“The NHL has seen itself come tantalizingly close to being a full-fledged member of the four major team sports, and it’s killing them that it’s just out of their grasp, in their eyes.”


Oh, to be NHL commissioner for one day. Just one.

Just one day is all I’d need to, with one stroke of my commissioner’s pen, commit common sense.

I’d place all the Original Six teams in one division.

The rest? I’d let them fight on the floor for scraps.

That may seem like a counter-intuitive move, but what Gary Bettman and the NHL doesn’t want to admit is that they have themselves a niche sport. And the sooner they come to terms with that, the better off the league will be, in the long term.

I know the NHL doesn’t want to hear that. They fancy themselves a significant player in the world of professional team sports. They are, after all, still inferred to whenever someone invokes the phrase, “four major sports.”

Yes, hockey is one of the “four majors”, but they’re no. 4, and they need a telescope to see the rear end of no. 3.

I’ve complained for years that the NHL has tried to appeal to the fringe fan at the expense of alienating its core. It’s been borne out in the way the league has expanded, force-feeding NHL hockey to the Sun Belt and the West Coast. It’s been displayed in many of the rule changes over the years, including the relentless assault on fighting.

If the NHL would only realize that if they cater to and listen to their core, the true hockey fan who’s been interested in the game since they were toddlers, and not worry about trying to have mass appeal, then their efforts would be rewarded — IF they can swallow some pride.

Some franchises might drop off, and so might some of the fringe fans who were hanging on by a thread. But the folks who truly love hockey, the ones who would dearly appreciate moves like creating an Original Six division, would very much stay. And, I submit, they might end up being the best marketing tool the NHL has ever had. Certainly the cheapest. Because they’d be Bettman’s Johnny Appleseeds, spreading the word about the NHL to friends, co-workers, family — you name it.

There’s no shame in presiding over a niche sport. Look at NASCAR, for crying out loud. The good people over there don’t hold races where there’s no interest in racing. They don’t change their rules to try to appeal to the fringe racing fan. No, NASCAR sticks to its core and caters directly to it. And that strategy has been pretty darn successful.

The NHL has seen itself come tantalizingly close to being a full-fledged member of the four major team sports, and it’s killing them that it’s just out of their grasp, in their eyes.

So if they’d only pull back, re-assess themselves and take a hard self-inventory, they’d see that this “appeal to the masses” approach is self-destructing.

A couple years or so ago, I moderated a roundtable discussion with ex-Red Wings Shawn Burr, Johnny Wilson, and Ted Lindsay. I asked each of them what they’d do if they could run the NHL. Burr didn’t hesitate.

“I’d have surveys in every NHL arena,” he said. “And I’d ask a bunch of questions about the game, to get the fans’ opinions.” Then, Burr said, he’d use that information to see what the game needed to fix. I thought it was wonderfully simple yet brilliant.

Bettman’s been simple plenty of times, but rarely brilliant.

Can someone save the NHL from itself?

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