One of the best parts of major NHL events is that you know someone over the age of 50 wearing a very expensive suit will sit in front of a microphone and say something that ranges from tone deaf to staggeringly stupid. It could be about a whole host of issues: gambling, the public disclosure of player salaries, sexist chants from fans, sexual assault and domestic violence involving players, etc.
And with that caveat, let's welcome the Hockey Hall of Fame weekend in Toronto this weekend!
On Monday, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly was part of a panel at Prime Time Sports & Entertainment in Toronto. I won't sit here and pretend why you'd ever invite someone from the NHL to espouse on the best way to market a sports league unless this was like the movie Carrie and you're doing it as a joke, but here's what Daly said about the NHL marketing individuals instead of teams (as transcribed by Sportsnet's Chris Johnston):
"I think we've learned a little bit over time, certainly I've learned a lot over my 20-plus years at the National Hockey League. It does go a little bit over the nature of the sport and you have to be responsive to the nature of the sport. Our sport is the ultimate team sport. The players who play it, play it as a team and are somewhat uncomfortable with individual spotlights. I think we've learned that over time. So I think the focus—and I won't disagree with you that coming out of the lockout in 2005, we had an opportunity with [Alex] Ovechkin and [Sidney] Crosby that the league hadn't had in a long time and there definitely was a marketing focus on those two. But I think since that time, we've learned that really what drives fans' interests is really interest in the product. Our primary focus is and has to be the quality of the product on the ice every night and marketing the quality of the product on the ice every night. That involves a lot of individual stars, great players, but they are part of teams. I think we've come to recognize that and really feel that's the best way to sell the sport."
This particular statement from doesn't reach the level of Gary Bettman saying that using a woman's name as a slight is the same thing as calling a goalie a sieve, but it's worth discussing. It's the sort of cognitive dissonance that the NHL has taken to grandmaster levels over the years—the words, the place where they were said, the ignorance of the reality that's been created.
There's a lot to unpack in what Daly said. Like, the type of unpacking you'd do if you were moving to a new residence, not if you were just arriving at a hotel for a weeklong vacation. And we'll get to most of it—not all of it, because my editors have better things to do than read 4,000-word screeds about everything wrong with that Daly quote—but for now, let's focus on the "fans don't like individuals" part.
Bill Daly, in Toronto for Hall of Fame weekend, the weekend in which the hockey universe honors its greatest individuals by placing their images inside a building alongside other great individuals, a building frequented by millions of fans dying to get a glimpse at some of the individual legends over the past century, wants you to know it would be a wild error to market the NHL's current great individuals.
If you need to take a knee after digesting that, I understand. I need a minute myself. Let's meet at the next paragraph in a minute. Take your time.
Welcome back. Now let's focus on one of the individuals going into the Hall of Fame on Tuesday: Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers (and other teams not really worth mentioning because he's a Flyer).
Lindros was a mountain of a man and a mountain of talent. He was polarizing. He refused to play for the team that drafted him. He had such size and skill that he was like nothing in the NHL at the time. At six-foot-four and 240 pounds, he'd be a curly-haired wrecking ball if his career began today. In the 1990s, he was the type of player you'd root against with every bubbling drop of stomach acid he'd inflame, but also the one you'd make time to watch because he was just as likely to kill a guy or knife through two defenders as if he were five-foot-ten and 190 pounds.
That skillset was his blessing and his curse; he finished with 372 goals and 865 points in a 760-game career that was cut short because that same size that made him a wrecking ball also made him a target for headshots in a league that didn't care about protecting players the way it does today.
The point, Bill Daly, is that on Tuesday night, Lindros is being inducted into the Hall of Fame, not the 1996-97 Philadelphia Flyers. You'd have to have your head buried so low to fail to see team sports have been and always will be driven by stars—even Lindros would tell you to pick your head up because that's a dangerous stance.
Are football, baseball, and basketball not team sports? Why do hockey people, more than anyone else, revel in the perceived unrivaled beauty of the team aspect of their sport? It's a sickness. Please Like My Team Sport.
The NFL markets the hell out of its quarterbacks. MLB markets the hell out of its best players, as does the NBA. The NHL, the continent's seventh most popular sport, thinks the average fan cares about the term "Original Six" and rivalries of varying quality on Wednesday nights. Daly is bragging about his 20-plus years of experience, but in what way has the NHL surpassed any major sport in the United States over that time? Has it? At all?
Lindros, much like the superstars of today, was vilified in ways that defy logic. People held grudges against him for forcing his way out of Quebec. Meanwhile, Eli Manning is a NFL poster boy after using his power to get out of playing for the San Diego Chargers, the team that drafted him No. 1 overall. Flip on NBC during a Pittsburgh Penguins intermission and there's a 50-50 chance an old man in a suit standing behind the glass desk will tell you all the reasons why the future Hall of Fame center Sidney Crosby is deficient in some way.
Faced with the problem of having its best young talent stationed mostly north of the border today, Daly is doubling down on fans wanting to watch teams, not individuals, in spite of two decades' worth of evidence that it's not working. And, weirdly enough, the league has chosen Patrick Kane, of all people, to market throughout the last year in World Cup and NHL promotions. It's baffling on levels I can't even begin to process.
Players are uncomfortable with individual spotlights? No kidding, Bill. The culture of hockey beats any sort of personality out of a player as soon as he puts on skates as a child, and if that personality survives into adulthood, that player is treated like a pariah. The Montreal Canadiens traded P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, the human embodiment of beige wallpaper. That's a bad thing, Bill. Subban might be the most beloved player in the league, and a team decided to trade him because of his personality. Again, that's a huge problem.
So just keep this in mind when watching Monday's induction ceremonies. When Lindros is up on stage, thanking his family, his teammates, his coaches, and anyone along the way who got him to this point, Daly is probably thinking, "This event would be doing so much better if Karl Dykhuis and Pat Falloon were on stage with Lindros. That's what fans want."
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