Growing the fan base, while ensuring existing fans stay happy, is crucial for the league. It’s a long-term commitment, said league executives, but it’s the lifeblood for the sport, and by extension, the business of the NHL.
By Rudy Mezzetta When the Predators partnered with the city of Nashville to build a new community rink – the twin-pad Ford Ice Center, which opened this fall – the goal wasn’t merely to extend the team’s brand. It was to convert new people to true hockey believers. “Get a stick in someone’s hands and they’re a fan for life,” said Sean Henry, the Preds’ president and chief operating officer. Growing the fan base, while ensuring existing fans stay happy, is crucial for the league. It’s a long-term commitment, said league executives, but it’s the lifeblood for the sport, and by extension, the business of the NHL.
“We’re always asking ourselves, is the game growing? Is it vibrant? Are the fans engaged?” said Brian Jennings, the NHL’s chief marketing officer. It takes a multi-pronged approach: growing the game at the grassroots, working with media partners to showcase the league and its players and leveraging the power of special events such as the Winter Classic. “It’s about building brand equity over time,” said Manish Tripathi, a professor who teaches sports marketing at Emory University. “Customer relationship management is as important in sports as it is in any other industry.” Increasingly, technology and social media will be linchpins creating engagement, encouraging dialogue between fans, the players and teams, executives say. This is critical to winning over the next generation. “Not only is social media ubiquitous, but it’s an inseparable part of a younger fan’s life,” Jennings said. Teams are using technology, too, to get a better sense of how their fans watch the game, and in turn, what promotions or reward programs will best suit them. The Washington Capitals are testing an app that allows fans to watch the game live while using Google Glass eyewear. Fans will be able to see team-supplied stats, replays and social media chatter without having to look down at a device. “It’s going to be better than the technology you have at home,” said Joe Dupriest of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the corporate owner of the Capitals. Marquee events like outdoor games and other special occasions can draw in loyal and casual fans. Events leading up to the game, including open practices and chances to interact with players, draw in the broader community. “In terms of generating buzz, the spectacle of these events is amazing for the NHL,” Tripathi said. Last season, the NHL held six outdoor games. This season, two are on the docket – the Winter Classic in Washington and a Stadium Series game in San Jose. Tripathi acknowledges the importance of moderation and maintaining novelty. “How much are you diluting the effect if you start doing these events too often?” he said. Leading up to this year’s outdoor games, the NHL is again making its players available for behind-the-scenes media content, this season with the network Epix, replacing HBO. “It’s peeling the helmet off of our players,” Jennings said. Last fall, the NHL signed a blockbuster Canadian broadcast deal with Rogers, through which the league expects to broaden its reach. The media firm is producing a series of Hockey 101 programs in 22 languages to draw in new immigrant communities who may be unfamiliar with the rules of the game. The league sees a great opportunity, too, in expanding its reach overseas, though obstacles such as time zones and cultural differences remain. The key, Jennings says, is to offer fans great online content in a variety of languages – NHL.com offers a choice of eight – that they can tailor to their preferences. “We increasingly look at ourselves as a global brand,” Jennings said. A revitalized World Cup of Hockey is expected to be a catalyst for a renewed push overseas, including bringing back games in Europe. “(If we) get the World Cup laid out on a regular basis from a timing standpoint,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at a media event, “then a lot of pieces to the puzzle will fall in behind that, including exhibition, regular season and other international competitions.” Of course, the greatest asset the NHL has in broadening its fan base is its existing one. The Predators have two ambassador groups, one consisting of season ticket holders and the other of college student fans, who are offered incentives – such as trips to NHL out-of-market events – to introduce the game to more people. While expanding the fan base is critical, it shouldn’t come at the risk of turning off longtime fans, executives say. The key is to be conservative when making changes to the game itself and to honor hockey’s history. “If a marketing opportunity is going to come at the expense of our traditional fans, we’re not going to do it,” Dupriest said. “They’re our core.”
