The first public indoor ice hockey game was played in Montreal's Victoria Skating Rink on March 3, 1875, before 40 spectators. Today, nearly 135 years later to the day, hockey is still trying to find a foothold in the United States.
On Feb. 28, Canada beat the United States in overtime of a thrilling men's gold-medal game at the Olympics. It was the most-watched hockey game in the United States (average 27.6 million viewers) since the Americans won it all in the 1980 Olympics. This is it, hockey fans say, this is the type of game the NHL can use as a springboard to great popularity.
But haven't we heard this before? Didn't we hear this after the Miracle on Ice in 1980? Didn't we hear this when Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux ruled the league?
It would be surprising if the NHL can sustain this Olympic popularity boost. A U.S.-Canada Olympic game doesn't happen all the time. Furthermore, the medal game was about national pride. Americans tuned in to root for America on one day, not for one city in America over several months.
The Olympic showdown certainly didn't hurt the NHL, but other steps are needed to increase its popularity in the U.S. Such as:
-- GET BACK ON ESPN
The NHL's cable deal in the United States is with Versus, which does an excellent job covering the games. But it's not about that. It's about being part of the sports fans' consciousness, and that's what ESPN provides (and Versus doesn't). Out of habit, Sports fans instinctively turn their TVs to ESPN, often not even knowing what will be on. ESPN carries every major sport -- the NFL, NBA, major-league baseball, golf, NASCAR, tennis, soccer, college basketball and football. But not the NHL, not since 2004. For better or worse, ESPN sets the nation's sports agenda. Many believe that if ESPN carried the NHL again, the network would dedicate more time to it on SportsCenter and maybe even again have a specialized nightly show for it.
-- PUT ANOTHER TEAM IN TORONTO
Though we would favor contracting some teams, how about moving a troubled franchise to Toronto? Why does the most passionate hockey city in the world have only one team? Three teams are in the New York City area, two in Southern California and two in Florida. Surely Toronto could support another team besides the Maple Leafs. With relocation, you take a troubled franchise and make it one of the strongest. That has to be good for the overall health of the NHL.
Though we hesitate to suggest killing teams, the NHL has too many of them. Look at it this way: Since 1991, the league has added nine teams. That's about 200 players playing today who couldn't have made the league 20 years ago. Think how much better the league's overall talent would be if five or six teams (100 or so players) were eliminated. The better the talent, the better the games. Today's NHL has too many bad games partly because it has too many bad players.
-- HAVE PLAYERS WEAR MICROPHONES
This is an idea formed by former NHL star Jeremy Roenick. Show a "Game of the Week" on ESPN or NBC or whatever as usual. That would be the PG version. Then strike a deal with a network such as HBO or Showtime to show the same game with audio from players miked up. That would be the R-rated version. Make it uncensored. Think how provocative it would be to hear all the uncensored trash talk.
-- GET RID OF OR FIX THE SALARY CAP
The owners likely won't go for it. But the salary cap has created parity, which isn't necessarily a good thing. With the cap, teams struggle to keep a core group of stars together. Take a team such as the Penguins, which eventually will have to part with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin because they can't afford both. Is it good for the game to see homegrown stars leave? Getting rid of the cap -- or at least altering it to a soft cap that would allow teams to keep homegrown talent -- would allow for dynasties (always a good thing in sports), blockbuster trades (which have all but disappeared from the NHL) and, mostly, stars to stay with one franchise longer.
-- FIND A NEW COMMISSIONER
This isn't meant to slam Gary Bettman, because he's not as bad as many fans and media members think he is. But he has been on the job 17 years now, and it's time for new blood, someone with fresh ideas and a different approach. Don't hire an old-school hockey guy or someone in the NHL office. Owners need to think outside the box. Look to an up-and-coming whiz kid from another sport. Look at a top-level executive from a company outside sports. Find someone who isn't going to keep doing it the way it has always been done. After all, that way isn't working.
-- SHORTEN THE SEASON AND THE PLAYOFFS
The best thing about the NHL is the Stanley Cup playoffs. But last year's started on April 15. Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final was June 12. It took the Stanley Cup champion Penguins 59 days to play their 24 playoff games. That meant Penguins fans had 35 nights when their team was off, killing momentum. Then this season started less than four months later. Remember, the NHL is trying to increase popularity among casual and non-hockey fans. Asking those people to dedicate eight months, including a two-month post!season, to a sport they are cavalier about is asking too much.