NHL doing well at reinventing itself

Alex Ovechkin starred in one of NHL's new, high-profile events, Winter Classic, New Year's Night at Pittsburgh.
Alex Ovechkin starred in one of NHL's new, high-profile events, Winter Classic, New Year's Night at Pittsburgh.
Posted: January 28, 2011

CALL IT the National Hijinks League.

Once the place where old ideas were treasured like artifacts, the National Hockey League has become the league of What-The-Hey.

Shootouts. Outdoor hockey. Coatsey and Pierre McGuire offering their insights from the penalty box.

And tonight, a fantasy All-Star draft that actually produces two real-life teams!

Want to hear one of the league's premier stars call a rival town a naughty name? Tune in to HBO's "Hard Knocks" series featuring the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby. Want to watch the funniest ESPN commercial? Laugh again as Ovechkin is hoisted into the ceiling, "Mission: Impossible" style, by teammate and fellow Russian Semyon Varlamov.

It's all great stuff, from a league that has decided in recent years not to take itself so seriously, a league that used to trip over its own red line when someone suggested change - or when it tried to.

Now, there is no red line. Why? Because someone thought, maybe, just maybe, it would open up the middle of the ice and liquidate the fan-antagonizing neutral zone trap. Similarly, goalies must wear equipment smaller than an addition to your home, and they are no longer allowed to wander far from theirs.

Once, officials avoided calling penalties late in games because of the advantage it gave another team. Now, games are won and lost via such calls. Once you could grab, hold, punch or tickle an opposing player with or without the puck. No more.

The NHL is the league that tries harder now, that thinks outside its penalty boxes. It isn't afraid to fail, or look foolish, or invite criticism.

It isn't afraid to risk a bath - figuratively or literally. When rain made playing this year's Winter Classic dangerous, it moved the game to the night. Critics saw a ratings disaster. But fans, particularly younger ones, followed, turned it into a prime-time event.

The NHL's television ratings still lag behind the other three major sports, but there are gains there, as well. NBC's ratings for last year's Stanley Cup were the best in 13 years, and the deciding Game 6, with 8.3 million viewers overall, was the most-watched NHL telecast in 36 years.

Versus has produced ratings gains in recent seasons. But the league's absence on ESPN - with all the cross-marketing that entails - impedes its visibility. Both TV contracts are up. The NHL is being wooed, a far cry from its post-lockout status. ESPN's clever Ovechkin commercial is one indication it wants back in. People talk about hockey more than they ever have, particularly among the critical 18-34 male age group that advertisers covet.

The NHL still trips at times. Ovechkin and Crosby should be picking the teams tonight, not, well, those other two guys. And why not play this game outdoors? As a kid, I never played a meaningful game outdoors, except for that one time when a couple of girls we knew showed up to watch. I suspect you would not find one NHL player who did either.

The All-Star Game should be the outdoor event, not an in-season game that could decide playoff position. The Flyers made the postseason by a point last year. What if they lost in regulation at Fenway on New Year's Day?

And why not, instead of a draft, actually throw sticks to the middle of the ice, and have the two captains separate them a half-hour before playing? If one guy gets too few or too many defensemen, they can make a swap. And if one team is whupping up another after one period, do what you do in pond hockey:

Throw the sticks in the middle for the second period and do it all over again.

I know. The Southern teams, like this year's host, the Carolina Hurricanes, would not have the weather to host an outdoor All-Star Game. And the NHL is all about growing these markets.

Sunday's temperatures in Raleigh are expected to peak at 52 degrees. As we learned through the less-than-ideal conditions in Pittsburgh that forced this year's Winter Classic to be played at night, technology exists already that can keep the ice solid amid temperatures in the 50s, and that technology is getting more sophisticated by the year. So, have an indoor backup plan, which they've had for the last two seasons. Or in those years when it's a Southern team's turn, simply skip the outdoor element for a year.

Next year, the NHL All-Star Game is in Ottawa, where people skate over frozen canals to go to work each day. How fun would that be, to have it outdoors up in Canada's capital? The teams could even conduct practices on the canal, as the Flyers did recently in New York's Central Park.

I mean, What The Hey.

And that's the point. If you've thought of it, the NHL probably already has considered it. It's a nice change from its muck-and-grind past. A decade ago, it didn't promote its stars, and it didn't protect them, either.

Now it seems to get it. And the NHL is being rewarded for it.

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