Retooled NHL set to thaw tonight

After lost season, league hopes fans warm to changes


So pro hockey is starting up again tonight.

The Mario Lemieuxs and Jaromir Jagrs haven't laced their skates since spring 2004 because of a 10-month lockout that cost the NHL its 2004-05 season.

Oh, you hadn't noticed? Well, you're not alone, according to sports business and marketing experts, who say the NHL has a long way to go to re-establish itself as a major sport - if it ever was one.

"It doesn't have the mass appeal of baseball, football or basketball," said Ernest Lupinacci, a New York advertising consultant who worked at ESPN. "I think hockey's going to become a little more of the esoteric sport it once was. The crazy guys I grew up with on Long Island are going to have their Islanders jerseys and be fans for life, but for most people, it will be like any other brand. It will peak for a while and then, people will find something else."

The sport will always be popular in Canada and northern pockets of the United States, Lupinacci said. But he listed several obstacles to wider appeal: Not enough people play hockey, it's not ingrained in American culture like baseball, its games aren't social benchmarks like weekend football contests, and it doesn't carry the fashion or entertainment tie-ins exploited by basketball.

In television ratings, the NHL trails not only football, baseball and basketball but NASCAR, poker and arena football. And now that the league is on OLN instead of sports kingpin ESPN, those numbers stand to decline, television experts predicted. Post-lockout ticket sales are also lagging in some cities.

That's the bad news.

Fortunately, observers say, league officials recognize these unpleasant realities and are attempting a re-launch of their product, built around new rules, new stars and broadly reconfigured teams.

"I think the lockout was the best thing that could have happened to them," said Frank Pons, a professor at the University of San Diego who has studied hockey marketing in Canada. "They had to do something to change the sport."

Pons said the league is trying to broaden its appeal to young consumers looking for an exciting night out. New rules are expected to produce more scoring and liberate creative young players like Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh and Alexander Ovechkin in Washington.

"They're trying to free up the spirit of the game, so you'll have these kinds of players," Pons said.

Dean Bonham, a Denver-based sports marketing executive, has always been more bullish on the NHL's prospects than many of his colleagues, but he's a particular fan of the league's post-lockout pitch.

"There's no question that the re-launch was the perfect strategy," he said. "It's something that's never been done by a major sports league in this country, and I think you'll see an incredibly positive reaction from fans."

Still big-time

The NHL never stopped being major league, because it always had healthy crowds, Bonham said. "The question was: Could they translate the game over broadcast and cable?"

In that respect, he said, the sport stands to benefit greatly from high-definition television, which allows fans to "view the game in its full context."

Hockey's struggles began long before the NHL became the first North American sports league to lose a full season to a labor dispute.

As one generation of stars - Wayne Gretzky, Lemieux, Mark Messier, Patrick Roy, Steve Yzerman - faded, the next never quite took its place. Would-be kings like Eric Lindros and Jagr played brilliantly at times but were inconsistent because of injuries or sheer flightiness. Others, like Peter Forsberg and Jarome Iginla, strung together excellent seasons but never captured widespread attention.

Defense reigned to the point where 40 goals - less than half the best totals posted by Gretzky and Lemieux - could lead the league.

TV ratings declined so much that ESPN could replace a hockey game with billiards or bull riding and draw similar numbers.

Franchises departed hockey-mad cities in Canada and opened in locales - Phoenix, Miami, Nashville, Tenn. and Columbus, Ohio - with no intrinsic connection to the sport.

The vast majority of teams reported annual operating losses even as player salaries continued to rise.

All those factors led team owners to demand a total reworking of the game's economics that would include a salary cap, reductions to existing salaries and limits on pay to individual stars. The players union balked.

In September 2004, the owners locked the players out. Three hundred and one days later, the sides announced a deal that appeared to be more favorable to the owners than the one left on the table (player salaries can account for up to 54 percent of hockey-related revenues compared to 75 percent two years ago.)

Once the deal was announced, league officials launched into a rhetoric of rebirth. They backed up the talk with rule changes that encourage more wide-open play.


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