If you were in Pebble Beach last week, please tell us what color the sky was. We’re certain it wasn’t the same shade as the one we were seeing.
The NHL’s board of governors emerged from their California retreat/meeting session bubbling with enthusiasm about the state of their game, both on and off the ice. That’s their prerogative, but is somewhat fanciful.
While I don’t believe hockey is in dire straits or in need of an overhaul, there are areas of concern that shouldn’t be glossed over.
Let’s start with what’s transpiring on the ice. The entertainment value this season is, on the whole, OK. I’ll give it a C+.
Goal-scoring in and of itself is not a measure of excitement, but it does provide a good measuring stick. And pucks are going in less frequently than last season (5.4 per game compared to 5.8), which was a decline over the year before (6.3).
From this vantage point, it would seem there are more dud games now than during the season after the lockout ended and longer stretches within contests when not enough is happening to captivate the audience.
At the same time, despite some encouraging baby steps taken by the NHL, headhunting and brain injuries remain serious issues.
Just ask Christopher Higgins, who stated recently that respect is at an all-time low among players in the NHL and that guys are targeting opponents’ heads in order to knock them out of games; or Patrice Bergeron, who may not play again this season due to a hit from behind; or Simon Gagne, who has missed most of the 2007-08 campaign with post-concussion syndrome.
An Orange County Register study found that prior to this season 64 players on average suffered from concussions or concussion symptoms each season over a six-year stretch, with the trend on the upswing. There’s no reason to believe anything has changed this season.
Off the ice, revenues may be steadily rising, but much of that has to do with growth in Canada (the market and the dollar), and is in spite of waning interest in the United States. Basic math tells us the spike in Canadian currency was worth something in the neighborhood of $70 million or more last year (over the previous one) to a league that is raking in increasingly more loonies.
And there’s little doubt Canada is carrying the league right now – five of the top eight teams in average attendance are from north of the border. And the sixth, Edmonton, is playing to nearly 99 percent of capacity. Some reports have pegged the six Canadian clubs (which comprise 20 percent of the league) generating as much as 40 percent of the overall revenue.
At The Hockey News, we’ve witnessed the swing. Our American audience used to make up the majority of our readership, by a wide margin. Now, Canada easily comprises the lion’s share.
Meantime, the NHL’s proclamation that it had its best November ever in terms of attendance should be digested with the following information: the 10 teams with the worst averages had played 14 fewer home dates than the 10 teams with the best averages, thus skewing the composite average upwards. If everyone were at the same GP mark, the average would settle lower by a few hundred.
This doesn’t mean the NHL is on its deathbed; the product is still relatively solid and the bottom line isn’t brutal. But erosion is taking place, the U.S. market is still apathetic and it would be foolish for the game’s guardians to ignore the warning signs.
Look what happened the last time neglect gained a foothold.