NHL Must Market Individual Stars Versus Great Teams

Last weekend, a friend and I were discussing the NHL and its young, emerging stars

Below are a few highlights of what recently drafted teenagers have been doing in the NHL:

  • Rookie Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews scored a record four goals in his NHL debut
  • Last year, Connor McDavid only played 45 games for the Edmonton Oilers and still averaged 1.06 ppg. Had he not been injured, he probably would have won the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year.
  • Florida Panthers’ 2015 Calder Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad has become one of the NHL’s top young defensemen. Ekblad led the Panthers to the playoffs last year for the first time since 2012.

Wayne Gretzky came out recently and said McDavid is the best 19-year-old hockey player he’s ever seen. There is definitely no talent shortage in the NHL, but it seems like one team in particular has been getting all of the exposure.

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Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago Blackhawks a popular pick for NHL

Now it’s no secret where the recent growth for NHL has come from (Hint: It’s the Chicago Blackhawks).

Since he took over as president of the Blackhawks, Rocky Wirtz has rebuilt his product on the ice and the branding of the Blackhawks nationwide.

The Blackhawks are one of the few teams in the league that can sell out the opposing teams’ arenas.

Teams had to create marketing ploys, such as Nashville’s “Keep Out the Red” campaign, to prevent Chicago from outnumbering the home team’s fans. The St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning also had similar programs in the playoffs in which ticket vendors would only sell to credit card holders with local zip codes.

But the Blackhawks’ success wouldn’t be possible if the NHL didn’t make new television deals over the past five years.

I remember the 2010 Stanley Cup was aired on a station called Versus that nobody really knew of. Since then, NHL games have moved to NHL Network, NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) and the occasional Sunday game on NBC, making them more available nationally. Even ESPN wanted some of the action, so it televised all of the World Cup of Hockey.

Should the NHL be marketing its stars as opposed to its teams?

Unlike the NHL, the NBA markets its stars as a selling point. When you go to a Golden State Warriors/Cleveland Cavilers game, you’re going to watch Stephen Curry and LeBron James play, right?

Given there are fewer players on an NBA roster, it’s easy to market the guys who are making all the shots. But both basketball and hockey have guys who stand out above the rest.

NBC Sports Network features a game every week called Wednesday Night Rivalry that showcases teams with historical, proximital or recent playoff rivalry. We’re talking games like Bruins/Canadiens, Kings/Sharks, Red Wings/Avalanche, Penguins/Flyers, etc.

But some of these past rivalries, such as Blackhawks/Red Wings, have lost their meaning because of the conference realignment.

So why not make it about the stars? Probably because nobody knows who they are

How many household names do we have in the NHL?  Probably just one: Sidney Crosby. When most of your athletes are international, it’s hard to get Americans to care, which is even more reason to start putting the stars out front.

The Blackhawks get it. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have been pushed by the NHL so much it’s become an annoyance to the rest of the league. You could say those two have been the “cash cow” for the NHL.

But now they need to start growing the rest of the league, especially with teenagers putting up superstar stats. I know I’ll be marking my calendar to see McDavid play.

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