In 1992, the NHL farmed out 24 regular-season games to neutral sites, the result of a rare collective bargaining win for the players (pre-Gary Bettman, of course) that bumped the season to 84 games and had them split profits with the owners for those contests.
The first few games of the experiment were … unsuccessful. They drew 8,783 in Saskatchewan for the Flames and the North Stars, a game that had to compete with Eric Lindros’s first game in Quebec City as a Flyer on TV. They drew 7,186 at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton for the Leafs and Senators because the Blue Jays were in the World Series that same night. The Capitals and Blackhawks played at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis and sold about half the tickets in the building on Election Night, which of course featured incumbent vice president and noted Hoosier Dan Quayle.
The NHL’s neutral site experiment ran for two seasons from 1992-94. Bettman ended it in May 1995, settling with the NHLPA with a lump sum payment for the games that would have been played in 1995-96. (Please recall the lockout cutting the season in half, leaving no room for the games that season.)
There’s been no talk about reviving them domestically, even as the NHL plays regular-season games overseas.
“I haven’t heard of it since they killed them. They were a little bit before my time, but I don’t think they were very successful,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN in June.
There should be talk about reviving them.
The primary objective for the NHL, in everything it does, should be to create new hockey fans. Some of these attempts have been promising, like the outreach to communities to create opportunities for young athletes to play hockey, and their recent foray into esports. Some of these attempts have been a little more fraught, like a few ham-fisted attempts at inclusion. Arguably, the most effective way the NHL has found to create new fans is by bringing the game itself to the fans: Through international games and through expansion.
The international neutral site games are now an ingrained part of the schedule, with preseason games in Europe and Asia as well as some regular season games, including in Sweden and Finland next season. The domestic neutral site games are played in the preseason.
On the expansion front, it’s no coincidence that five of the 13 cities that hosted neutral site games in 1992-94 eventually received NHL franchises: Miami, Atlanta and Minneapolis through expansion; Dallas and Phoenix through relocation. The experiment in some ways was a trial balloon. The other cities included Milwaukee, Cleveland, Sacramento, Oklahoma City, Providence, Peoria (!), Indianapolis and Cincinnati. Their balloons popped, for various reasons.
So why would things be different this time?
Obviously, the NHL has grown exponentially in the last 25 years, not only in popularity — Daly happily conceded the NHL is in a “much better place” than it was in 1992 — but in geographic reach. It’s like putting the Winter Classic in a place like Notre Dame: It’s the preseason home to the Chicago Blackhawks, so you know those fans will travel to watch the team one state over. And they can slap a shamrock on a bunch of merchandise so you know Boston fans will show up, too.
Use the outdoor game model of geographic relevance. The expanded map means fewer places without two teams in the vicinity. So you can put games in Ohio and expect Columbus Blue Jackets fans to make the journey. Or the Nashville Predators vs. Carolina Hurricanes in Charlotte. Or games in the Southwest with the California teams plus the Coyotes and Golden Knights nearby. Plus, the time-honored neutral site traditions of the potential expansion fashion show (Portland, Houston, Quebec City) and those former NHL cities to whom you can throw a bone (Kansas City, Hartford). Hit some ECHL towns like Jacksonville, Orlando and Tulsa.
Speaking of the outdoor games, there’s something else different about the NHL now vs. 25 years ago: They’ve gotten really good at this traveling road show thing.
These neutral site games wouldn’t just be two names on a marquee, but the NHL coming to town. Bring the trailer with the awards and the memorabilia. Invite the local hockey community to take part in the festivities, whether it’s young players taking part in the puck drop before the game or a high-school game earlier in the day on the same sheet of ice. Again, this is what the NHL has excelled at in its outdoor games, and can easily be repeated indoors. Make it an event.
Obviously, the trick here is to figure out how to structure the schedule to accommodate these games. Whether it’s one or two neutral site games per season, teams aren’t going to want to surrender those home dates. Do we go back to 84 games? Tough call, and made tougher because of what I ultimately want to see for these neutral site games:
I want these games to be fundraisers for a special endowment that helps retired players deal with post-concussion symptoms and trauma.
Which is, I think, something the players and fans could rally around.
Frame these games as a charitable effort. As a way for players and teams to connect with hockey fans around the nations, and as a way for those hockey fans to contribute, in some small way, to the well-being of players who sacrifice their bodies and health for their entertainment. Perhaps this is a way to raise awareness of this health crisis, even if the NHL probably chooses to portray it as “post-retirement benefits” and nothing more.
Bring back the neutral site games. The NHL is popular enough and efficient enough for these games to be successful.
Just no games on Election Night this time, OK?
The future of NHL All-Star Games, Awards, Outdoor Games
The NHL does, of course, have another traveling road show that’s proven quite popular: The All-Star Weekend.
The next stop is San Jose in January 2019, for the second time in its history. Six NHL teams have yet to host the weekend in their current stadia: The Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights.
