NHL: There’s Nothing a Regular Season Gimmick Can’t Fix

New York Rangers vs Philadelphia Flyers played at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, PA: Overhead of park at the start of the game.

Sports Illustrated‘s Michael Farber had an interesting look at John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer.

Collins came from the NFL and is credited with making the NHL more event-driven, coming up with ideas like hyping the annual outdoor game, starting the season in Europe, and making the All-Star game a sort of real-life fantasy draft.

The article is largely complimentary, but Farber does take issue with aspects of Collins’ philosophy:

You probably don’t know his name, but you do know his signature as the NHL’s P.T. Barnum. While the lawyerly [NHL Commissioner Gary] Bettman generally is about taking things step by step, Collins, the business guy, breathlessly rushes to the next thing, pushing, mining for opportunity and never having a bad hair day. The NHL’s 1,230 regular season games — OK, 1,229, after the Winter Classic — seem to have become an interregnum connecting the new narrative as the league lurches from one special event to the next.

I too have some concerns about what Collins is doing to the league. More and more, mainstream media NHL news seems to be about either one-off special events, like the Winter Classic and the All-Star draft, or horrible violence associated with the game. But the regular season, for the most part, is completely ignored, left for the fans to discuss amongst themselves.

Part of that is because the NHL season is so long and grueling. It’s hard for fans to sustain a level of excitement for 82 games; I’m not sure it’s fair or realistic to expect the local media to maintain it.

The regular season is also often ignored because the post-season is considered to be hockey’s real season. After all, more than half of the league’s teams make it into the playoffs. That’s where the games really begin to count.

But the disappointing thing is that Collins comes from the NFL, where the regular season games are incredibly important (I’m assuming no one from Indianapolis is reading this…). Obviously, that’s because of the much shorter season, but not entirely (team parity is also probably a factor, and that’s something else the NHL is struggling to successfully accomplish). Just about every regular season NFL game is an event, enjoyed by fans of the teams playing, but also non-fans.

The NHL can create that kind of excitement around regular season games. They can do it by building schedules with more rivalries. They can do it by taking serious steps to curb violence in the game, rather than using PowerPoint to craft circular excuses for player misbehavior. They can allow skill to flourish in front of goaltenders, rather than to allow it to be constantly pinned against the boards.

Collins has non-fans talking about the NHL. He deserves credit for that. But he’s doing so at the expense of the regular season. He’s turning the regular season into some European games, followed by the Winter Classic, followed by the All-Star game, followed by the trade deadline, followed by the post-season. The regular season may as well be a montage.

Is Collins creating hockey fans or is he tricking people into watching a few select games, only to return to their non-hockey ways? The NFL season culminates in the Super Bowl, and while a lot of non-football fans watch the final game of the season, the Super Bowl really is about a journey that started in the regular season.

It would be great if Collins could try and do that for the NHL, also.

You know. Rather than trying to talk the league into a regular season game played on roller skating donkeys.