This feature appears in the Nov. 24 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.
Eric Staal on life in the NHL before the 2004-05 lockout, and which human body parts he has autographed.
What was your favorite NHL team growing up?
The Leafs. I grew up in Thunder Bay, and it’s mostly Leaf Nation up there, too.
Who did you model your game after?
One of my favorite players was Joe Sakic, because of his clutch ability and because he played at both ends of the rink really well. He’s a good all-around player but was clutch.
Your ‘welcome to the NHL’ moment?
My first year was before the 2004-05 lockout, so any time I got near the net I took about eight cross-checks and slashes. I had a lot of those moments my first year at 18. It was a lot more physical before they changed the rules after that lockout.
First splurge purchase after signing an NHL contract?
I bought a Cadillac Escalade my first year once I knew I was staying and signing in Carolina. I needed a car, and my parents helped me, and I went and got one of those. It didn’t have spinning rims or anything like that, but it was nice.
What’s your favorite way to score?
I like to score from anywhere, but the fun ways to score are the one-timers or a sweet play. But most likely for me scoring, it’s going to be a quick-release shot. It’s going to be five-hole or low blocker. Those are my go-to.
What’s your craziest fan interaction?
I’ve signed people’s body parts. This one guy in Carolina, the whole team that won the Stanley Cup, he had everybody’s name tattooed to him. So he went around and basically got everybody that was on the team to sign, I think it was his leg or his calf or something, and he ended up tattooing everyone’s signature to his body. Hey, whatever you want to do. That was interesting.
Best thing about being an NHLer?
The fact I get to play a game for a living. How many people get to say they play a sport for a job? If I didn’t have this for a job, I would love playing beer-league pickup hockey with my buddies, because I love the game. I get to do that and get paid to do it, so there’s nothing better than that.
Worst thing about being an NHLer?
Travel. When you have a wife and kids, it’s hard being away. It’s hard for your wife when you’re busy and the kids are in school and hockey and everything else. It’s no fun being away. You always want to be around and be a part of everything, but the reality is we play 41 games on the road. That’s the hardest part.
As the trade deadline approaches, the likes of the Stars, Lightning, Red Wings, Canucks, and Sabres could all start selling off some attractive assets.
For weeks, the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche were the only clubs considered sellers in the NHL trade market. But with the March 1 trade deadline less than three weeks away, several clubs with fading postseason hopes could join them.
Among them could be the Dallas Stars. After topping the Western Conference standings in 2015-16, the Stars were eight points out of a wild-card berth as of Feb. 10. ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun believes the next couple of weeks will determine what action Stars GM Jim Nill takes leading up to the deadline. If they fail to gain ground in the standings, he could become a seller.
LeBrun speculates Nill could peddle some of his pending unrestricted free agents. Notables include forwards Patrick Sharp, Patrick Eaves, Jiri Hudler and Lauri Korpikosi. Of this group, Sharp and Eaves have the most value.
Sharp, 35, missed a significant chunk of this season to concussion symptoms. When healthy, however, he's a proven scorer with considerable playoff experience. Eaves, 32, is a versatile two-way forward who's flirting with a potential career-best 30-goal campaign.
Like Sharp, veteran defenseman Johnny Oduya has a solid postseason background. However, the 35-year-old is currently sidelined by a lower-body injury. That will hamper efforts to move him.
LeBrun also reports the Stars contacted the Pittsburgh Penguins regarding goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, but those discussions haven't gone far. It's widely assumed the Pens want to trade the 32-year-old netminder in order to protect young starter Matt Murray from the expansion draft in June.
If Fleury agrees to waive his no-movement clause to join the Stars, he might give them a much-needed goaltending boost to get back into playoff contention. Signed through 2018-19, he would be more than just a rental player.
