Jets and Crosby Show the Importance of NHL Teams, Not Players

Circa 1990's: Teemu Selanne of the Winnipeg Jets

I was happy to see the good people of Winnipeg are psyched to have an NHL team in their midst again. The new Jets are already rock stars and they’ve yet to play an official minute in the Peg.

Excitement has been one of the main casualties of the NHL’s expansion into non-traditional markets and into markets that can’t really sustain an NHL team.

By forcing square hockey pegs into round market holes, the league sucked the excitement out of the game for fans, many of whom were forced to sit amongst swaths of empty seats and for players, who toiled in an obscurity usually reserved for Mummenschanz performers.

But assuming the excitement shown by the people of Winnipeg will translate into ticket sales, it seems the league is better off having a team in a hockey market, as opposed to a team trying to create a hockey market, as was the case with the Jets previous stop in Atlanta.

NHL teams in traditional markets also means the success of the league hinges less on the successes of its national stars.

Just about everyone attached to hockey is analyzing the Sidney Crosby concussion situation, trying to determine when he’ll come back, if he’ll come back, and if there’s some sort of cover-up going on somewhere. A lot of this is driven by the fact that it’s August and not much is going on, NHL-wise. But a lot of this is also driven by the fact that Crosby is the face of the NHL. For much of North America (especially NBC), Crosby is the NHL.

But in hockey markets outside of Pittsburgh, the Crosby story is more curiosity than anything. Because for fans in true hockey markets, in places like Winnipeg, they’re way more interested in their own players than in Crosby.

Look at a recent screengrab of the front page of The Arizona Republic’s sports page. Above the fold is all baseball and college football:

screenshot of Arizona Republic's sports page

Below the fold the only NHL mention is of Crosby. And this is in a market with an NHL team:

screenshot of Arizona Republic's sports page

Unfortunately, it’s a team that has trouble selling tickets and a team that also threatens to be a drain on public funds.

For the NHL to be successful, fans need to be excited about their teams. If fans are only excited about NHL stars, when those stars disappear, so do the fans.

I’ve written about how the NHL can’t put everything on Sidney Crosby’s shoulders. But as we’re seeing in Winnipeg, it’s not even so much about the players as it is about the team.

Players are an important part of the NHL success equation, but they’re not the only part. Fans still want teams. Players can get injured but teams are always there (until they move to another city).

I hope Crosby recovers from his concussion and manages to regain his pre-concussion form. I would hate to see a concussion compromise such a bright-looking career. But if something does happen to Crosby, and he can’t play next year, or he can’t play at the same level he once played at, the Penguins will go on. Fans will still go to games and root for the Penguins.

The NHL needs to go to Winnipeg and see how the city is embracing its new team to understand how to market the league. Players are important, but so are franchises.

The lesson of Winnipeg and the lesson of Crosby’s concussion are the same one: if the NHL is going to remain a strong sports league, it needs fans to embrace teams and not a core group of league-deemed important players.