Chris Pronger's snarl was a perfect fit on Philadelphia from the moment he was traded there in 2009. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
In hockey, as in life, image counts, often in large amounts. Ask Gary Bettman, Sean Avery, or the Islanders’ abominable old Captain Highliner jersey. If you cultivate an appearance that resonates negatively with people, there will not necessarily be blood, but there will be a backlash making your path less pleasant to traverse.
But at a time in history where entertainment options are myriad and serve to splinter off segments of society into tiny target groups, there is a sin worse than being stuck with a bad image: having no image at all.
Unfortunately, more than a few NHL teams labor under that affliction. Historically, hockey’s best league has leaned on franchise logos and the power of the game itself to attract fans – and although that changed after the 2004-05 canceled season when NHL marketers realized they needed to focus on players, it hasn’t changed nearly enough.
To wit: what do you expect to see when the Columbus Blue Jackets come to town? Sure, you know you’re getting Rick Nash (and now Jeff Carter), but do you instantly understand the type of hockey you’ll be watching, the predispositions of that squad, or the manner in which their style clashes with or matches any particular opponent? I don’t.
And I’m not picking on Columbus. The Jackets are still in their relative infancy as a franchise and as such get a little more slack for being somewhat imageless. I could point to St. Louis (a talented young group whose identity forging process has been slowed by injuries), Minnesota (transitioning from the defense-above-all-else years of Doug Risebrough and Jacques Lemaire), Florida (the NHL’s southernmost revolving door for talent) and Atlanta/Winnipeg as teams with similar image issues.
Now contrast them with franchises that have burnished clear-cut images for themselves and reap rewards at the ticket window, both at home and away.
In 2010-11, the road teams with the highest attendance numbers all had distinct personalities to them. The Red Wings were the league’s highest-drawing road team, with a stunning 99.9 percent of tickets sold. Fans in 29 other NHL cities know what they’re getting when Detroit is in town – an abundance of skill, speed and no mindless, goon-infested gong shows – and they respond to it.
Trailing the Wings for top spot are the Chicago Blackhawks (97.4 percent) and Pittsburgh Penguins (97.2 percent). Like Detroit’s, their images have been bolstered by a recent Stanley Cup victory, but again, we’re talking about teams predicated on quickness and superior talent.
However, those who say image and consumer appeal is all about winning Cups would be surprised at the team that came in fourth. That would be the New Jersey Devils (95.7 percent) a franchise that, as we all are well aware, has made defense into an art, albeit an often-ponderous art. Even though they have played a style of hockey that doubles as relief for insomniacs, people understand what a ticket to a Devils game means.
Perhaps the best example of how a well-crafted image can serve a team comes in the form of the Philadelphia Flyers. Now, you may not care for Philly’s ultra-aggressive, occasionally over-the-line tactics, but for the past four decades, they’ve stuck to their philosophy and assimilated it throughout the organization so well, simply the colors of black and orange connote a physical brand of hockey.
I’m not suggesting some of the NHL’s blander teams copy the Flyers’ style. I am suggesting those teams reflect on some of the qualities and collective character traits that define them and find ways to amplify those qualities and traits. Maybe they do that by taking an edgier approach to in-game entertainment or the way their players interact with fans on social media outlets such as Twitter. Maybe they embrace their blue-collar work ethic among their players and focus their publicity spotlight on the hard-knock life those players had to overcome to get there.
Each team’s situation will differ, obviously. But every team can do more to underscore that which makes it distinct and give fans more reason to fork over their money to see that distinctness in person.
It can’t just be about the logo on the front of the jersey anymore. Image matters more than ever and though the NHL has made strides in that department, it can take a marathon’s worth of additional strides.
Better to be thought of negatively than not be thought of at all.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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