Such a move, however, means shipping Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi to the Penguins or trading them to another club. Both have a year remaining on their contracts with no-trade clauses. Still, either guy might accept finishing this season with a Stanley Cup contender in Pittsburgh, even if it means being unprotected in the expansion draft.
The Tampa Bay Lightning could also go into sell mode soon. As of Feb.10, they were near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, six points out of a wild-card spot.
Considered a Stanley Cup contender entering this season, injuries hampered the Lightning for months. GM Steve Yzerman probably won't gut his roster because of one bad season, but he could look at moving out pending UFAs such as goaltender Ben Bishop and checking-line forward Brian Boyle.
Throughout this season, Yzerman's sought a top-four defenseman. Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reports the Bolts GM and Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic scouted last Friday's Anaheim Ducks game against the Florida Panthers. The Ducks are loaded with good young defenseman and Friedman speculates one of them could be dealt for a scoring forward.
The Ducks' biggest need is bolstering their scoring punch at left wing. With the Lightning carrying over $59 million in payroll for 2017-18 and left wingers Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin becoming restricted free agents this summer, perhaps there's a deal to be made There.
Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland could also become a seller by the deadline. His club is also mired near the bottom of the Eastern standings. Friedman thinks the Chicago Blackhawks might come calling if Holland puts winger Thomas Vanek on the trade block. The 33-year-old is on track for a 20-goal, 55-point season.
The Vancouver Canucks are another club that could join the deadline sellers. Earlier this season, Canucks GM Jim Benning said he wouldn't ask players with no-movement/no-trade clauses, such as goaltender Ryan Miller and winger Alex Burrows, to waive them. However, TSN's Bob McKenzie reports Benning might reconsider if there's interest in either guy.
Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray could also see an increase in trade inquiries over the next two weeks. There's talk pending UFA blueliner Dmitry Kulikov could attract attention from clubs seeking a skilled puck-moving rearguard.
Earlier this season, left winger Evander Kane was the subject of considerable trade chatter. That died down when the 26-year-old was sidelined by a rib injury. His improved performance in recent weeks, however, could rekindle that speculation. He's on pace for over 25 goals and 45 points.
Mike Harrington of The Buffalo Newsreports Kane's improvement is creating a dilemma for Sabres management. Do they keep Kane as a core player going forward, or take advantage of his improved play to sell high at the deadline in hopes of landing a top-four defenseman?
Kane's scoring skills and physical play could prove attractive. However, lingering off-ice baggage remains a serious sticking point.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
The Panthers are looking to add some scoring punch by the deadline, but they’ve already gotten plenty out of Jonathan Huberdeau in the six games since his return to action.
At points throughout the season, it’s looked like all the promise that surrounded the Florida Panthers entering the campaign was going to go unfulfilled, that the injuries and coaching change and off-ice shuffles were going to turn 2016-17 into a lost season. Florida has been on the outside of the playoff picture looking in more often than not this season, and as recently as last week they sat five points out of a wild-card spot, tied with the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils with 58 points.
One week can change things, though. Especially at this time of year.
The Panthers are as much a part of the post-season race as ever before, and now there’s the matter of the Panthers having games in hand on their side. While a minimal margin, Florida enters the final full week of February with two fewer games played than the Atlantic Division’s third-place squad, the Boston Bruins, while sitting only two points back of the divisional playoff spot. Meanwhile, when it comes to the wild card, the Toronto Maple Leafs hold a one point advantage on the Panthers, but Florida has one game in hand entering play on Monday.
So, with the playoffs well within reach, Florida’s president of hockey operations Dale Tallon told NHL.com that his team is looking to add with the trade market about to get that much more active with the deadline approaching. It makes sense, too, for Florida to get in on the dealing if they can add a few pieces that put them into the post-season and earn them some valuable experience. The Panthers were two wins away from the second round in 2015-16, and this could be the year they take that small step forward on the road to becoming a perennial contender.
