The NHL’s ice-capades

Why the NHL’s unparalleled experiments with the rules of hockey could be the key to its very survival

Dave Sandford/NHL/Getty Images

The popular Canadian view of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is not positive. He’s thought of as a bumbler, a shyster—and, perhaps above all, as a feeble imitation of his mentor, NBA commissioner David Stern. Sports commissioners are rarely beloved, but Stern may come as close as anyone since baseball’s Judge Landis; he has, unlike Bettman, succeeded in being perceived as an avuncular genius, a tribune of the fan.

But consider Stern’s attempt to bring a new synthetic basketball into the NBA at the start of the 2006 season. The Cross Traxxion ball received, at best, casual testing under practice conditions. Players hated it immediately. Stern and the ball’s manufacturer, Spalding, insisted on the superiority of its space-age design, but NBA stars complained that it felt cheap and unnatural. Scientific tests confirmed that its physical qualities were haywire, but Stern held firm for two months, yielding only when players like Steve Nash began to turn up with mysterious cuts on their hands and the players’ union filed a grievance with the U.S.’s National Labor Relations Board. The inexcusable fiasco was soon forgotten—but if Bettman had pulled something like this, hockey fans would still be heckling him for it.

The truth is, such a mess would be improbable at best on Bettman’s watch. Under him, the NHL, sometimes under fierce criticism, has become perhaps the most research-friendly of the major professional team sports leagues in North America when it comes to the conduct and rules of the game. It wasn’t always so. In 1998, when the league had a Fox TV contract and arranged for a Las Vegas IHL game to be played in a four-quarter format, the experimentation was met with catcalls. The improvised research and development camp held toward the end of the 2004-’05 lockout was viewed as a desperation measure.

But the more carefully planned R & D camp held last month has mostly been welcomed and applauded. The scrimmages, held at the Maple Leafs’ practice facility on Aug. 18 and 19, featured some jarring, Martian-looking innovations. The players—who were, in an attention-getting wrinkle, mostly top junior stars eligible for the 2011 draft—road-tested everything from two-on-two overtime to shallower nets to having the second referee view the play from an elevated off-ice platform. On day two, viewers were confronted with the bizarre spectacle of the traditional five faceoff circles being replaced by three, running up the middle of the rink.

Such an exercise is unique among the staple North American sports. If major league baseball’s powers-that-be ever got a notion to play experimental games using five bases and four strikes, they would surely do so on a closely guarded Pacific atoll. But the NHL doesn’t maintain any poetic illusions about its own perfection, nor can it afford to. It may be enjoying record-setting, albeit superficial, profitability (its average operating profit was US$6.1 million in 2008-2009, according to Forbes), and Game 6 of the 2010 final was, with 8.3 million viewers, the most-watched NHL game in the U.S. since 1974. But the league is dragging along some troubled franchises—most notably the one it is operating outright in Phoenix, which is projected, perhaps optimistically, to lose US$20 million this season—calling into question the game’s viability in many key U.S. markets.

As a result, the NHL is looking to innovate in more ways than just R & D. It has introduced live-streaming of games on the Web through its GameCenter service, and is trying to connect to more fans through its online shop and pre-season games in Europe. But more often than not, it still trails other pro sports in these marketing efforts. The NHL’s online presence pales next to that of baseball, whose Internet arm, MLB Advanced Media, is now a major streaming-video provider for other sports and pulls in, according to one estimate, close to half a billion dollars per year in revenue. The NHL’s understanding of spectacle is shamed by that of the NFL, which has been pioneering new ways of enjoying its sport from the founding of NFL Films in 1962 to the creation of the addictive RedZone cable channel dedicated to real-time highlights in 2009.

The NHL needs guts and imagination to contend with popular alternatives in the U.S. like the MLB and the NFL that enjoy such massive advantages of scale. So while other leagues roll out fancy iPad and iPhone apps, it’s the NHL’s willingness to change the good old hockey game itself that could be a key factor in its long-term ability to win over fans, and survive in the cutthroat world of pro sports. It’s no coincidence that the league’s most notable marketing success in recent years has been the introduction of the annual outdoor Classics—a low-cost, quirky gambit that, under more conservative leadership, would have been blocked by neurotic worries about whether the idea was dignified or realistic.

Placed in charge of the R & D effort, and the sales job surrounding it, is retired hockey great Brendan Shanahan, now the league’s vice-president of hockey and business development. “There were some ideas that were adventurous and others that were subtle,” says Shanahan, about the recent camp. “I wanted to capture the full spectrum.” Shanahan, who had the final say on the testing schedule, takes the scientist’s view that a “negative” experimental result can be as useful and instructive as a “positive” one. “Sometimes you just have to see things play out to really satisfy your curiosity,” he says. “What I told people that got sort of frightened at some of our far-out ideas is that sometimes your goal is to breathe life into an idea—but other times, you try it out because it’s time to put it to bed.”

The presence of elite young players seems to have been an effective addition, guaranteeing strong interest from hockey fans and journalists and ensuring that both the skill level and the competitiveness of the play would be high. Shanahan, a former number two overall pick, knew that despite the weird game modifications, juniors angling for high draft slots wouldn’t dare sleep through Gatorade-sponsored scrimmages against their best peers in front of hundreds of scouts, reporters and executives.

“We want the game to continue moving in the direction of rewarding skill,” Shanahan says. “Sometimes people say that means more offence, and while that might be an end result, there’s skill in playing defence and in open-ice hitting as well.” With a new head-shot rule already in place for 2010-’11, one major (and relatively likely looking) proposal on display at the camp involved player safety: namely, the “hybrid icing” rule whereby a linesman can use discretion to settle a mismatched race for the puck and blow it dead before the contenders reach the end boards.

As far as possible, Shanahan says, the league wants to keep the game recognizable, respect its spirit, and let the players, as opposed to the coaches, settle outcomes—something that should appeal to fans.

Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson points out the impetus behind experiments with three-on-three and two-on-two overtime: the number of regular-season games settled by shootout appears to be growing, rising to 184 last year from a baseline of 145 in ’05-’06. “I think there’s strong sentiment in favour of limiting that trend,” says Howson, “since the three-point games [in which the shootout loser gets a point] skew the balance of the standings somewhat.”

Marketing experts praise the league’s attention to game R & D—though a few express the wish that even more energy was devoted to safety, as opposed to the attractiveness of the product. The unusual nature of some items tested at the camp reminded Simon Fraser University business professor Lindsay Meredith of the freewheeling “skunk works” divisions that tech companies create to investigate advanced projects. “Any major corporation should have some kind of skunk works—a bank, a university, whatever,” he says. “An enterprise of that size and sophistication would be foolish not to.”

Shanahan doesn’t yet know whether the R & D camp exercise will be repeated, and if so, how often. “But I don’t think it will be five years before we see the next one,” he ventures. Nobody liked the ’04-’05 lockout, he adds, but it provided a dramatic opportunity to examine and tweak the clutch-and-grab, low-scoring hockey that preceded it. Rule changes have succeeded in opening up the game more, he adds, but good businesses don’t stop test-driving inventions and new approaches when times are good.

Concordia University sports marketing professor Bruno Delorme agrees. “Of the top four professional leagues, the NHL is number four,” he says. “In that position you’ve got to go for it. You’ve got to think outside the box.” The league is not just trying to put down roots in non-traditional U.S. markets, he observes; at “home,” in Canada, there are a quarter-million new immigrants every year. “Most of those people have scarcely heard of Gretzky or Lafleur or Béliveau,” he says. “It won’t be easy to market to their children by playing the tradition card. The hockey business can’t forget that it’s an entertainment business.”

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