseball. There are some positives to that, but being too rigid can also hold back the product from improving in very basic ways. For example, the implementation of the pitch clock this season has made MLB games much more watchable for casual fans, as games are bordering on four hours apiece. It’s a simple fix many have been calling for, for years and didn’t need to take this long to be added.

Taking new chances at things that aren’t part of the storied history of a league is a positive thing for growth. MLB is notorious for appealing to traditional baseball fans but losing out on attracting younger viewers at the pace they should. Evolving the game with some rule tweaks is part of that, but so is leaning into quirky ideas. MLB’s Field of Dreams game in 2022 was a great success, and there’s no reason the NHL couldn’t put forth an effort to display its parallel to something like that.

Overall, the lesson is not to be so resistant to change. Change is the only constant, and oftentimes, it’s inevitable. Just lean into it and get ahead of the game of keeping things fresh instead of waiting for the product to get stale.

Implement more advanced replay technology

WTA/ATP tennis

Though the rules vary per tournament, almost every one uses Hawk-Eye technology in some capacity. The system uses cameras positioned to track a ball’s trajectory. In some tournaments, that technology is used for all line-calling. In others, it’s available as instant replay that can be relied on when players challenge a call. And for a few stragglers (hello, French Open), video replay is avoided altogether.

There are still some kinks to work out, which were highlighted recently at Wimbledon. In tournaments where Hawk-Eye is for challenges, only, the fear of wasting a challenge can prove costly when the technology is there to avoid those mistakes. And of course, there can still be some gaps and challenges when relying on a tracking system for everything. But it helps promote efficiency the NHL is missing with replay situations, like offside and goaltender interference reviews. Equipping areas with more advanced tracking technology like this, including the blue lines and goal lines, could start as a more fool-proof way of checking challenged goals and cut down on time spent. And that’s something the league can ramp up from there, as the process gets smoothed out. Though there’s always been an effort to keep a human element, the question remains at what cost when it can be better supported by a tracking service.

Lean in on data and promote it publicly

NFL, MLB, NBA and MLS

Data and research development have taken strides in hockey in recent years, but it’s behind other major leagues — especially in the public sphere. For all that the NHL’s been building, little has been shared with the public when there’s a growing market for this type of information. Analytics and data might not intrigue all fans, but there’s a sector craving more information — including the growing market of betting and fantasy sports.

Betting and fantasy sports build revenue around the game, and it heightens interest. A fan of the Red Wings might not care about what’s happening with the Canucks — but if they have a bet on that game, or Elias Pettersson on their fantasy team, they might be following along very closely. It opens up a different degree of interest for fans, which will increase viewership. But betting and fantasy sports in hockey aren’t near the level they are elsewhere, like the NFL, and a lack of deeper public information could be contributing to it.

Allow fresh voices to make their imprint on the game

NFL

It’s become a borderline running joke of how the new flavor in the NFL is the young offensive mind’s becoming a head coach, almost to a fault (Kliff Kingsbury). But there are a lot of success stories that have come from teams’ adoption of this approach.

The most famous example is Sean McVay’s doing what he’s done with the Rams in Los Angeles, but one of his assistants, Zac Taylor, has had great success in Cincinnati. Kyle Shanahan is another example with his work in San Francisco, and one of his top assistants, Mike McDaniel, branched out and is having his own taste of success in Miami.

Nobody recycles head coaches quite like the NHL, where second chances are just the precursor for third and fourth chances. Some of those coaches say they are evolving with the times, and perhaps they do to an extent — Spencer Carbery in Washington is an example of that — but it’s not to the level it could be with a fresher, more innovative mind at the helm who is more in tune with the modern player.

Athletes evolve, especially with different resources at their disposal. Playing into those strengths from a directive at the top is not only good to elevate the player but also the team, and in turn, makes for a better product for the league.

(Photo: Stan Grossfeld / The Boston Globe via .)

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