It’s entirely possible, however, that the best acquisition the Panthers will have made going into the deadline won’t even cost them an asset in exchange. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t really an acquisition at all.
Jonathan Huberdeau injured himself with mere days remaining until the start of the season, and the injury to the 23-year-old was quite possibly more impactful than anyone could have imagined. The Panthers offense was struggling mightily through the first 51 games of the season without him, producing just 119 goals in 51 games, good for 2.33 per game. The only teams with less prolific attacks were the Devils, Vancouver Canucks, Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche. That’s four non-playoff teams who have nothing but a prayer of getting into the playoffs.
But things have been different for the Cats since Huberdeau’s return. There was some expectation, of course, that getting Huberdeau back would provide the offense with some sort of boost, but not even the most optimistic of Florida fans would have suggested that the difference in the team’s scoring ability would be so profound once Huberdeau was back in the lineup. It’s a small sample size, to be sure, but in the six games that Huberdeau has seen since his return from injury, the Panthers are averaging more than four goals per game and have mustered a couple of doozies, including six- and seven-goal performances. Oh, and Florida has only lost once in the six games since Huberdeau’s been back.
Of course, that the Panthers are producing at such a rate doesn’t necessarily have to point to Huberdeau being the most effective player on the ice, and it could simply be a nice run of play from a team that was underperforming. Sure doesn’t seem like that’s the case, though. Huberdeau has a point in all but one of the six games he’s played in since his return, and he’s picked up four goals and eight points over that span. Included in his totals are two game-winning goals — the game-winner in his first game back and an overtime winner in a thriller against the San Jose Sharks — and all four of his markers have come at even strength.
Again, while it’s a small sample size, one also can’t help but be impressed by the impact Huberdeau has had on Jaromir Jagr and Aleksander Barkov since returning. The trio formed the Panthers’ top line for much of the 2015-16 campaign and were reunited upon Huberdeau’s return in early February. Huberdeau has contributed one goal and four points at 5-on-5 playing on the line, while Jagr has two goals and five points and Barkov has lit the lamp four times. Seven goals and 13 points at 5-on-5 across six games is rather impressive output.
Huberdeau has managed all of this while having his minutes limited, too. No one outside of the organization likely knows the extent to which the effects of Huberdeau’s Achilles injury is still bothering him, but the busiest evening he’s had since his return was a 17:30 outing in his season debut. Since then, Huberdeau has only eclipsed the 17-minute mark once and twice skated less than 16 minutes. And it’s a wise decision by Panthers coach Tom Rowe to limit Huberdeau even if the injury isn’t plaguing him all that much. The more well-rested Huberdeau is for the playoffs — should the Panthers sneak in — the better.
Surely, Huberdeau’s return and Florida’s subsequent rise has played into Tallon’s interest in adding at the deadline, and he said he wanted to add some extra punch on the power play. The Panthers are still fighting to get into the post-season, and anything that can help Florida get into either a divisional or wild-card spot is worth picking up, because this is a team whose window is just starting to crack open. The Panthers have the space to do so with more than $9 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly, and it would be far from shocking to see Florida reach out and nab a veteran who can find the net with the extra man.
No matter who the Panthers acquire, though, it’s going to be hard for the additions to get much better than that of a healthy Huberdeau.
The Wild have a potential Vezina winner, coach of the year and a workhorse top defenseman, but come the post-season, opponent’s should most fear Minnesota’s depth.
Devan Dubnyk is well on his way to winning the Vezina Trophy and given the Wild have matched their win total from the past season in 25 fewer games, Bruce Boudreau is going to be in the conversation for the Jack Adams Award. He could very well take home the hardware by the time the season ends, too. There’s also going to be talk about Mikko Koivu for the Selke Trophy and Ryan Suter, as always, is going to be part of Norris Trophy discussions.
