“Hockey is back,” the National Hockey League proudly proclaimed late Saturday night to go along with its stunningly produced return video. That’s the new marketing slogan coming out of the lockout at least. Really that’s all it is, a marketing slogan.
Like any marketing slogan it has its successes and failures. Of course, in the American sports consciousness at least, the NHL is the only thing most people associate with hockey. Therefore, it’s a slogan that easily resonates with the casual sports fan.
The slogan also succeeds in its simplicity. “Hockey is back” is the NHL’s bat signal to its fans. At the same time, it reminds you that your favorite teams and players and games were gone, of course. Probably not the best idea, but one without much choice.
Where it fails, however, is in its arrogance. It might as well be “Hockey is back. And we bet you will be, too.” There’s no conciliatory tone, no apology and there doesn’t need to be one in that first message, I suppose. But shouldn’t there be?
It also forgets that while the NHL was gone, hockey didn’t stop. While the NHL’s games were being played in board rooms and hastily-organized press scrums, hockey was being played on ponds, in arenas big and small and still mattered.
It seems as though the NHL leans on hockey like a crutch, not wanting to tie its now sullied brand to the reason hockey had to come back from something. That doesn’t quite feel right. It pulls the entire game into the mess that was the lockout. The fact is the game was injured by the NHL’s sabbatical.
The league is the lifeblood of the sport and when it has its failures such as the one we’re about to come out of, the game as a whole is negatively impacted from the NHL’s bottom line to the grassroots youth hockey organizations.
Even though they’re not coming out and saying it just yet, the NHL is asking you to forgive and forget. You should at least forgive. You don’t have much choice.
If you love professional sports, you fill the owners’ pockets, you sign up for the big-money contracts and as a result, you also sign up for the labor disputes. It’s a reality of the business. The NHL does not exist solely for your entertainment.
Also, particularly for those of us in the United States, the NHL is the driving force in pushing the game forward in this country. Without it, you don’t see the growth across the U.S. The gains in non-traditional markets are non-existent without expansion. The exposure through television contracts and prestige in their communities makes NHL teams stewards of the game. Now that the league has returned to play, it can return to pushing the game forward.
If you’re planning on a boycott of the NHL, that’s fine. If you love hockey, you might only be punishing yourself. I know I’ll be watching every game as enthusiastically as I did before and I’m guessing even if it hurts now, you will too at some point.
That said, it is important to never forget what has happened twice in seven years and the fact that when the NHL is taken away, it impacts everyone somehow. From the team employees to the local businesses near NHL arenas to the youth hockey clubs that saw a drop in new membership. Forgive, don’t forget.
It is also important to never forget what happened while “hockey was gone” over these last several months. While the highest level lay dormant, if you’re a hockey fan, there was somewhere you could go to see the game. Hockey continued in a meaningful way, pushing forward despite the NHL’s unintentional attempt to hold it back.
While hockey was gone, more than 10,000 American kids between the ages of 4 and 9 filled rinks across 47 states for “Try Hockey for Free Day” in November. There was some concern the lockout would curtail participation, but through the work of volunteers and even some NHL teams still fighting for that cause, it succeeded.
Justin Schultz was making a mockery of the American Hockey League while playing for a team in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His stunning 18 goals and 48 point in just 34 games was special in every sense of the word.
While hockey was gone, the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team was setting a new standard for excellence. Currently 22-0, the Gopher women have outscored their opponents 126-16. Amanda Kessel (Phil’s Sister) is the nation’s leading scorer with SIXTY FOUR points in TWENTY ONE games, including 31 goals and 33 assists. That’s historic and is bringing attention to women’s college hockey.
Connor McDavid became the game’s most talked about teenager after being granted exceptional status to play in the Ontario Hockey League at age 15 (the league currently has a 16-year-old age minimum). He already has 42 points for the Erie Otters and has all the same “Next Crosby” “Next Gretzky” talk that a lot of the best young talent get, he actually seems to be worthy of it.
While hockey was gone, the U.S. National Junior Team pulled off upsets in back-to-back games over Canada and Sweden to win gold at the World Junior Championship. Goaltender John Gibson had a historic performance, earning MVP and best goaltender honors. People got up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday and filled bars in several American cities to watch teenagers play hockey.
A 5-7, 150-pound winger was dangling into the hearts of the college hockey fans. Boston College sophomore Johnny Gaudreau is becoming a human highlight reel and leads the nation with 1.62 points per game. He has 12 goals and 14 assists in 21 games and could be the front-runner for the Hobey Baker.
While hockey was gone, Dylan McLaughlin did this in a USHL game.
And Brianna Decker did this for Wisconsin.
Yes, hockey is thankfully back on its biggest stage, but even its biggest stage is not bigger than the game itself. Hockey never left, but I sure am glad the NHL is back.