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Edition 104-July 1, 2013
The Americanization of Hockey
A rougher, meaner, more physical brand
By Thomas Terrio

After watching the National Hockey League’s non-season of 2013 and subsequent Chicago Black Hawks Stanley Cup victory over the Boston Bruins, the one thing that stood out in my mind was how the United States of America has Americanized Canada’s national sport.

How you might ask? There is no doubt, the marketing strategy of the NHL governors is to compete with the National Football League; not on a dollar per dollar advertising budget basis, but in the way the game itself is played, with the idea a faster, meaner, more physical game will drive the American sports fan to their brand.

Most certainly, the game is much rougher than it once was. Indeed, when you are competing with Monday Night Football, switching the marketing gears to a grittier more physical game is the only way to go. Unfortunately, the NHL is the least profitable of all the professional sport leagues, such as the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and far behind the number one most profitable sports organization in the U.S., the NFL.

The revenue generated by the NFL in 2012 was US $9 billion. Furthermore, the average NFL franchise is worth US $1.5 billion, which is 250 percent higher than what it was in 1998. In comparison, the NHL generated only US $3.28 billion in 2012 revenues, well below the NFL; and the average cost of a NHL franchise is approximately $250 million, with the top teams priced between US $550 million and US $1 billion.

Within the last few years, the NHL has changed several rules to speed-up the game. For example, allowing a two-line pass that would have otherwise been offside. More rule changes are forthcoming, but must first be approved by the NHL governors and Players Association. The proposed rule changes include a switch to shallower goal nets, which would allow more space behind the goal for play making and physical contact. Also included is the rule which allows a linesman to determine what passes are attainable to wipeout an icing, may be removed, speeding-up the game.

Moreover, double-minor high sticking penalties would be subject to replay, giving players more freedom to get their sticks-up. All this to make the game faster and henceforth, rougher. On the other hand, the NHL is proposing a rule that would force players with less than 25 games in the NHL to wear a visor, no doubt a good case for avoiding liability. But as a hockey player, I know of many sticks that found their way up-and-under a visor.

However, the NHL added a “Head Shot Rule” in 2012, where players now face a minor penalty for any hit involving: primary contact to the head, or hits which target an opponent's head, or make the head a principal point of contact. We’ll need to wait and see how all this transpires in the way of reducing head injuries. In my view, a two-minute penalty for seriously injuring someone is ridiculous.

The saddest part of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs was watching the semi-finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins. I’m a big fan of Sidney Crosby and think it’s a shame what has happened to him. Crosby has had a serious concussion, perhaps more than one, and a broken jaw, which Zdeno Chara punched in Game 1.

It was easy to see how Crosby became frustrated early-on in the series. His impatient and edgy behaviour and what appeared to be an unusual lack of quickness could easily be attributed to his head injuries. I fear he is now damaged goods. Crosby has only been playing in the NHL since the 2005-2006 season.

It’s amazing how an organization like the NHL can continue to allow its most valuable assets, its players, to be damaged. Hockey has rules and penalties for Charging and Boarding. The names explain themselves. These rules have been somewhat amended recently, but these two penalties are rarely called in today’s game.

The term checking, came from the idea you must stay close to your opponent, that is, stay with him, check him, watch him, not concussion him against the boards or slam his head into the glass. There are plenty of semantics surrounding the new rules; one will need to wait in order to see how the new rules play out on the ice with the players, with the fans, and more importantly—the referees who make the calls.

The game of hockey has always been represented by three main skills: skating, shooting, and stickhandling. Yes, the speed of the game is important, but not to the point where it can be used as a weapon to injure a fellow player. Five years ago I stopped watching hockey because of the senseless violence, but went back after Sidney Crosby returned.

I was hoping his recovery was complete, but I’ve seen this type of situation before with Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. Unfortunately, I fear Sidney Crosby’s best years are most likely behind him, and you can thank the Americanization of hockey for that.

And how is the NHL doing with a meaner, more physical brand in the United States? Well, NHL revenues were up by nine percent in 2012, and over 2 million fans turned-out in the streets of Chicago last month for their second Stanley Cup victory parade in four years.

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