NHL Stakeholders Have a Lot of Thoughts to Share

Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara #33 keeps a close eye on the puck drop of a face off during the Bruins game against the Red Wings at TD Bank Garden in Boston, MA

Zdeno Chara’s controversial hit on Max Pacioretty is showing how many boundaries are blurring between the NHL and external parties.

The NHL, like just about every sports league, has aggressively pursued advertising opportunities, essentially putting the league in business with its advertising partners.

The league gets money from these deals and the advertisers get exposure to NHL fans.

But one of the league’s advertisers, Air Canada, didn’t like how the league handled the Chara-Pacioretty hit, and is threatening to sever its association with the NHL.

Air Canada has a right to comment on the hit because they’re in business with the league. If the NHL didn’t take Air Canada money, Air Canada really wouldn’t have the right to comment on the situation, and more importantly, they wouldn’t have any leverage in the situation (although NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman seems to be calling Air Canada’s bluff on getting out of the NHL).

Does this mean the NHL shouldn’t accept any advertising? Of course not. But the league should recognize that more partners means more voices, in addition to more money. Some NHL teams already have ads on their practice jerseys. How far is the NHL from ads on game jerseys? Those ads, if adapted, will generate revenue but will also be more voices with the right to comment on how the NHL handles its business.

The San Jose Mercury News had a column suggesting the government needs to stay out of sports controversies. The column was written in response to the news Canada’s Parliament might insert itself into the Chara-Pacioretty hit.

But to a certain extent, isn’t the NHL in business with the government? The league is trying to push through the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes that’s basically being subsidized by a local American government. If that deal falls through, there’s a good chance the Coyotes will move to a city like Quebec, whose local government is subsidizing an arena.

The NHL is in business with local governments, so why wouldn’t a federal government feel like it has a stake in the on-ice product?

The league cannot exist in a vacuum. It has to do business with external parties. But maybe the league needs to be more selective. Ad deals and government subsidies are great for the bottom line, but it creates more stakeholders. And with more stakeholders comes more voices commenting on how the NHL functions. As the NHL finds itself coming under fire from its business partners, it has to wonder if the ad dollars and subsidies are worth the price.

Not only is the league forced to deal with a controversial hit and the challenge of how to keeps its players safe, but it also has tons of partners stepping in front of cameras to tell the world everything the league is doing wrong.

That’s a steep price.