Where is it headed next? The league has sent out requests for proposals, but not just for the 2020 edition: The NHL has asked cities about the next three seasons, and expects to reveal not one but three All-Star Games at the next announcement.
“What we’re trying to do, and it’s easier said than done, is get ahead of it. Outdoor games, All-Stars, drafts, so we can announce them a few years in advance. There are a lot of factors in the scheduling. You’ve got Olympics and these things that come up,” said Steve Mayer, Chief Content Officer at the NHL.
That’s especially true for the NHL’s outdoor games, as the Winter Classic faces obstacles in scheduling from both the NFL and NCAA football. “There are some places that we want to go, but they can do it in 2021 but not in 2022 for various reasons. There are so many factors. NFL, bowl games,” Mayer explained.
Take Nashville for example, which is reportedly high on the NHL’s list of potential outdoor game sites. The Music City Bowl takes place in Nissan Stadium in December, so it might be a Stadium Series game played in February instead for the Predators.
As for the NHL Awards, they’re locked into the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino for the next three years. But after that, Mayer believes they’ll remain in Las Vegas, despite the fact that they’re now being held in city that an NHL team calls home.
“Will the NHL Awards move around? Let me put it this way: One player who was nominated for an award didn’t come this year. One player, because of a prior obligation and a family thing,” said Mayer of Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty. “I challenge any awards show, where you have one person [not show up] out of 16 awards with three nominations for each award, that’s incredible. Let’s face it: Everybody loves to come here to Vegas. They bring their wives or families or girlfriends or just want to come here and have a good time.”
Best cake ever
To the victor go the spoils.
In this case, the victor is Stanley Cup champion Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. The spoils, meanwhile, are the grandiose cake wheeled out to him during his celebration in Russia:
– Washington Capitals (@Capitals) July 8, 2018
I mean, sure, they got the color of the jersey wrong (the Capitals won it on the road) and he’s holding the Cup with his gloves for some reason and apparently he’s no longer captain.
But other than that, a confectionary masterpiece.
Why, John, why?
– CCM Hockey (@CCMHockey) July 12, 2018
He mentioned this a time or two in his essay for The Players’ Tribune, which is destined to go down as one of the most well-intentioned but punishingly ill-advised applications of this template. To wit:
1. His praise of former general manager Garth Snow and former coach Doug Weight, while summarily ignoring the names of Lou Lamoriello, Barry Trotz or either of the team’s owners, sparked a cottage industry of speculation about whether he would have re-signed with the Islanders had his boys not been turfed. Which would mean, what, a 10-year reign of Doug Weight as head coach, no matter what the results were? Is that what we’re theorizing?
2. His essay was titled “To The Islanders Faithful.” It included a rather lovely valentine to the fan base he spurned, discussing their support for the team and the familial aspect of the community. “You’ve got grandparents there with their grandchildren … parents there with their kids … young couples there on first dates … old couples there for, like, 40th wedding anniversaries … just this amazing sense of tradition. And then on top of that, everyone there is also somehow all there together, in a way, as part of an even larger tradition — as part of this … I don’t even know … one, big, crazy, perfect, Long Island thing,” he wrote. (OK, “wrote.”)
Again, it was divine. And that should have been the end of it. But then Tavares wrote “to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I should include this next part,” and he very much shouldn’t have because it was, no joke, roughly 1,000 words about how much the Toronto Maple Leafs mean to him.
That’s the coda to his heartfelt goodbye to Islanders fans.
It’s like buying the most poetic and beautiful Mother’s Day card, signing your name, adding “to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I should include this next part” and then writing another card and a half’s worth of text about how much better your new stepmother is.
I don’t think John Tavares did much here to change the hearts and minds of angry Islanders fans.
NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke talks about potential delays on the refurbished Key Arena, and how someone puts a sticky note on his door every day that reads “free the Kraken.” [King 5]
Grading the best and worst cities in the NHL. In which Pittsburgh gets an ‘A’ and Chicago gets a ‘B’. [The Sports Daily]
Forbes on BizNasty. [Forbes]
Whys is there a debate about Dallas being a hockey town? [Fansided]
Finally, the heartfelt tribute from the Chicago Blackhawks to Marian Hossa that makes sure to mention that “he did what the team needed to do in order to succeed.” Like, oh I don’t know, adhering to the agreed upon structure of his contract that dropped his base salary to $1 million in the season he coincidentally decided to step away from the game, and then graciously allowed his salary cap hit to be moved to the Arizona Coyotes.
“Today is another example of the leadership Marian has displayed as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks organization.”
Thank you, Marian Hossa! pic.twitter.com/C4FRUeeLyP
– Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) July 12, 2018
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
Why can’t the NHL figure out how to pay goalies? “The league probably does a strong job of weeding out the goalies who don’t belong. We rarely see guys with truly terrible and persistent save percentages stick around for a long time, and that makes sense. But discerning the league’s fifth best goalie from the league’s 19th best goalie? That seems like an impossible task with what we have available.” [TSN]
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
My “Way-too-early 2019 NHL free-agent buyer’s guide,” which is an Insider article.