But with all the solo performances that have made this season an impressive one for the Wild, there’s more to this Minnesota club that the standout performances of single players. Rather, the best thing the Wild have going is their incredible depth, and as the playoffs inch nearer and Minnesota gears up for what looks like it could be a deep run, the way the Wild have been able to win should be striking fear into the hearts of opponents.
As of Friday, the Wild currently have the fourth-highest scoring offense in the league, but that’s a bit of a head scratcher given not a single player has hit the 20-goal plateau. Compare Minnesota’s lineup to that of the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals — the top three offenses in the league, respectively — and you don’t exactly walk away thinking the Wild belong in the conversation. The Penguins boast Crosby and Malkin, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller are leading the way for the Rangers and the Capitals are always lethal with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. On paper, one would likely take all three offenses ahead of Minnesota’s, especially given the Wild’s current top scorer, Mikael Granlund, had maxed out at 44 points before this season.
It’s been that kind of year in Minnesota, however, with just about everyone on the team stepping up under Boudreau. Matter of fact, no team boasts a more spread out offense than the Wild, who have 10 different players to have scored at least 10 goals. That list includes Koivu, Granlund, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, Chris Stewart, Eric Staal, Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Pominville and Jason Zucker. The Capitals high-powered offense is the only other group in the league that has as many 10-goal scorers, but the Wild have two more players, Suter and Jared Spurgeon, sitting at eight goals and on pace to hit double digits this season.
One of the things that’s evident is that Bourdeau has found a way to get the most out of players who are right in that prime stage of their development. There’s no better example than Granlund, whose 16-goal, 51-point performance thus far has already seen him set dual career highs. He’s not the only one on pace to reach new heights, however. Coyle’s 44 points are a new career-best, while Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Matthew Dumba, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker are all on their way to setting new bests.
And while Granlund is the best example of a guy flourishing under Boudreau, no player is quite as indicative of the way the Wild’s depth has been clicking like Zucker. The 2015-16 season was a frustrating one for Zucker and Wild fans. After coming off a 20-goal campaign in 2014-15, the belief was Minnesota had a goal-scoring star in the making. All the facets of his game were present, but none more than his ability to absolutely burn up the ice when he hit his top speed. And while he’s seen his ice time take a dip under Boudreau — he’s playing roughly a shift or two less per game — Zucker is having the season of his life while playing bottom-six minutes.
Through 57 games, he has 16 goals and 38 points, but only a single point of his has come on the power play and not a single point of his has been scored shorthanded. Instead, he’s been a stud for the Wild at 5-on-5, so much so that he’s in the same league as Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. That sounds bizarre, but it’s true.
Zucker’s managed 14 goals and 37 points while playing five-a-side this season, and the other 500-plus minute players who rank in the top five in scoring are McDavid, Crosby, Brent Burns and Mark Scheifele. That’s a select bunch as all four rank in the top six in league scoring. More impressive yet is that Crosby is the only one of those four others to have a higher points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than Zucker’s 2.86. Of course, no one is about to say Zucker’s in the same overall league as Crosby or McDavid, but when it comes to even strength play this season, the Wild winger is sure producing like it.
The brilliant thing about a player like Zucker playing that way is that he’s exactly the type of weapon a team that has designs on going deep into the post-season needs. Every post-season run has its unsung heroes, and they’re generally players who score a clutch overtime goal or get moved up the lineup in hopes of generating some offense. With the way Zucker has played, chances are he could be exactly that type of player for Minnesota in the playoffs, and if it’s not him, Niederreiter, Haula, Pominville and Stewart have all been proving they can give that added punch.
The post-season can be as much about rolling four lines and getting some mismatches along the way as it is about high-end skill. Given that’s the case, there isn’t a team more well equipped to make an opponent’s bottom six and depth defensemen pay quite as much as the Wild. So, while Dubnyk, Koivu and Suter could be in line for end-of-year award recognition, it’s the depth, led by players such as Zucker, that stands to carry Minnesota towards the real prize they’re chasing.