I was chatting with a friend yesterday and the discussion turned to hockey. Now this was somebody who has worked in a professional sports front office in analytics, has met with a number of commentators, coaches, managers, and players in the sports world. It’s safe to say ESPN is glued onto his TV screen for major live sports. The guy knows sports, and he happens to be of a minority group. “The Calgary Flames,” he told me, “were always a team I liked because of Jarome Iginla. He’s great, and he’s black!” “Oh,” somebody else chimed in, “well what about P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens?” “Wait, there’s another black star in the NHL now?” was the response.
I was shocked and yet somehow not surprised.
This was a player who was not only potentially the best defenseman in the National Hockey League, not only African-American (or Canadian, if you’d prefer), but also possibly the most marketable player in league history. Subban has style, he has spunk, he’s modest (at least on camera) but still bold and confident. He’s generous and seems wise beyond his years, but still has a youthful charm and unpredictability that draws cameras – and certainly fans who have heard of him – to his Ice Bucket Challenges and charity signings.
Yet here was somebody who should be learning to love hockey through the star who most closely resembled himself. And he had never even heard of him.
The way I see it, the league has two excuses for not shoving its stars down our – or rather Americans’ – throats on a more frequent bases.
1. It’s a team sport, so the teams should be emphasized more than the players. My response? Just because Sidney Crosby can’t win a Stanley Cup on his own – NO, HE CAN’T, CERTAIN MSM – doesn’t mean he can’t be promoted and idolized. He’s not LeBron James, but to Americans he doesn’t have to be. He just needs to be Sidney Crosby, rather than…you know…”who?”
2. Hockey’s stars, unlike those of other sports, have dull personalities and spout cliches and are therefore harder to market. My response? This is true. Crosby and Steven Stamkos are fairly dull. Patrick Kane looks like a choir boy. Drew Doughty should be a member of 30 Seconds to Mars. Alex Ovechkin speaks another language. It’s not easy, and I’m sympathetic to that. But Subban is like a gift from the hockey gods. It doesn’t matter whether he does or doesn’t have character issues away from the cameras. In public, he is the most marketable hockey player in the world (if he were American, it would be of all time), and it’s time that the NHL took advantage of that.
So how to do that, well I have a couple of ideas?
1. Rig the NHL cover vote to get him on the cover. Believe it or not, that game isn’t really catered to hard core hockey fans who actually want realistic action. Casual fans love it, and keep in touch with the game by playing it. But Patrice Bergeron? Meh. He’s one of the most underrated players of this generation, but he’s quiet, French-Canadian, white, and unimposing. He simply doesn’t do much for the NHL brand. Subban would.
2. Commercials featuring Subban on major networks. Let’s face it, commercials for hockey on NBC Sportsnet don’t do much, because the people who watch NBC Sportsnet are already watching hockey. But imagine a well-made commerical featuring P.K. Subban – his camera antics, his post-season heroics, the chip on his shoulder – on ESPN, or if that wasn’t possible, FOX, or CBS, or ABC. The point is to acquire new hockey fans, not to pander to current ones. “Hey hockey fans, don’t you dare forget about those playoffs coming up, history will be made and all!” is great, but mostly meaningless. Showing the greatness of hockey to outsiders, particularly on sports networks, pulls in fans.
I wrote about one race problem the league may still have yesterday. This might be another minor one. It’s unacceptable that the league wouldn’t use P.K. Subban (and guys like Evander Kane, and maybe even more importantly, the American Seth Jones) to try and attract a young generation of African American sports fans. It’s becoming cool to like hockey again, after all, so now is the perfect time to strike. Don’t waste god’s recent gift to hockey; embrace it.